Wise Men Lead the Northland Controls Star
Northland Controls chief executives discuss how the company has managed growth and security technology.
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An argument could be made that the only thing more brilliant than Silicon Valley’s high-tech masterminds is those responsible for safeguarding their facilities and streamlining their operations. Delivering solutions on that level requires a rarified caliber of expertise, precision and professionalism to meet the global business needs and earn the sacrosanct trust of the Googles, Apples and Facebooks of the world. Meet Northland Controls, the uniquely skilled security systems integrator that thrives in this specialized and demanding niche.
Headquartered in the closest East Bay city to Silicon Valley, Fremont, Calif.-based Northland Controls has cultivated a loyal following among high-tech firms, government agencies, hospitals and manufacturers – growing from $1.5 million in revenues and 10 employees in 2005 to a projected $44 million and 110 in 2015. With branch offices in Washington, D.C., London, Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan and another planned for Bengaluru (India), Northland offers a full range of leading-edge security integration systems and services as well as managed services through its state-of-the-art global security operations center.
Founded in 1982 as a security and fire alarm systems installer, the business underwent a metamorphosis after being acquired by Pierre Trapanese in 2005. A world traveler and Berkeley-educated engineer, CEO Trapanese assembled an outstanding team of security professionals and transformed Northland Controls into a true global service provider. Along with its high degree of technical aptitude, “no excuses” service mantra and total solutions approach, Northland’s organic-growth model is distinguished by focusing on negotiated business that often involves embedded personnel for a relative handful of multibillion-dollar clientele.
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Among those besides Trapanese due much credit for Northland’s success is President & COO Paul Thomas, who joined the company eight years ago after rising through the ranks with other firms from technician to executive management. In an exclusive interview, SSI pinned down these globetrotters for a wide-reaching discussion ranging from managed growth to managed services.
Paul, as a technician who moved on to the executive level, do you think that is a logical career path for people in the industry today? Does it make sense for an ambitious young person?
Paul Thomas: It was much easier back then for that to occur than it is today. I believe the industry in the early 1980s was very much in its infancy stage. A lot of people were just figuring things out. It was a lot more entrepreneurial back then. Most of the companies around then were a guy at his kitchen table, who graduated to having a small storefront office, and five or six guys. Then all of a sudden they grew to companies of 100 people. They did it with intestinal fortitude.
A lot of that today would be very difficult to replicate. Companies today are much more grown up. The industry has grown up. Many more people are going to college now than they were back then, as well. The opportunity to pick up skilled people in positions is just higher now. As much as I’d like to encourage technicians to be a technician and grow up to be the president of a company, I think that applies to just a small group of entrepreneurs. I’m not sure that’s the path today that people would choose to get there.
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What would you say is the best stepping stone today? Would it be sales?
Thomas: I think project manager certainly is a good way. That’s a very specific trade now, with very specific certifications and skillsets. Growing out of project manager into program manager, growing into general manager, growing into regional managers, I see that path happening quite a lot. Not just within our company, but within other companies, as well. Going from a technician to a project manager isn’t quite as simple as it used to be.
Also going from the engineering side of our business, through professional services, into management areas is a pretty natural path. Some engineers want to be engineers and love being engineers. Others want to look at the management side. Both of those are good areas that would help people move along: engineering and program management.
One of the things that makes Northland unique is its global reach and overseas locations. How and why did you grow that international footprint?
Pierre Trapanese: There’s three reasons. One is my background growing up. I grew up overseas most of my life. I’m very familiar with foreign culture because we always traveled as a family. I speak different languages. I love being able to be dropped into any country and figuring out my way out and about. There’s a personal passion for being a world citizen.
Then before taking over Northland, I was talking around the Bay area asking what’s missing. I was a consultant in the industry and I was surprised at how unhappy clients were with the level of integrators out there, or dissatisfied. On the projects I was working on, the top 5%, top 10% of the integrators always put their best foot forward. But apparently on other projects, it wasn’t there.
Talking to the director of security at Cisco, he let it slip that there’s no such thing as a global service provider. Those who claim to be global, really the left hand and right hand didn’t talk to each other. A branch office in Paris responding to a re-quest from a branch office in San Francisco really didn’t care about the $20,000 or $40,000 project that was being requested. They had their own monthly numbers to make. Also, just from a delay perspective, you have to go up six layers of permission. Then down six layers, then back up, and down. So the responsiveness wasn’t there. There were no global service providers. I thought it was somewhat of a no-brainer that there’s a demand out there, and a lot of value to if you integrate systems.
The other thing, being in Silicon Valley, our client base was growing so fast and was actually relatively young. They were figuring out their way on a global stage. They had a huge need for other people to understand and work in an environment that they needed to work in, and that was a worldwide basis. The third reason was client demand. They wanted us to be global.
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