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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 7 years ago

Never give up

Jeremy Stakely, president of ITVantage, focused on changes in the health care law to revive his information technology business.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Here's another lesson in never giving up.

Jeremy Stakely, the president of ITVantage, a Fort Myers-based company that manages corporate information technology departments, says he struggled through the economic downturn and had to lay off most of his employees. But like most survivors today, he refused to close shop during the bleakest time.

“In 2008 and 2009, I didn't take a paycheck for 24 straight months,” says Stakely. The struggle took a toll on his marriage, too. “She wanted me to quit chasing the dream.”

But once you're an entrepreneur, it's impossible to go to work for someone else. “I was certifiably unemployable,” Stakely says. “I had a vision I was never going to fail.”

Good thing, because business rebounded as ITVantage landed more health care clients. “I wanted to own a $1 million IT company,” Stakely says, succeeding in that endeavor in December.

Stakely, 36, grew up in small towns outside of Knoxville, Tenn., and spent his childhood in trailer parks. In sixth grade, his rural school somehow received some Apple IIe computers. “I fell in love with technology and understood it at a different level,” says Stakely, a precocious child who could read at the sixth-grade level when he was in first grade.

Stakely later moved to Knoxville and went to work in technology for Whirlpool, following his wife to Fort Myers when she was promoted at the same company. “I played a lot of golf,” he laughs.

He joined a motion-control device manufacturer called Saftronics and discovered that there was a lack of trained technicians in the Fort Myers area. “Everybody was self-taught and not fully certified,” Stakely says.

So Stakely asked the owners of Saftronics if he could start his own business but continue to work for Saftronics under contract. The owners of the company agreed because it would be less costly; they wouldn't have to pay him employee benefits. “I outsourced my own job and wrote my own contract,” he says.

By 2004, Stakely had hired his first employee and business was booming thanks to the real estate market. With real estate companies being formed everywhere, word quickly spread that Stakely was the go-to “tech guy” on whom they could depend. “We were setting up a server a week,” Stakely says. “I was working 100 hours a week.”

Competition was weak in those days. Stakely says they were mostly “trunk slammers,” or self-taught technology buffs who worked out of their cars.

Stakely had also shifted his business from reacting to customer problems and charging by the hour to monitoring customers' computer systems for a fee, something called “managed services” in the industry lingo.

But the real estate collapse and subsequent economic downturn hurt ITVantage like everyone else. Down to just two employees, Stakely bet that health care would be a big opportunity because of the government-mandated shift to electronic health records.

ITVantage's first health care client was Southwest Florida Eye Care in 2008. “They gave me a chance and we did a bang-up job,” Stakely says. “I immersed myself in medical.”

Word quickly spread through the medical community. About 30% of the firm's customers are now health care related, or 40 of its 120 customers. ITVantage charges about $1,000 to $2,000 a month for managing a customer's IT department.

In 2011, Stakely merged ITVantage with Fort Myers-based telecommunications provider T3 Communications, ending up with cash and stock in the merged entity. The idea is to provide both computer and telecom services from a single local provider to businesses from Marco Island to Port Charlotte and up to Winter Haven.

Stakely remains as president of ITVantage and runs it like a separate company even though he's also vice president of T3 Communications. “I have to play team ball now,” he says with a smile.

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