For a business focused on high technology, SymQuest’s modus operandi is decidedly old fashioned: Learn from others and strive to continually improve

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

According to Larry Sudbay, SymQuest Group Inc.’s front office is a strategic display of the company’s mission: “We decided to put in the forefront the fact that we design network infrastructures.” Visitors to the South Burlington headquarters see the business’s computer network — PBX phone system, a variety of servers, a bank of power back-up units and loads of cabling — displayed neatly behind a glass wall as they enter the office. “It’s what we do,” adds Sudbay, co- owner of the company. “It’s a statement of our work.”

Sudbay takes this same heart-on-the-sleeve approach when talking about the mission of the company he founded with Pat Robins three years ago. The two plan to polish their company’s image to a high buff through continual learning and meticulous tracking of performance — to assure that, in Robins’ words, the business “gets a little bit better every month.”

Larry Sudbay

Larry Sudbay, president/CEO of SymQuest Group Inc. in South Burlington, says the independently owned, Vermont nature of his business is appealing. “We’re not chasing quarterly earnings reports,” he says. “The maniacal call for us is to delight clients.”

The networking facility on display in the front office reveals only part of SymQuest’s scope. The company handles design, installation, and support for networks; computer training in seven education centers in three cities as well as on-site; and sales and service of Canon and Hewlett-Packard output devices. “It’s a wonderful integration,” says Sudbay, who believes the education portion of the business helps drive the other branches: “People come back to the spoon that feeds them.”

“We see the big companies in the output business following us,” adds Robins, the semi-retired treasurer of the firm who spends as much time on non-profit boards as he does in the SymQuest office. “They’re acquiring networking engineering companies, training and education businesses. We’ve really got a leg up, and it’s only because Larry had us in the networking business years ago.”

Robins and Sudbay became partners in SymQuest in 1996 after working together for many years at McAuliffe, the venerable office products business owned by Robins and approximately 30 of his family members. Sudbay, a native of Port Chester in New York’s Westchester County, graduated from the University of Vermont in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. A summer co-op at IBM’s East Fishkill, N.Y., facility — “I did board work, but it soon became bored work,” he jokes — helped Sudbay realize his future was in the sales and marketing arena of technology.

Following graduation, he worked in sales for Hewlett-Packard. Based in Boston, Sudbay covered the greater Burlington area and met Robins in 1982 when McAuliffe placed a big order. The only problem was McAuliffe couldn’t move the product. On Sudbay’s advice they held a seminar at the Radisson to generate interest in the product, sold through the inventory and placed a second order. “Pat bought me dinner,” Sudbay says, “and said, ‘Move your desk. You gotta help put us in this business.’”

Sudbay became a McAuliffe employee in February 1983 and worked there several years before he met his future wife, Jan, at a Grafton wedding. He moved with her to San Francisco in 1990. “I can negotiate almost anything,” quips Robins about his efforts to keep Sudbay in Vermont, “but you get a woman, you get stars in the eyes. It’s not a fair match-up.”

Jan returned to her job as an account representative for a California color separator. “She’s a professional mom now,” says Sudbay, referring to the couple’s sons, Charlie, 6, and 4-year-old Will. Sudbay took a job as a regional sales manager with MCI.

“There have been two or three of the guys I’ve been associated with over the years that I really, absolutely didn’t want to leave the team,” offers Robins. “Larry was one of them.” In 1992, following some prodding by Robins, Sudbay moved back to Vermont, family in tow, and returned to McAuliffe. A few years later Robins told Sudbay, general manager of the company’s office systems, he was selling McAuliffe to Boise-Cascade.

Boise wasn’t interested in the office systems portion of McAuliffe, so Sudbay and Robins bought that branch from Boise shortly after Boise acquired McAuliffe. “We walked away from a $10 million hardware business and decided that all of our inertia would go into the services component of network engineering and computer education training,” relates Sudbay, detailing the start-up challenges the business faced. “We did not have a company name, we had no line of credit, no vendor authorizations, no real employees,” he says. “We had no software and no hardware to run the business.” Nonetheless, seven weeks after start-up of the company — named partly for QUality, Education, Systems and Technology — SymQuest mailed its first invoice for services rendered.

Pat Robins & company

“I’m the conscience of the organization,” says SymQuest co-founder/treasurer Pat Robins. “I want to be sure we don’t believe our own press — that we look for all our failures.” From left: Ted Rosch, Victoria Snyder, Jeff Culkin and Robins.

The opportunity to move out to a location that had plenty of parking for our clients was a huge motivator,” says Sudbay of the company’s relocation from Cherry Street, Burlington, in February last year. SymQuest’s 25,000 square feet of space at Technology Park, the former Digital Equipment Corp. plant in South Burlington, offers more usable space compared to its previous 19,000 square feet that was divided over several elevations. “We knew we would have gains in communication,” he adds, “but we never realized the impact on the morale of the employees would be as a formidable a benefit as it ended up being.

“We are a company committed to perpetual improvement,” Sudbay continues. Membership in the Copier Dealers Association, a group of 75 independent copier dealers from non-competing markets, allows SymQuest to benchmark itself against similar businesses. “I personally travel to see these companies to see how they’re doing things and learn from them.”

The six-member board of directors SymQuest established a year ago — with Ray Pecor, Bob Hoehl and others — is another plan to improve through learning from others. “If I can learn from some people who have been down some paths before and avoid some traps,” says Sudbay, “it’s all for the wiser.”

Sudbay borrowed the incentive program that rewards SymQuest repair technicians for low recalls from a Washington, D.C.-area dealer. Any technician who can eliminate the need to pay a client a second service visit within 10 days of the initial call earns points toward a bonus worth 10 to 15 percent of their base salary. “People who may not have hit it are learning from the ones who are hitting it,” Sudbay says.

Meanwhile, Sudbay strives to transition the company’s service initiative from an emergency-based plan to a managed one. By collecting and analyzing data from copier meters over the last few years SymQuest is developing methods to predict output device failure. “We’ve made a huge investment in terms of technology to learn from the data to be more proactive. We can predict failures,” he boasts, “and when you can predict failures, you can intervene.” Using the language of motivational guru Tom Peters, Sudbay adds, “We think the benefit of delighting clients is well worth the investment.”

John Schumacher points out, “Not all of my suppliers do that. In fact, some just deal with one crisis after the next — that puts us at some disadvantage.” Schumacher owns three Gnomon Copy stores in New Hampshire and opened Hard Copy in downtown Burlington a couple of years ago. He purchases his Canon copiers from SymQuest, and has been doing business with Sudbay and Robins for nine years. “The way that Larry has implemented their maintenance program has really made them number one” out of the five dealerships Schumacher does business with.

“SymQuest just seems to have people who are very well trained and who appear to care about our business — the fact that we have to have our copiers running and running well,” Schumacher adds. “They’re knowledgeable not only of the older analog machines but they’re in the forefront of the digital revolution. That really insures that they’ll be a player not only today but in the days to come.”

Lorenzini, Herbert & Brigante

At the end of each SymQuest class, students complete a feedback form to grade their instructors. Larry Sudbay evokes the company motto: “The best is yet to be,” he says. “We get feedback on what we need to improve.” From left: Mark Lorenzini, Lynne Herbert and Christy Brigante.

Careful tracking and analysis of performance, combined with an appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit of the company’s 110 employees, is found throughout SymQuest. “We have incentives for as many of our people as we can beyond salespeople,” explains Sudbay. Network engineers earn the greater of a base salary of $35,000 to $60,000 or 35 percent of what they bill. Employees working the client support center phones receive a bonus when 92 percent of calls are answered with no hold time. “They monitor busy traffic patterns during the day — when they take breaks, when to be on call — because collectively this is a qualifier for the team,” he says. Approximately 11,000 calls are made to the center each month, and the workers achieve the 92 percent target.

Approximately 13 percent of SymQuest’s $15 million of projected annual gross sales comes from toner sales. According to Sudbay, the non-descript black powder is “the fuel oil of businesses.”

Put another way by Robins: “You’re out of toner — you’re out of beer.”

He calculates, “Fill rates of 90 to 95 percent are considered to be really good. We decided we were going to fill 100 percent of toner orders,” a nearly impossible goal considering the wide variety of toner products and the 60 to 70 orders SymQuest fills each day.

Fill rates are subject to the same attention to performance as every other service at SymQuest. “We had one back-order for the entire month of April,” Sudbay points out, compared to 37 for April 1989.

“We measure all the stuff and keep chipping away at it,” says Robins.

“But how do you know unless you track it?” adds Sudbay. “Like an archer without a target.” SymQuest will begin offering toner sales from its website this summer.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Robins. “We’ve got a lot of technology around here but it’s mostly blocking and tackling to get it right. The technology’s growing so fast, it’s like getting on a bronco.” While Robins and Sudbay are concerned with continual improvement, that’s not to say they aren’t having fun focusing on the Vermont market, with some periphery business in New Hampshire and upstate New York. “We really love this business,” says Robins. “It’s kind of corny, but it’s the God’s honest truth. We don’t have any grand plans of getting real big.”

“You lose your focus,” adds Sudbay. “There’s plenty of business here to keep us going for a long time. It’s a great market.”