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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 17, 2011 9 years ago

Positive Accent

Daniel Robbins and Paul Caruso are two entrepreneurs who took over a struggling Naples electronics company during the boom and posted strong growth in the recession.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Daniel Robbins doesn't regret buying a Bonita Springs company that installs sophisticated electronic equipment at the height of the boom in 2006.

What recession? Robbins and longtime business partner Paul Caruso created their own growth.

Robbins acquired Accent Electronic Systems Integrators in 2006 after helping the firm's previous owners as a consultant. Robbins, 58, had built and sold similar companies over a multi-decade career installing and integrating sophisticated electronics in commercial buildings. Like so many entrepreneurs, he moved to Florida in search of a new lifestyle.

Accent helps high-end residential and commercial customers coordinate everything from lighting to security and climate control remotely. Caruso recently showed how he can use his smart phone from Pittsburgh to control the pool pump, outdoor lights and air conditioning of his house in Fort Myers. He can even view shots on his phone from cameras strategically placed around his home.

But the residential boom on which Robbins had been counting to fuel Accent was coming to an end in early 2008. One big indication: The Home Depot wasn't full at 7 a.m. like it had been during the good times.

That's when Robbins, Accent's president, called Caruso, with whom he had built a previous company in Pittsburgh they eventually sold for undisclosed terms. “Dan and I decided to do it again,” says Caruso, now vice president of commercial sales.

The pair had extensive contacts in the commercial construction business in Pittsburgh, which turned out to be counter-cyclical to Florida. While the residential market slowed in Florida, commercial construction in Pittsburgh at large corporations such as Alcoa and universities such as Carnegie Mellon didn't stop. “Pittsburgh was resilient,” says Caruso, 44, who opened the Pittsburgh office and now commutes between Pennsylvania and Florida. “There were a lot of construction projects that kept the city going.”

The expansion to Pennsylvania proved fortuitous. From 2008 to 2009, revenues surged from $4.5 million to $14 million on account of the commercial work in Pittsburgh, pushing the firm into 666th place on the Inc. 5,000. “It was good timing,” Robbins says.

In 2010, two-thirds of the company's $15 million revenues came from Pittsburgh and the rest from Florida. But that doesn't mean Robbins isn't confident that Florida's economy will rebound.

On the contrary, Robbins and Caruso have been acquiring struggling competitors, targeting those companies with top salesmen. “The acquisitions we made were strategic, to acquire the talent,” Robbins says. They acquired Trinity Technology of Boca Raton and Visual Excellence of Naples, both in March. “What builds this company is human resources,” Robbins says.

Robbins and Caruso are both betting that the wave of retiring Baby Boomers won't be delayed much longer. “It's got to have an effect on this area eventually,” Robbins says.

The two entrepreneurs have detected a more positive outlook by customers. “People are a little more upbeat,” Robbins says. “We're sitting on $12 million in backlog,” he adds.

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