FORT COLLINS — You know that saying “Nice guys finish last?” Well, it doesn’t pertain to Bill Ward.
When the sky began falling on over-leveraged high-tech companies, Ward simply continued on with business as usual. He had no need to worry. Front Range Internet Inc., which he co-founded in 1995 with his son, Brad, has been in the black from the start.
In 2002, the company posted sales of about $4.2 million. “We were expecting a 10 to 15 percent increase this year,” Ward said, adding, “but the economy’s not letting us do that. It’ll be somewhat less. We’re still showing positive growth. We’re a survivor in the wasteland of businesses that have gone out of business.”
FRII is a survivor because of Ward, the 2003 recipient of the Bravo! Entrepreneur Award for Fort Collins. Earlier this month, the company also was recognized as one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the state when it received Deloitte & Touche’s Colorado Technology Fast 50 Award.
Former systems engineer
Before founding FRII, Ward worked at Martin Marietta as a systems engineer, with one of his projects being the National Test Bed Program for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Essentially, he was involved in a software simulation project to determine the feasibility of the so-called Star Wars program. In 1995, the program was lost to another contractor, and Ward went looking for something else to do.
He didn’t look long. His son and his college friends — all recent graduates of Colorado State University — convinced him to consider starting an Internet service provider company. An ISP, they said, would simply be a different way of doing what he had been doing at Martin Marietta.
Ward put together a business plan, incorporated in August 1995 and was online by the end of October of that year. “It has been quite a ride and basically we’ve had positive years the entire time.”
Timing is everything, and in Ward’s case he was right on target. “We certainly hit the timing right –1995 was when the Internet was going commercial. One of the other things that has led to our success over time is that we don’t depend heavily on outside investment. We’ve self-funded. We’ve kept it under our control. In the tech sector, the large notable failures have been due to being over-leveraged ,and we just didn’t do that.”
A willingness to embrace new technologies has been key as well, as has been hiring innovative, flexible people who now number 43.
“While Bill drives the company to be successful, it’s really about the employees first. He really, truly cares about employees and taking care of them. We have a say in the operations, in the company, in the direction of the company,´ said Shawna Killen, business operations manager at FRII.
The company, she added, is not just based on Ward’s vision “but Bill’s vision guided by our input. Bill is a wonderful boss, he really is.”
Company found a niche
FRII found a niche in an industry dominated by big-name ISPs. Customers, 60 percent of whom are now commercial clients, say they like that they’re dealing with a local business. “If you’re in Fort Collins, you can come in and talk with us,” Ward said.
The company also prides itself on providing outstanding 24-hour customer service. “That’s one of the major discriminators — our ability to service their needs more flexibly than larger companies would be able to,” Ward said. “We’re also more willing to work with them to do a custom solution if that’s what’s required.”
The company has had its share of challenges, including learning how to control the rate of growth and what path to put the company on. “I’m certain we could double our size without breaking a sweat, but how do we do that? It’s not so much can we, it’s the method. It’s the pathway,” Ward said.
Along the way, Ward also has learned there are right ways and wrong ways to acquire other companies. “That’s something that seems to be an art to it.” FRII has acquired five small operations, the largest being Verinet, as a means of growing customer base.
Another benefit has been working with his son, Brad, executive vice president of the company. “It’s been really good for us,” Bill Ward said. He and I are very close as a result, even more than when he was growing up.”
Ward is a big believer in giving back to the community “but in a targeted, specific way.” FRII is a sponsor of the Larimer County Food Bank, and Ward participated in the Fort Collins downtown planning that looked at what the area should be like in the future. FRII has also been closely associated with the library and with the Eagles, Northern Colorado’s semi-professional hockey team. “Our activities tend to be low key,” he said. “It’s more important to do the sharing and helping people out rather than blaring about it and taking all the credit.”
What is he most proud of?
“The success we’ve had and that we have done it and done it on our own terms and been successful with it,” he said. “And that the people in the community seem to like us. I would call it a big success and the most rewarding thing we’ve done.”