Over the course of 50 years in business a lot can happen. In the case of Kurt Canova and Tech Electronics, many of those years have been successful, but that success hasn’t been achieved without a few issues in need of fixing.
Canova’s father started Tech Electronics, an independent provider and integrator of commercial communications systems, in 1963.
“The vision back then was a one-stop shop,” says Canova, who is the company’s president. “We used to call ourselves a total communication system. Today we see that concept evolved into a systems integrator, and Tech has become a technology services organization that concentrates in business communication systems.”
Tech Electronics’ primary product lines are fire alarm, security, voice, data, sound and audiovisual. The company serves the health care, education, commercial and industrial markets, and has seen growth in recent years.
“The last three years have been particularly exciting because we’ve been able to go from two office locations to six office locations and become a strong regional service organization,” Canova says.
Despite Tech Electronics’ longevity, celebrating 50 years in 2013, the company has had to overcome its share of challenges to get to the position it’s in today.
“We were growing as a company, but our systems weren’t keeping up,” Canova says. “Your internal systems have to be able to keep up with the growth and the timeline expectations of customers.”
The 250-employee, more than $45 million company wasn’t growing in an efficient manner. Canova had to make some necessary changes within Tech Electronics to ensure the company would survive for the next 50 years and beyond.
Here’s how he has helped Tech Electronics grow more efficiently.
Identify weak points
When you’re trying to grow but there are issues within your business, it is imperative that you do an assessment to understand what those issues are, why they’re happening and how you can fix them.
“One of the things my dad used to tell me was the phrase, ‘Growth without efficiency is counterproductive,’” Canova says. “Growth is a great thing, but it’s only if you can still provide quality, because that’s your reputation as a company. Once you start losing that, you’ve lost everything.”
Tech Electronics had started to see customer complaints in several areas of the business.
“That’s when we had to take a step back and do a self-assessment,” he says. “Nobody likes to hear about the bad things, especially because at that time one of the core things that led us to success was quality, and we were starting to see degradation. That’s one of the hardest pills to swallow when you see performance is lacking.”
As a leader you have to ask why performance is lacking and then keep slicing that down to get to the root cause. Sometimes that’s a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
“Once you get to that answer, are you willing to do something about it?” Canova says. “You have to have the pulse of what’s going on in the business, and you have to have a management team that can look at itself and say, ‘Hey, we have to fix this. Even if it means we’re going to stall our growth, this is more important.’”
Fixing the problem
Stalling the company’s growth is exactly what Canova and Tech Electronics had to do. For two years the company focused on updating its ERP (enterprise resource planning) system and implementing process improvement.
“The first thing we had to do was implement much stronger internal systems, which was an ERP system for us,” Canova says. “Now we were able to do the full integration of all of our different departments. That was a big challenge for all the employees, because they basically had to relearn their jobs.”
That whole integration process took about three years to settle down.
“Coming out of that three years we were ready,” he says. “We were poised as a company. Originally we were going from work order generation to invoicing, which could take us up to 60 days and shrunk it down to two weeks. Today, we can generate a service work order to invoicing in one day. Our systems no longer limit us. Now it’s just a matter of getting our employees to drive continuous improvement.”
The ERP system got Tech Electronics to think differently. One of the things Tech Electronics did was create new departments, including an organizational development department that concentrates purely on the internal employee.
“They’re constantly determining what we need to do,” he says. “What are our barriers, obstacles or new ideas? When you’re looking at growth, you have to first have a mechanism to fuel that growth. Adding organizational development and getting the employees engaged in that gave us an internal engine to fuel growth.”
Now the challenge became continuing the company’s growth.
“We had to go to other cities in order for us to grow as a company,” Canova says. “Over the course of the last three years we have made two acquisitions, but we had to get to that point first.”
Tech Electronics had to become financially stable, so it put together a financial plan, built-up cash reserves and then put together a specific plan for where the company wanted to go. The company eventually pulled the trigger on those acquisitions and in the last year and a half it has been working diligently on integrating them.
“You have to take a look at what you want to accomplish, develop plans to accomplish that and then you have to have the discipline to stay with it to execute,” he says.
Plan for future growth
To grow outside of your current market, as Tech Electronics wanted to do, you have to have a plan for how you want to do it.
“We do six days of strategic planning every year in which we bring the management team together,” Canova says. “We have a facilitator that we use to help tee-up topics to give us advice. We also reach out to advisers a lot. We rely on other people to help us out in order to make the best decision.
“Again, it’s all about self-assessment and that’s where the outside perspective can give you advice or tell you something you’re not aware of.”
When Tech Electronics went through its acquisition, the company had to determine how it was going to make it successful.
“You can’t be individuals in a company when you’re going through strategic planning or making business decisions,” Canova says. “Eventually everybody in the management team has to agree on the priorities and the things that will make the company the most successful.”
Tech Electronics has been successful at mapping out a good plan. The hardest thing for most employees to understand, however, is that acquisitions take time.
“It takes a while to find businesses that are even potential prospects and prospects that you want,” he says. “Then to complete the acquisition takes time and when it happens everyone has to be ready to go.
“We still had to go through a planning process as if we weren’t going to make an acquisition that year, but then be prepared if we did. That was hard, because you never know when an acquisition is going to occur. It took us three years from the time we started looking at doing the acquisition to the time we did our first one.”
Making an acquisition successful relies on a good planning process, ensuring that you bring appropriate team members into that process and creating buy-in and support.
“You can’t go around and get buy-in after things are happening,” he says. “We always had good open communications as to where we were at. At the beginning of our planning process not everyone is in agreement, but when we’re done, everybody is on board.”
A critical part of growing your business through acquisition is to understand how that acquisition will benefit your business and how your business will benefit the acquisition.
“We weren’t looking at a strategic acquisition to bring us into different services,” he says. “Ours was strictly about expanding into new cities for growth within existing product lines.
“We have a very specific sales and marketing strategy that we feel can be successful in any city. Our criteria as a service organization was to stay within the Midwest — it had to be 400 miles within St. Louis so we could provide necessary support.”
The other key to Tech Electronics’ acquisition plan was to expand within the company’s top-three manufacturers — Notifier, Lenel and Mitel.
“We wanted to ensure that the company we took over aligned to our strengths,” Canova says. “Once we have strengths to build off of then we can easily expand from there. It was all about making sure there were synergies in product lines and within a 400-mile radius of St. Louis.”
Whether it has been growing with efficiency or developing the next strategic plan for the company, a lot of that success has to do with the principles Canova’s father instilled into the company.
“The companies that endure are the ones with strong principles in how they conduct business,” Canova says. “Hitting that 50-year mark is a key benchmark in business that shows endurance and the ability to sustain those principles. It says we have great people that know how to take good care of our customers and our customers have shown their appreciation with repeat business.”
How to reach: Tech Electronics, (314) 645-6200 or www.techelectronics.com
Identify what problems are slowing your business down.
Fix the issues, even if you have to stall growth temporarily.
Focus on growth opportunities via strategic planning.
The Canova File
Born: St. Louis
Education: He went to the University of Dayton and received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a minor in business management.
What was your first job and what did you take away from that experience?
My first job, since my dad was the founder, was working here at Tech. I just worked around the facility sweeping, painting and doing maintenance. Then I worked in the warehouse. As I got older I started working out in the field with technicians on system instillations. I have done just about every position in the company, and I was glad to do that because as the president now it has given me a much greater perspective of what it takes to run the business from the ground up.
Who do you admire in business?
My mentor has always been my father. I learned principles and a way of doing business from my father. He taught me how to run a business.
What are you most proud of at Tech Electronics?
The thing that makes me most proud about our company is our people. They’re just phenomenal in their ability to adapt to the changes in technology. They have a commitment to our customers and truly want to take good care of our customers.
Who is one person you have always wanted to have a conversation with, whether they’re from the past or present?
Abraham Lincoln, because of all he had to deal with and how he overcame it. I’m always in awe of some of the things our country’s historical figures accomplished.