Technology firm primed for growth

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Posted: Monday, February 25, 2013 12:00 am

When Brian Kenkel and Steve Kanne left their jobs in 2001 to start a small company that installed voice and data cable, they had a “drive to build something big,” Kenkel said.

Today, Prime Communications does far more than install cable, and with a new, multimillion-dollar investment from George Haddix, one of Omaha's leading technology entrepreneurs, the owners say the firm is poised for rapid growth.

Prime expects to grow its staff of 120 to about 170 in the next two years and projects revenue to quadruple in four to five years. The firm's Elkhorn-area headquarters alone will see 20 new positions — skilled jobs in sales, engineering and project management.

“We're proud we've built this company in Omaha, Nebraska,” said Kenkel, president and CEO. “We're going to continue to grow our corporation here.”

Prime provides an array of security and communications systems and IT services for clients such as schools, hospitals, corporations, retail stores and data centers. The company believes it stands out in how it develops systems to seamlessly connect all the “appliances” — phones, computers, data centers, video cameras — typically in use in a modern enterprise.

Prime officials declined to be specific about the amount of the investment but said it will be used primarily in launching a new product development arm and in hiring sales and marketing staff.

George Haddix

Haddix, an Omaha native and mathematician, has had a long career in Omaha technology firms. He's held top leadership roles at HDR Systems, ACI and US West Network Systems, and later was co-founder of CSG Systems, a provider of software and information systems to the communications industry.

He was inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame in 2011 but hasn't stopped working at 73.

“This is what I do,” he said.

Today, he leads Riverton Management Resources, investing in private companies around the country.

“I'm happy when I can find one in Omaha,” he said. With Prime, he said, “They've reached a stage where they're growing very fast and in an area that has some urgency to grow.”

While there are many companies that offer some or all of the variety of services that Prime does, there is still room for growth, industry watchers said.

“At no point have the network demands of a company been so under duress,” said Andrew Nusca, an editor of business technology news site ZDNet.

One growth area for Prime and its competitors is handling “BYOD” — bring your own device — where employees increasingly use their own mobile phones and laptops for work, bringing along security and networking challenges. IT systems “have to accommodate for people breaking holes in their wall,” Nusca said.

Health care especially should be a growing field for Prime, said Allen Bernard, veteran tech journalist for publications serving chief information officers.

“Health care is way behind the curve on adoption of technology,” he said, and now there is a federal policy push for electronic health records. “There's a real upside for health care now, being able to leapfrog going right to wireless.”

Prime executives agreed that more and more, business owners, doctors, school principals and shop owners want round-the-clock mobile access to their files, security systems, data and records.

“There's no question the market is going to mobility solutions and access to data,” Vice President Jamie Bumgardner said.

Prime consults with the client, visits the site and assesses the current setup.

In many cases, a client will have three or four systems that don't “talk to each other,” Bumgardner said. For example, a school alarm goes off but the system can't initiate an automatic lockdown or can't send security video to the principal. Prime makes those connections happen.

“We want to be that core network component that ties it all together,” Bumgardner said.

About four years ago, Prime's owners started talking about looking for an outside investor. “We saw a long runway with a lot of growth potential,” said Kanne, vice president and chief operating officer.

They talked to peer companies, asked for advice from others that had gone through the process and, through their attorney, got in touch with Haddix — someone, Kanne said, who had “that knowledge of growing a business from nothing to great heights.”

Haddix noted that all the players who helped forge the Prime investment deal, including the accountants and attorneys, are based in Omaha.

“Having to go out to Sand Hill Road” — the cluster of venture capital companies in Menlo Park, Calif. — “gets pretty expensive,” he said.

Thanks to the kind of systems Prime sells, it's increasingly possible to do business from anywhere and to grow a business in Omaha, Haddix said.

Kenkel agreed: “We don't need to be on the East or West Coast to be a technology company.”

Prime officials said they are bound by confidentiality agreements not to name their clients, but Haddix said he liked their “marquee” Fortune 100 customers and their foundation for future gains.

“That's where I come in,” he said. “If you're in the technology industry, it's often the case that you have to grow faster than you can by plowing in the earnings of the company.”

In addition, Haddix joins the board of directors and serves an advisory role in guiding the company through some of the normal growing pains, such as making sure there is enough product for a growing team of salespeople to sell, and ensuring that customer support is strong even as there are more customers to please.

Prime currently employs 50 in its Omaha headquarters, and the rest in its locations in Dallas, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. Prime hopes to expand in those locations as well as in new locations, including the Pacific Northwest.

At every turn, Kenkel mentions his staff, the “team” that built the company by contributing expertise and energy. He said the investment will help them grow, too.

“We're excited for the opportunities our employees are going to have.”

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