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Strategies
Business Observer Friday, Sep. 29, 2017 1 year ago

'Lead with Service'

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A Tampa tech firm seeks to maintain a rapid growth pace, behind a new leadership team and some grandmotherly advice: Stick to your knitting.

By John Haughey | Contributing writer

In information technology talk, a “pure play” managed service provider delivers network, application, system and e-management services under one umbrella. That's “all” it does. 

But since its 2006 founding, Tampa-based IT Authorities has operated under the premise that “all” means nothing without one guiding principle: service.

“With a lot of IT companies, it's about the hardware, but we have the foresight to recognize that we are a service business,” IT Authorities Chief Revenue Officer Tony Sousan says. “We have always believed, for us, it is all about bringing service to customers; to manage the software, the supporting hardware, to keep mission-critical systems functional. We don't lead with hardware. We lead with service.”

“That strategic plan has not changed since 2006,” adds ITA CEO Phil LaForge. “Managed services, done right, are proactive. We are making promises to the customer to keep stuff from happening — to take their mind off the things that go bump in the night with IT.”

With approximately 140 employees and 140 customers, including Coca-Cola bottlers across the Midwest and Southeast, in August IT Authorities appeared for the fifth time in its 11-year existence on Inc. magazine's top 5000 List of the nation's fastest-growing businesses, with $12.5 million in revenue in 2016. That capped a 207.34% increase in revenue over the past three years.

“It is an honor to be recognized by Inc. 5000 for the fifth year,” IT Authorities co-founder Jason Caras says. “The value every single IT Authorities' employee consistently delivers to our customers has enabled our continued explosive growth.” 

IT Authorities is, indeed, poised for “explosive growth” after restructuring its leadership cadre over the past 10 months. Caras and co-founder Jason Pollner have moved into new roles as co-chairs of IT Authorities board of directors and the company added three executives to the senior leadership team who collectively have nearly 80 years of MSP experience — Sousan in December; LaForge in June; and Jeff Lynn as chief operating officer in mid-August.

New Leaders

Sousan, with a degree in business management from Webster University in Missouri and an executive MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, has more than 20 years in management with CenturyLink, A.G. Edwards Inc., Edward Jones, Syniverse and 3Com. He joined IT Authorities as COO before being named chief revenue officer in April. 

LaForge, who has a B.A. in history from University of Illinois and an MBA in finance from Florida State University, has nearly two decades of experience leading technology businesses, including executive stints at OneNeck, Nimsoft, now part of CA Technologies, CDW Berbee and TEAM Technologies. 

Lynn has a bachelor's of science in computer science and a master's in management information systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and nearly 40 years of experience in MSP operators. Prior to joining IT Authorities as CEO, he was president of Tribridge, a prominent Tampa area technology services firm; global COO of Tectura; vice president of Dell Professional Services; vice president and general manager of Compaq Professional Services, and vice president of consulting and services for IBM.  

It is “an exciting time” to join IT Authorities, Lynn says. “ITA is growing the size of its customer base, not just in raw numbers, but in the size, complexity and criticality of the workloads under our stewardship. The challenges that come with such a large-scale transformation are formidable. But big challenges are what make IT Authorities an exciting place to be.” 

Three Influences

From its founding, IT Authorities' strategic plan has been outlined in “Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't,” the famous 2001 management book by Jim Collins that discusses the steps necessary to transition from a good company to a great one.

IT Authorities' five-year strategic plan reflects lessons from the book. “We have very ambitious goals for the company on behalf of our customers,” he says. “We know that it is going to take extraordinary leadership to succeed, to get the right people on the bus. We are making changes to become great over our five-year strategic plan horizon.”

Among other influences blended into IT Authorities' strategies is “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement,” a 1984 management-oriented novel co-written by Eliyahu Goldratt, best known for his “Theory of Constraints,” and Jeff Cox, a best-selling author of management-related novels.

In “The Goal,” a Boy Scout troop's goal is to hike to a campground before nightfall. The troop must stay close enough together for scoutmasters to ensure their safety. Herbie is the slowest scout so the pace of the hike depends on how fast he moves. Among ways scoutmasters help Herbie move faster is to distribute part of his load to those capable of handling it.

“'The Goal' is one of my favorite books. I have read it several times,” Sousan says, noting business success can often be about “finding the Herbie, the slow Scout on the trail.”

Another key to the firm's strategy can be found in “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership,” a 2008 book by James Hunter.

“We have a workplace of servant leadership,” Lynn says. “It is defining your goal to enable others around you to be successful. Be a leader and a colleague who defines success as enabling others to be successful.”

Nationwide Expansion LaForge says IT Authorities' newly configured leadership team's objective is to “grow its operation in scale to provide a greater breath of services — that is why we are bringing on a team of leaders who have operated at that scale.”

Because managed services can be delivered to virtually anywhere from practically anyplace, LaForge notes that the company is “not limited to a geographic constraint. We have ambition to go nationwide” beyond its present customer base in the Southeast and Midwest.

“We operate three shifts, 24/7. We have no constraints logistically on how we do business,” he says. “It is just a matter of prudence. What is prudent in growing the company and maintaining our high levels of delivery and support? It is not going to be 10 times bigger overnight.”

But Tampa will remain ITA's headquarters and primary operations center. “Tampa is our hometown, and it is always going to be our hometown. We're committed to helping midsized business succeed in Tampa,” LaForge says. “We love the Tampa Bay business market for a couple of reasons. Florida, in general, is a growing state. It is business-friendly and the climate makes it a great attractor for talent.”

That talent pool is a large ally. “Our business is people,” he adds. “Over time, we are going to have a competitive advantage over high-cost areas, such as California, Denver or Boston, because we can offer a superior lifestyle that will attract the people.”

LaForge says the sustained trend in companies and corporations outsourcing or partnering all or part of their IT needs should continue. “IT is a very strong segment. We are in the right place at the right time,” he says. “It was a right decision in 2006 and it looks better now. I think that is the wave that we are riding right now.”

'Stick To Your Knitting'

LaForge acknowledges he's made “numerous mistakes” in his career. From this experience, he's gleaned a pattern individuals and businesses make that, almost without fail, inevitably leads to problems: straying from “the core.”

“The short answer for when a business is in trouble is the old grandmother's advice — 'stick to your knitting,'” he says. “That really applies in management services.”

For IT Authorities to expand successfully, it must continuously reaffirm its core. “We must continue to be very good at highly complex moves over and over and over again,” LaForge says. “Operational excellence is extremely hard to do because we are human beings and human beings make mistakes. You cannot go away from the core. You must communicate with (employees) over and over and over and over. There is no 'easy' button in business. For us, it is execution, execution, execution.”

One challenge: the lure of shortcuts, situational standards, accepting good instead of great, inevitably confronts every individual and business, IT Authorities executives realize. “When you are in a highly competitive environment, there is a temptation to look for silver bullets and there aren't any,” LaForge says. “You cannot claim victory by surviving and hanging around. The minute people look for a shortcut, for a magic bullet, it is almost a guaranteed fail.”

Which is why IT Authorities will stay with service. Or, more specifically, providing a service fundamental to virtually every customer's operational capacity with a seamless certainty that allows customers to stay within its core, LaForge says.

“Talk to any business. Talk to a Coca-Cola bottler. They don't say they are in the IT business, they say they are in the Coca-Cola bottling business. A bank says it is in the business of helping people with their wealth management. It never says it is in the IT business. That's because we do it — we do IT,” he says. “Our business is IT, so they can focus on their core business.”

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