Sunday, March 7, 2004

Nor-Com stays current


It thrives in fast-changing field

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[photo]
Jim Huber, director of business development for Nor-Com Inc. operates an interactive touch screen as he starts the taped testimony of Holocaust survivor Werner Coppel at the "Mapping Our Tears" exhibit at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College in Clifton.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG

HEBRON - The growth curve of Dan Van Meter's audio-visual company reflects that of the electronics industry itself.

From its start 33 years ago as Northern Kentucky Communications, a consumer electronics repair and maintenance shop, the enterprise has grown in mission, sophistication and geographic service area.

Today, Nor-Com Inc. designs, installs and maintains integrated audiovisual, sound and security systems for health care and educational institutions, corporations, places of worship and entertainment venues. Since 2000, the company has increased its work force by 18 percent and has seen a 30 percent increase in sales to $8 million last year.

When he joined the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Van Meter was selected for electronics training and wound up repairing cameras and electronic equipment that were shot up during combat.

"I fell in love with electronics," he said.

After his tour of duty ended, Van Meter was hired by 3M Co. as an engineer and repaired consumer electronics on the side. The videocassette recorders and televisions took over his home and his time, forcing him to make a critical decision: Remain in the corporate world or start his own company.

"I thought, 'I'm going to kick myself if I don't at least try this,' " he recalled. "So I resigned from 3M and went out on my own. I've never looked back, absolutely never looked back."

What began as a sole-practitioner business in 1971 now employs about 45 people and projects annual sales of $9 million to $10 million for this year. Some of its early hires are still with the company.

Van Meter said his employees' commitment to mastering cutting-edge technology enabled Nor-Com to make the leap into integrated audio-visual systems design and installation, giving it entree into diverse markets.

Recent projects include the design and installation of a multimedia "living testimonies" portion of the "Mapping Our Tears" interpretive program for the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College, the security system at Newport on the Levee and the sound engineering for the Cincinnati Art Museum's new auditorium.

"When we wanted to do the Attic (living testimonies) project we went to Jack Rouse Associates, and they said, 'We're going to bring in the best to do the audio-visual design,' " recalled Racelle Weiman, director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education. "The young people at Nor-Com were so bright and so committed. They put a human face on a very technical and difficult job."

Weiman said the center plans to continue its relationship with Nor-Com to expand the testimonies program.

Because technology has become so sophisticated, Nor-Com often finds it difficult to explain to potential customers the range of products available to address their needs.

"So we invested about $250,000, took a large section of our building and built what we call a solutions center," Van Meter said. "It contains all the equipment, the plasma screens, the smart boards, the video editing. People can come in and we can show them what they are talking about doing.

"They come in with an idea, and they leave enlightened, saying 'We need to do this, we ought to be able to do this.' They are like kids in a candy shop."

To succeed in an industry characterized by rapid obsolescence and even more rapid change, Nor-Com has established a high standard of training for its employees.

"Last year, we made the commitment that we would not have anybody employed in a technical capacity who was not at least a CTS (certified technical specialist). We are now at 75 percent of that goal, and we're working on the other 25 percent," Van Meter said.

All employees who work with customers must at least be a CTS, says James Huber, Nor-Com's director of marketing. "Beyond that, we have some employees who are CTSI - that is, they are certified installers."

Van Meter, he says, is a certified designer, one of fewer than 100 worldwide.

"The people we have worked with at Nor-Com are very knowledgeable, and they can present their knowledge in a very convenient way," said Michael Kholodenko, an electrical engineer with Burgess and Niple. "They are always ready to help."

The challenge for Nor-Com now is recruiting good people.

"We're way beyond 'I hooked up my mom's stereo,' " says Van Meter. "We're looking for a person with at least an associate's degree and five or six years' experience."

It's been essential for Nor-Com to develop the company's management capabilities and style to support its growth, Van Meter said. For instance, he got the company involved in the Cincinnati Chamber's Strategic 8 process for strategic planning.

"As a result, the way we interact, the way we look at problems, the way we approach issues that are on the horizon are just so different from the way we did things eight or nine years ago."

The Strategic 8 process helped Nor-Com managers identify the company's risk factors: Internet "bargain" prices on audio-visual equipment and consolidation of the audio-visual market by a few large players. The company has since implemented strategies to address these risk factors, such as emphasizing to customers the value of its service and its technological capabilities.

Nor-Com also has moved from having its employees work with a wide variety of industries to becoming specialists in dealing with one type of customer.

"Specific people are assigned to specific vertical markets, such as educational or medical facilities," Van Meter explained. "A horizontal organization means that each person needs to be an expert in each type of service or product. What we have found is that there is no one, especially today with rapid technology change, that can be an expert in more than one market."

Award-winning ways

Nor-Com's success has earned it several awards. Dan Van Meter has been named Kentucky's Small Business Person of the Year, the firm has been twice recognized as an Emerging 30 firm by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and it has earned two Pinnacle Awards.

Van Meter says the key to the company's success is its people: Their productive relationships with each other and their support of each other. Investment in the continuous training of those employees has paid off, too.

Nor-Com has reached out from its Northern Kentucky base to serve customers throughout the Midwest, on the East and West coasts and as far away as Guatemala.

Nor-Com is at 2126 Petersburg Road, Hebron. Information: (859) 689-7451 or www.nor-com.com.

E-mail jcallison@zoomtown.com




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