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Small town, big tech

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  • | 6:38 a.m. August 10, 2012
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On the first Friday of every month, John Benkert and his team of 30 employees come to work dressed in camouflage T-shirts.

Benkert, the CEO of CPR Tools, calls this gathering “War with the Competition Day.”

That's because CPR Tools, one of the country's foremost computer-security companies, is located in tiny LaBelle. It's a town 30 miles east of Fort Myers that's better known for citrus groves and swamp cabbage than high-tech equipment and clean rooms.

On War with the Competition Day, three employees take turns giving 15-minute PowerPoint presentations about CPR's competitors. Every employee is expected to take a turn, researching and reporting on the competition. “It's hard to understand we have competition,” says Benkert. “Here we don't have that.”

CPR Tools' competition for its data-security equipment and services is global, and Benkert wants employees to gain a sense of urgency about their work that they may not appreciate living in rural LaBelle. What's more, every employee learns how to give a presentation to others, a useful skill when it comes to explaining how much more valuable technology is to the company's clients.

“The first day, they all felt weird wearing their shirts,” Benkert chuckles. Now, they come prepared for battle.

Benkert, 48, is an anomaly in LaBelle. He previously was a computer expert for the National Security Agency and tracked deep-space satellites as a member of Space Command. He moved to LaBelle from the Washington, D.C., area nearly 10 years ago.

But Benkert says LaBelle is the perfect place for a company like CPR Tools to do business. The firm is tucked away in an industrial area where its neighbors are an auto-body shop and an aluminum-screen company.

“It's quiet, it's private and it's just beautiful country,” Benkert says. “It's an awesome place to raise a family.”

Benkert, who acquired CPR Tools from its previous owners last year, has big plans for the company. He's seeking 30,000 square feet to expand the operation, and he wants to triple the number of employees to 100 and boost annual revenues from about $7 million today to $25 million in three years.

“The hard part for any business is finding people,” says Benkert.

Satellite tracker
Benkert is widely recognized as a computer-security expert. His last assignment at the National Security Agency was branch chief in the computer and information sciences research group. Benkert was awarded the National Scientific Achievement Award for his technological innovations in data security while at the agency.

Benkert also served in the U.S. Air Force, flying on Compass Call, a modified C-130 plane from which he tracked satellites as a member of Space Command. “I flew in the back of a spy plane,” he explains.

But Benkert and his wife, Sue Benkert, grew tired of the winter weather in Washington, D.C., and moved south nearly a decade ago to work for CPR Tools in LaBelle. The company already established itself as a leader in data recovery and destruction. (Sue Benkert is now CPR Tools' chief financial officer.)

Former employees of Seagate, a manufacturer of hard drives, formed CPR Tools in 1987. Owners Tony and Michele Alvarez moved to Labelle from Palm Beach when they sailed their boat through the Okeechobee Waterway and chanced upon the small town; they moved to the rural area to escape the congested east coast. The Benkerts acquired the company last year (terms were not disclosed).

A rural lifestyle is the same reason the Benkerts moved to LaBelle from Washington, D.C. John Benkert likes to tell visitors the culture-shock story of rushing to work on his first day in LaBelle and honking at a driver for politely waving others through a four-way stop. “Now I wave people through,” he laughs.

Recruiting engineers
Benkert says the biggest challenge he faces is finding employees, particularly those skilled in technology. “We go out and search for those folks,” he says. “I need to hire six more computer scientists now.”

Because the cost of living is relatively low in LaBelle, a six-figure salary goes further than it might in more populated areas, offsetting disadvantages such as the lack of nightlife. CPR Tools has a generous benefits package that includes health insurance and contributions to a retirement plan.
“CPR Tools is known throughout the world for damaged media,” Benkert says. “We specialize in that.”

Benkert is making a big push to persuade young people in LaBelle to pursue computer degrees. “We're trying to grow our own employees,” he says.

For example, Benkert offers summer internships to local students and once a month he visits the schools to exhort students to study computer science. He speaks in any forum he can find, from the Rotary Club to the local economic development council.

Benkert isn't a hermit in LaBelle, which helps him get in contact with promising talent, too. “I'm traveling two weeks a month.”

CPR Tools plans big expansion
John Benkert holds up a small finger-sized device you can plug into your computer that will tell you whether your hard disk is damaged.

Called Alarm Disk, you'll be able to buy it for $20 at a retail store.

For Benkert and his company, CPR Tools, this is a departure from the hard-drive recovery and destruction tools it sells to big corporate and government customers. One data-erasing device called the Sledgehammer costs about $2,500.

“We can't be stagnant,” Benkert says. “It's something new and exciting.”

Benkert says he wants to hire LaBelle residents to staff the tech support center that will help consumers with any Alarm Disk questions. “I want to employ people here, not outsourced,” he says.

CPR Tools isn't new to service, however. Besides selling equipment, the company helps large companies and government agencies recover or erase data from hard drives. On occasion, trucks bring hard drives to the company and employees stack them with a forklift. “We can do 50,000 drives in three weeks,” Benkert says.

Video: Jim Jett Editing: Amanda Heisey


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