How an Indiana Man Built a Successful Security Business in Puerto Rico
For 30+ years Bonneville Contracting and Technology Group has kept Puerto Rico commercial and government enterprises in step with changes in communication, electrical and security systems. Here’s how.
Through all of the islands and all of the highlands one thing has remained quite the same for Stephen Spears — his ongoing commitment to meet the needs of his clients throughout Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and beyond.
His fascinating story begins some 33 years ago when the security integrator and president of Puerto Rico-based Bonneville Contracting and Technology Group shook the snow off of his boots by leaving America’s Heartland for parts unknown.
After working his way through college in Indianapolis with money earned from a job with Western Electric as a central office equipment installer, Spears was ready for a change.
He says he jumped off of the Ma Bell ship and went looking for adventure on the road with Page Communication Engineers (a Northrup company) installing Nippon Electric Central (NEC) office equipment in such exciting places as Smithville, Ind.; Prior Lake, Minn.; and Elkhorn, Wis.
“The excitement of those ‘exotic’ places was cancelled out by the bone-chilling winters,” he says. “I started looking in industry magazines for a job somewhere at least 1,000 miles south of Minnesota. By a twist of luck or fate, I found an ad in the Chicago Tribune for telecom engineers to work in sunny Puerto Rico. I interviewed, got hired, signed a one-year contract, and the Caribbean adventure began shortly thereafter.”
Today, as an established security industry professional, Spears has much in common with many other integrators. Bonneville provides turnkey fire alarm and voice evacuation systems, and its Security Systems Group specializes in IP-based video surveillance, access control and perimeter solutions deployed over fiber-optic and/or wireless networks.
The firm helps its commercial and government clients keep up with changes in technology and communications. What makes this integrator’s experience particularly compelling is how his company came to be founded, built and continues to develop.
Spears shares how he met the challenges of establishing a successful security business outside the States — all the while not only contending with but delighting in breaking through language, culture and technical barriers.
Know Cabling, Will Travel
After being hired for the initial telecom gig in Puerto Rico, Spears’ next 10 years were spent working in different roles for contracting companies providing inside and outside plant construction and engineering services mostly in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but with stops in the Bahamas and Jamaica.
“Although I fell in love with the islands, I was always thinking, next year or at the end of the next contract, I will go home. Part of the glue that helped me stick was learning to speak Spanish.” Piggybacking on the Spanish he studied in high school and college, Spears took night courses to become proficient in speaking the language.
Through the end of the 1970s and all of the 1980s, he worked exclusively in telecom. Like the saying that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, Spears’ move to the Caribbean was fortuitous rather than planned. He admittedly had many surprises waiting for him.
“First was the language that I thought I knew, but I was not at all prepared for the Puerto Rican dialect,” he says. “My teachers had been Spaniards and Mexicans. Puerto Ricans speak extremely fast, combine words, have their own slang and mix English totally differently. I did not understand a word at first.”
Secondly, he was one of many imported contracted techs and engineers who came in for the infrastructure upgrades that were happening. They all lived in a specific area, Isla Verde and Condado, that Spears terms the ‘Gringo Ghetto.’ Because of the close proximity to the airport, beach, tourist attractions and hotels, all the businesses had English-speaking staffs and they were somewhat segregated from the populace.
“I was adventurous and wanted to explore, so the need to understand and speak the language was essential.” Next came the cultural adjustment — learning the dos and don’ts of social interaction. Spears describes Latinos as extremely welcoming, warm and friendly, while Hoosiers (a.k.a., residents of Indiana) not so much.
“Hugging men and cheek-kissing ladies are the standard accepted greetings. That took me forever to learn. Now when I visit the States, it’s a problem for me as State-siders only hug and kiss their dearest friends.”
After about six months into his Puerto Rico working adventure, Spears had an opportunity to move with the same contracting firm to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The transition from a large, Latin island environment to a much smaller, racially charged culture was another adjustment.
“It was my first experience living in a predominantly black community where the power and wealth were controlled by people of color,” Spears explains. “Whites in most British, French and Dutch Caribbean islands are the minority, but race is not a big issue. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the issue of race is, for some reason, out front and always uncomfortable. The locals put up with you but, in general, they would rather not have you there.
Adapting and finding a way to make and keep relationships with locals was a challenge. Once again, the expatriate community segregated itself and I did not want to live with those restraints. I developed relationships with locals who are still among my best friends, but sustaining those relationships creates tension. I guess being in my 20s and a product of the 1960s helped as I wasn’t carrying a lot of prejudicial baggage.”
So how did Spears eventually segue to security? The central office equipment (COE) telecommunications installation work from his early career introduced him to the world of electromechanical switching components. Rotary-dialed equipment gave way to crossbar, which was surpassed by electronic switching systems; all involved gear in bays and racks that had to be placed, cabled and connected.
Electric, fire, access control were all part and parcel of each and every installation. With his move to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Spears started learning and working outside plant projects (OSP). He spent the next few years moving from contract to contract, and eventually ended up back in Puerto Rico working on a massive telecom upgrade for PR Telephone.
The Road to Integrated Security
Bonneville Contracting and Technology Group is working on a federally financed traffic monitoring and control project on a major thoroughfare entering San Juan. The 10-mile system runs from the eastern toll road passing San Juan Airport and terminating in the entrance bridge to the island on which Old San Juan sits. The $5 million project brings both sides of Bonneville’s house together in one job.
The outside plant team oversees the placement of ducts, cable, poles, splice boxes and road crossing gantries. Bonneville is doing direct buried trenching, directional drilling of conduits, aerial plant construction and bridge attachments to carry fiber-optic and electric cabling. The solution includes installing weather stations, wireless antennas, video surveillance cameras, variable message signs, electrical grid connections, traffic flow monitoring devices and the head-end/control center equipment.
Bonneville’s networks/integrations teams are making all those field-mounted devices deliver real-time data to the control center within the main office of the state highways department. Bonneville is doing in excess of 90% of the civil and technical work in-house. The project is modeled on Florida Department of Transportation systems and is the first of its kind in the American Caribbean. The one-year project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.
Rising Through the Ranks
While he was working in Puerto Rico as a resident engineer on federally financed rural OSP telecom projects, several States-side specialty contracting companies came to the island. As a North American born engineer, Spears was assigned to give tours to visiting contractors who were considering relocating.
Among them was the Bauchman family, who owned Idaho-based Bonneville Construction Co., which served the contiguous U.S., Alaska and the Pacific.
“Bonneville had been the OSP contractor way back in Smithfield, Ind., when I was doing COE installation, so I knew them and their solid reputation,” Spears says. “They won some projects and offered me a project manager job that I took. Initially in 1984, I was an employee but I had expressed interest in becoming an owner. After a year on the job I started buying into the Caribbean operation. Initially, we were all OSP and we had substantial volumes of federally financed work to do. Around 1987/88, we started our first fiber-optic installations. We set out to be the first and best on all fiber works in our region.”
Bonneville’s first security job came in 1990 for the Luis Munoz Marin Int’l Airport in San Juan. It encompassed the installation of 80 cameras, 100 or so maglocked doors, a Receptors access control system and a fiber-optic backbone network. Bonneville stayed on in that facility as the prime contractor on all additions, service and maintenance until 2002.
“The 1990s were a wonderful time for us,” Spears recounts. “We had diversified into an electrical, telecom, highway utility and security contracting business. We created three companies within the company.”
Somewhere in that timeframe, he became a full partner in the company using earnings to buy shares and, in 1999, he bought controlling interest. During the 1990s, the integrator continued to diversify driven by opportunities.
“The industrial base in Puerto Rico created local area network [LAN] opportunities,” says Spears. “As that market expanded, we started building municipal/metro [MAN] and wide area networks [WAN]. The key is embracing change and chasing new technology along the leading, and sometimes bleeding, edge.”
Fast-forward to the present, and Bonneville’s biggest new ventures include installing a Bosch paging system at the St. Thomas Airport that integrates more than 550 cameras. The firm also has a $5 million intelligent highway project underway (see sidebar) along the most traveled thoroughfare entering and exiting eastern San Juan.
It includes video, traffic flow and weather monitoring, underground fiber-optic and wireless communication systems, a head-end, variable message signs, high mast poles for lighting and cameras, gantries with message boards, and more.
Securing the Future
Security continues to be Bonneville’s best growth market and most consistent revenue stream. Although cultural barriers were many, and the company started with 10-12 employees and one telecom project, it now has a core group of 65 employees who Spears says he values deeply. Most have 10 years or more of service with the company, and large industrial and governmental projects remain the main focus.
“We like larger turnkey projects, but we now do smaller order projects also,” says Spears. “Our most difficult part of business today is walking away from long-term government customers who have lost the ability to pay but still need services. We have continued to grow in a market in recession. Our growth is attributed to finding new clients, markets and diversifying. We must establish and maintain a distinct working culture that has a North American mindset wherever we go while working inside island cultures that might not have the same value set.”
Security also ranks as Bonneville’s strongest market in providing continuous cash flow, as the recurring revenue it provides is more consistent than electrical or telecom projects. Both service and maintenance have each played a major role in the firm’s integration business.
“New large projects bring us the service and maintenance downstream revenue and that segment becomes increasingly important in lean times,” Spears notes. “The best business decision I ever made was becoming a security integrator.”
Success as a Fish Out of Water
“Everything is harder here,” Spears states matter-of-factly. “Nearly 100% of our materials are imported. You must be more dedicated and diligent to accomplish your tasks. Focus, preplanning and constant follow-up are required of project management. The islands conspire to slow you down, so you speed things up with efficiency and continuous improvement training. We love service work, and giving first-class service sets us apart from our competitors. We subcontract very little, and self-perform 90% or more of our work. We live in a small market and reputation means a lot.”
Bonneville not only thoroughly trains its workers but also cross-trains core employees. The integrator’s private sector business concentrates on large industrial manufacturers, as well as hotels, refineries and tank farms.
“There we do all manner of works, comm cabling, video, data, fire, perimeter, access control, on and on. Due to a weak local economy, we can’t pick and choose specialties,” Spears explains. “We go where the work is. Our foremost challenge currently is our main markets are in recession. That has caused us to walk away from work and customers that cannot pay. We have traveled to Florida as our most northern worksite and Ecuador as our southernmost, and have visited most all larger Caribbean islands for projects.”
Continuing education, training and trade shows remain key components of Bonneville’s success.
“We’ve made ongoing education of our workforce a part of our culture,” Spears says. “You can be stupid when you get here, but you cannot stay stupid and stay here!”
He says the company has a formal policy/program to reimburse higher education degrees and technical education certifications. Bonneville send its engineers and techs to industry events like PSA TEC, ISC, and multiple other supplier events to stay upfront on trends and on the products we install.
Additionally, the firm is providing conversational English classes two nights per week, both advanced and intermediate to facilitate its expansion into the southeast U.S., Spears notes.
Tips of the Spears
“We run our company with an all-American attitude of quality, service, timeliness and pride in a job well done, and that sets us apart and above our competitors,” Spears points out. “You get what you give.”
Even so, Bonneville’s most difficult task in Puerto Rico these days is finding sufficient work to grow in a shrinking economy.
“The island economy has shrunk 25% in the last 10 years and we have a sustained growth record of 2%. We celebrate that growth, but compared to States-side integrators, we are not setting the world on fire. Our growth is humble as it is the direct result of expanding our footprint and constant diversification of product offerings.”
Bonneville’s main office/hub is Puerto Rico, but the company has satellite offices in St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. For 30+ years, this region supplied them with sufficient work to survive and thrive. But presently there are plans to open a satellite office in Florida, and the firm has performed consulting work in Jamaica, Trinidad and other islands.
Due to the ongoing recession in Puerto Rico, it’s a focus to expand the footprint further into other islands in both broadband and security. Despite all the challenges and adjustments, Spears never gave up. What has he learned over the course of the journey?
“The most important cultural adjustment for me is, ‘He who hurries in the islands, hurries alone.’ The pace of progress in individual island cultures is what it is. An outsider is not going to change it. You must change and adapt to them. So go with the flow and do not fight city hall. Blending yourself into their systems is primary to your success and psychological well-being. As an outsider wherever, you must be patient, positive, pleasant and inoffensively persistent. People with superiority complexes and attitudes are unwelcome everywhere.”
Through the years, Spears has done much to advance not just security and technology but to enhance the quality of life and build relationships throughout the island communities his company has served. It was all brought about by this pioneer’s willingness to make changes in latitudes as well as attitudes.
Erin Harrington has 20+ years of editorial, marketing and PR experience within the security industry. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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