The IT Girl

by Julia Lynam

Twenty years ago, Diane Kerbaugh was the receptionist; now she owns the company

As owner and president of Panurgy Vermont in South Burlington, Diane Kerbaugh thrives on the challenges of an ever-evolving industry.

Diane Kerbaugh recently took up golf. She plays mostly at Lang Farm Links in Essex and she enjoys it because it's so hard. "It's a sport that's very difficult to be good at," says Kerbaugh, "I like the challenge."

That's the kind of attitude that helped Kerbaugh become sole owner and president of a company she joined as a secretary-receptionist more than 20 years ago. It's that love of a challenge that helps her to keep her company, Vermont Panurgy, growing and changing in the hard-edged corporate computer services marketplace.

After joining the company, then known as Computerland, in 1984, Kerbaugh showed an immediate aptitude for sales and moved quickly into that field. Jim Wells, formerly of Champlain Computer Systems, became her boss when he purchased the Computerland franchise in 1988. "Diane was one of the employees, a sales rep," he recalled. "She was great. When you merge two companies, there's a lot of turmoil, a lot of politics. Diane ended up being the most reliable and most respected salesperson I ever had."

Eleven years later her big chance came: Panurgy, a national company planning to go public, bought Computerland, but soon went out of business, plagued by difficulties surrounding its initial public offer. Kerbaugh bought the business.

"I'm not at all surprised that Diane has ended up running the company," says Wells. "When the company that bought us went out of business, it was an opportunity, and Diane was the perfect person to take over. She deserved it."

Panurgy's 10 trainers are employed part-time or on contract. Panurgy sees around 8,000 students a year at its own classrooms, on-site at clients' facilities and at state technical centers in Rutland and St. Albans. Donna Majher directs the learning center.

Taking the name Vermont Panurgy for her company, Kerbaugh set out to build on the reputation and customer base she had inherited from Computerland, and she's still enjoying the challenge. "When I decided to buy the company it was very scary," she says, "but comforting to think that I was familiar with the business, that it was something I'd been doing for years.

"The company has two major sides: training and engineering. On the engineering side, for many smaller companies we are their IT department, offering proactive online maintenance agreements. To larger companies we offer specific expertise for projects such as complete network upgrades."

Director of technical services Tim White manages Panurgy's four engineers and makes client visits himself. A spare-time computer fiend since high school, White pursued a career in plumbing and heating but soon became de facto network manager for one of the companies he worked for, started taking classes, and never looked back. "I knew immediately that this was what I loved doing. I was fortunate to find it at 35!"

The new guy on the block, having joined Panurgy in September 2005 from a rival neighboring company, White is enthusiastic about the Panurgy way of doing business: "This may be one of the smallest companies that I've worked for. It's refreshing to know every single person — how they work, understand their behavior. It's a very nice place to work. We want to create raving fans," he says in a reference to the 1993 book of that name by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles. "No sullen sulky people are going to come to your workplace from us.

"Diane knows exactly where she wants to go and what she wants — although she doesn't necessarily tell me how to get there," he adds with a chuckle.

Kerbaugh grew up in Richmond and has a degree in fashion merchandising and retailing from Champlain College. Although her career path has taken a different turn, she has no regrets: "I've been very happy doing what I'm doing," she says.

Tim White, director of technical services, joined Panurgy in September. He manages the company's four engineers and makes client visits himself.

She lives in Jericho with her 14-year-old son, Alex, a computer game and Instant Messenger aficionado. As well as golf, Kerbaugh enjoys downhill skiing at Mad River — another challenging pursuit.

Former colleague and former competitor Bob Valentine, an account executive with TelCove of Vermont, met Kerbaugh when he joined Computerland in 1991. "Diane always struck me as being one of the hardest-working, most methodical people," he says. "She has a great work ethic, and my respect for her has grown over the years.

"In the marketplace, as a salesperson, you really don't have a second chance if you blow it. Diane's integrity is very high, as shown by her ability to stay in business so long in this market. Over the years the company has had to shift to rely on training and services rather than sales of computers.

"It's a testament to her abilities that she's been able to forge forward with so much against her."

White is, like Kerbaugh, a Vermonter, and he has found that the lessons of his upbringing on a farm in Westford are surprisingly relevant to the world of computers. "The education in self-sufficiency of working on a farm and high tech may be two almost exact opposites," he says, "but that self-sufficiency has served me well: I see something that needs doing and I do it!"

Dawna Majher, director of the learning center, joined Panurgy in February 2005, having spent six years as a trainer with another local computer company, and the past year running her own business. That year spent dealing with her own customers was very valuable to a person with a passion for training, she says.

Majher, originally from Johnstown, Pa., now lives in Essex. She started learning to be a trainer almost accidentally while working for an architectural engineering firm who asked her to offer lunchtime workshops. "I loved it, and I still do. Although I'm director, I still do trainings six or eight times a month."

The company's 10 trainers are employed part time or on contract, because both Kerbaugh and Majher believe it's important to have trainers who have current, in-depth knowledge of the field rather than being confined to the classroom. The trainer is the contact with the student, they believe, bringing real-world expertise into the classroom. In the same vein, Panurgy's own engineering staffers teach classes, drawing on their ability to give concrete examples and answer specific questions.

Panurgy sees around 8,000 students a year, offering training on-site at clients' facilities, and at state technical centers in Rutland and St. Albans as well as in their own classrooms in South Burlington. "We teach everything from how to turn on a computer to network design," explains Kerbaugh.

"Vermont has many sizes of companies and every company has a need for PCs, therefore for training on new products and updates. We're very flexible. We customize classes to meet the needs of clients in terms of location and timing, even customizing our computer screens to reproduce what the students will see at their workplace.

"The state of Vermont is one of our larger clients both for training and hardware purchasing," she says, "although computer sales are not currently a major part of our business."

The monthly Microsoft Office classes are always in demand, while Adobe and Web design classes are also popular. On the more technical side, Panurgy offers Microsoft, Cisco and Linux certification training. The company is also a "Pearson VUE" test center, offering electronic certification testing for the computer industry and other industries including automotive and airline.

In a new development, since March 2005, Panurgy has begun to offer professional development courses in management and presentation skills. "It's a good fit," says Kerbaugh. "When we're teaching someone how to use PowerPoint, they also need to learn how to present it effectively — how to apply the application."

The demand for computer training does not stand still. As new programs and new versions roll out, companies have to find effective ways of keeping their staffs' skills current. Kerbaugh and her staff at Vermont Panurgy are determined to continue to meet that need by listening carefully to their clients and customizing their training courses to serve their students' real requirements.