Compudyne turns 20

Tom Vidovic couldn't have been laid off at a better time. "I had the security blanket pulled up around my neck," Vidovic said of his job as office manager for Hibbing Public Utilities, before founding Compudyne. The job loss created the opportuni...

Tom Vidovic couldn't have been laid off at a better time.

"I had the security blanket pulled up around my neck," Vidovic said of his job as office manager for Hibbing Public Utilities, before founding Compudyne.

The job loss created the opportunity to scratch an entrepreneurial itch he'd had for years.

He launched Compudyne in the summer of 1988 just as businesses in Hibbing began using computers, and therefore needed a guy like Vidovic to do programming, add memory and replace broken parts.

"Pretty much anything I could do to make a buck," Vidovic said.


The business has grown and changed through the past two decades, mirroring the shifts in the information technology industry.

It used to be just Vidovic servicing a few Hibbing clients. In 1991, Mark Baron came on board as a co-owner and as president focusin on client relations. Now 39 employees service 350 clients throughout northern Minnesota -- a variety of small and medium-sizedcompanies, private and public, such as the Hermantown school district, the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids and Moline Machinery in Duluth. Once businesses began seeing the value in not just having a computer or two, but a series of them working on one system, networking became the company's focus.

On the heels of that in the mid to late 1990s came the Internet, e-mail, spam and viruses.

"Our business became a lot more about security," said Brad Schow, general manger at Compudyne.

The biggest change to date, however, surfaced within the past couple of years.


Increasingly, Compudyne and information technology companies like it are working more from their offices instead of on-site, a far more efficient model.

Only about 20 percent of its business was done remotely three years ago, and now it's 75 percent, Schow said, because the tools are in place to make that work possible from any location.


The growth is in its EDGE line of products, for which businesses pay Compudyne a monthly fee to monitor their computers and fix problems, instead of paying per visit.

When Microsoft came out with a fix for a virus, for example, until a few years ago, technicians would have to burn days driving to businesses all over northern Minnesota, installing the patches on each machine.

Now, one Compudyne employee can install the patch on all the company's clients' computers simultaneously, with a few mouse clicks, said Jon Heyesen, director of technical services for Compudyne.

And if someone is having a problem with a computer, with printing, for example, the user can click on an on-screen icon and fill out a brief report or call.

Brian Redshaw, Hibbing's city administrator, did that recently when he was having trouble installing a new printer.

"I didn't have to touch anything," he said, as the cursor guided by a Compudyne employee installed the printer. "The mouse moves and everything. It's kind of surreal," he said.

The new system also allows Compudyne technicians to keep tabs on and remotely fix many computer-related issues before they become problems, like being alerted when a computer at a client's office is close to needing more memory.

"We're doing a lot more work for our customers than in the past," Schow said. "We're not out driving around as much, but we have more work," he said, because more businesses are more willing to sign onto this regular service instead of just paying for the occasional breakdown.


To handle that growth, the company went on its biggest hiring binge to date, adding 17 people over the past two years. Its 39 employees are spread out: to Duluth, 28; Hibbing, 9; Marquette, Mich., one; and Minneapolis, one.

Because the work can be done remotely, it also allows the company to have a customer base beyond northern Minnesota, though Compudyne intends to stick nearly exclusively to the area.

Some larger computer companies, however, like Dell, see the potential of doing work remotely as a way to siphon off some business from smaller competitors like Compudyne, Schow said.

But Compudyne's officials don't anticipate losing much to the large companies operating from far-off locales.

Despite the innovations, what they're selling are relationships with customers, something large companies elsewhere can't replicate, Schow said.

Which is why while Compudyne monitors Hibbing's computers remotely, a technician also stops by once a week to do on-site work. And when Redshaw encountered a problem last week, a technician stopped by.

"A lot of smaller businesses and governments need IT staff, and we can't afford to pay the salaries that are needed to afford those people," he said, which is why he said city officials have been so pleased with Compudyne.

And even though efforts to operate remotely account for the bulk of new employee growth, well beyond half the company's revenue still comes from selling products and services, such as installing a wireless network in a warehouse so each skid loader's computer can be linked up with a system.


This kind of work is often done in part by the staff of six people the company hired on when it bought Superior Broadband Wireless, an Internet service provider, in November 2007.

The company also is one of a handful in the nation that routinely tests new products for Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, and is the virtual house for many Arrowhead businesses.

Vidovic, meanwhile, said isn't surprised by his company's growth, either.

The future

When starting his company, Vidovic hoped to have 75 employees within 10 years.

But he's happy with the 39 he has today.

"The growth has been very steady and very manageable," he said.

The industry's future looks bright, say many in the field.


Vidovic said his company anticipates riding the wave of growth, with the mining expansions anticipated for the Iron Range as well.

PATRICK GARMOE can be reached at (218) 723-5229 or .

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