Chris Kesler studied management information systems before most people knew what it was
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Chris Kesler, the founder and president of Earthlogic, likes to keep things light and energetic at the Fort Ethan Allen headquarters of the Colchester Web design firm he launched in 1998.
Earthlogic hasn’t been a “virtual” corporation since 2006, when its owner and founder, Chris Kesler, rented commercial office space in Essex to house his then eight-year-old company. Before that, Kesler and his several employees worked from their homes, convening once a week at one of their locations, Kesler says, “to be sure we met and collaborated in our work together.”
In some ways, the company, which has operated from a friendly, loft-like space on Hegeman Avenue in Fort Ethan Allen since 2009, still has a “virtual” component because of the flexibility Kesler offers. “All of our employees are free to work from either home or office,” he says, “and to this day, everybody has to come in on Wednesday. It’s been great in terms of being able to meet family responsibilities.”
Earthlogic builds brands for local, regional, and national customers using graphic design communications delivered primarily through the Web. One such customer, Susan Fayette, contacted Kesler when she left her job at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce to work with a startup called Tech Vault. Having known him through a Chamber leads group, he immediately came to mind as someone who could help with marketing materials.
“We needed a logo, Web presence, marketing materials, and Chris did it all amazingly well,” says Fayette, who now consults with nonprofits. “One of the things I love most about working with Earthlogic is you can tell them, ‘This is how I want my ad to look,’ and they say, ‘Oh! Is this what you have in mind?’ and it’s perfect. Geoff Garrow is amazing.” Garrow is Earthlogic’s creative director and, with the Keslers, owns a percentage of the company.
“At any time, we’ll have anywhere from one to two dozen clients, always at least 12 at one time,” Kesler says, adding, “A lot of that is because an existing customer will come back for a brochure for an upcoming conference, for example.”
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Kesler came to Vermont in 1983 to attend the University of Vermont. He chose UVM because of its good reputation and its public ivy reputation. He also knew the state from having spent time in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where his mother grew up. “I loved the area and knew I would be somewhat close to family,” he says.
Working on the UVM paint crew in the summer of 1986, he met Deborah Lawrence. They married in ’92.
Kesler graduated from the school of business administration in ’87 with a concentration in management information systems, “one of probably less than 10 people with that concentration,” he says. “Now it’s the largest concentration in the business school.”
His aim was to land a job in the corporate world and work his way up the corporate ladder, much as his father had done in Ohio. But, he cautions, “My father also had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
His first job out of school took him to Boston, where he was a systems analyst for Blue Cross Blue Shield. After four years, he returned to Vermont to take a position as program analyst with Artec Distributors, where he stayed until 1993, when Artec was sold to an out-of-state company.
He quickly landed a job with United Engineers in Essex Junction, a vendor supplying IBM with full-time, temporary help, which was eventually bought by CBI.
“I started working in technical support for the manufacturing lines at IBM,” Kesler says, “then moved into a project manager position and, at one point, I was a manager there, helping to build that organization from two to four departments and from 15 to 45 people.”
He was one of two project managers working under a site manager responsible for the location. “The site manager was moving up the corporate ladder and wanted me to take over his spot,” he says. “I had already started Earthlogic on a part-time basis, so I had to make a decision: climb the corporate ladder or go with Earthlogic full time.”
By this time, he and Deb had a 1-year-old son, Ethan, but Deb supported the move. “She’s a bookkeeper by trade,” says Kesler, “and told me, ‘I can help with the office management you need,’ so I took the dive.”
The Keslers ran a solo operation from 1998 to 2000, with Deb doing bookkeeping and helping with day-to-day operations, he says, “but not involved much in what we did in terms of the service. I was great technically — had been dabbling in Web technology since about ’94, playing with it and understanding what I could and couldn’t do — so I was able to design sites for clients that worked really well but visually weren’t that engaging.”
He went on the hunt for a designer and found Garrow. “We knew it had to be somebody really good at design,” he says. Garrow was art director at The Media Group in Williston, which, Kesler says “had grown too big for its britches. Geoff happened to see something we had posted about hiring somebody creative, and it just clicked.”
Between 2000 and 2004 a couple of programmers were added as the company grew. In 2006, he moved the company to the Essex location. “We liked the space,” says Kesler, “but it really wasn’t conducive to creative work.
In 2009, he contacted commercial broker Esther Lotz, a client, for help. “I told her we were looking for a more creative office space — maybe in an old mill building or something with exposed brick — and the day I called her, two spaces came available.”
One of those spaces was in the upper level of a building at Fort Ethan Allen owned by Egan Media. “It was really rough,” Kesler says, “but I opened the door and immediately saw all the possibilities.” Working with Joe Egan, he renovated the space.
Comfort and a “homelike atmosphere” were key to the design, says Kesler. Exposed brick warms the high-ceiling environment, and each employee has a spacious area defined by half walls. A commercial espresso machine, bought from Sacred Grounds Café in Essex when it closed, and a kegorator beer dispenser with a Switchback Ale tap are centerpieces in the stainless steel kitchen area.
The company has eight full- and part-time employees, including the Keslers. Kesler is proud of his commitment to measured growth, which has meant he has never had to lay off anyone. Sales have grown every year since the company was founded, even through the economic downturn of 2008.
A few “cornerstone clients” such as Vermont Fish and Wildlife and Luceo Corp., a subsidiary of CareerBuilder based in Chicago, help keep things humming. “2012 is going to beat 2011, which beat 2010, which beat 2009, every year since 1998,” he says.
Earthlogic clients run the gamut of industries, from local nonprofits to large national corporations. Besides pledging 5 percent of its profits each year to nonprofits, the company commits a percentage of work effort as an in-kind donation to nonprofit clients. A longtime partnership is the one with First Night Burlington.
“Chris has worked with First Night for 12 years, as both a contractor and an individual volunteer,” says Jennifer Crowell, First Night’s executive director. “He served as a board member for seven years, so has taken the commitment to the event to a much higher level than other business partners. He works in one of our box offices on the day of — an immense job that includes coming to the office the night before, picking up all our will-call, and processing orders until 11 that night.”
Earthlogic is responsible for all of First Night’s creative design — posters, buttons, the look and feel of the website — and beyond that, has developed the organization’s point-of-sale system.
“What we’ve done is create our own products,” says Kesler. “They’re not for sale, per se, but we use them to service our clients. Because we’ve developed our products from the ground up, we can keep the rates a lot lower than companies from Chicago or Boston or New York.
“We are a work-for-hire business, and a lot of companies in our space will put clients on a proprietary content management system to lock them in. We don’t take that approach. We say, ‘You hired us to do it; you own it.’ We don’t try to take any kind of long-term licensing commitment, so if they aren’t happy, we aren’t going to stop them from changing.”
He’s not afraid to turn away business. “I’ll be honest with a client: We don’t want to over-commit to something that will cause the client to be unhappy and cause us to fail at something. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.”
Deb still works part time for the company, and the couple live in Jericho with their two sons, Ethan, a freshman at Mount Mansfield Union High School, and Jared, an eighth-grader. Both boys have been active in sports, and Kesler, a high school state champion soccer player, has coached youth basketball and soccer. They pursue winter sports such as snowshoeing and skiing, and he plays a little piano, guitar, and bass, which his sons have picked up, too.
“I’m also a novice triathlete,” he says, laughing. “I’ve put myself in what I call the “Clydesdale” category.” He pauses, then adds, “It’s really, for me, more about the journey.” •