The Fixers

Posted on Aug 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Peter Helander, principal owner and CEO, Heartland Business Systems

Peter Helander thrives when faced with a problem.

His passion for finding solutions was evident even in the early stages of his career, when he worked on the mathematical and economic computer modeling that became a cornerstone of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Later, as an economist for Archer Daniels Midland, he created econometric models that helped the agribusiness giant meet its production goals while controlling costs. From rain to soil to the type of seeds available, his work gave the company insight into what, where and when to plant, as well as what yields could be expected.

His most rewarding solution – at least on a professional level – may have come in the early 1990s. Back in Wisconsin to attend to family matters, Helander needed to find a job to pay the bills. It was his work then in computer programming and sales that sowed the seeds for what is now Heartland Business Systems.

Now, he is the principal owner and chief executive officer. The company reflects Helander’s problem-solving approach.

“We are not a PC company,” Helander says. “We are an IT company that provides solutions. We are in the business of delivering technology to our customers. At the end of the day, it has to have value for them and fit into their budget.”
That approach seems to be paying off.

The economy may officially be in a recession, but Heartland is thriving. While technology spending has waned as companies tighten their belts and put off projects, Heartland has been able to not only keep its existing clients, but is on pace to meet its projection of double-digit growth for the year.

“Every one of our outside sales guys is up for the year,” says Brad Hansen, president and chief operating officer for Heartland, who joined Heartland this past year.

“It’s not just one or two guys, but all 20 of them,” Hansen says. “Now is the time that our customers need solutions. There may not be new capital spending like there was, but people are sitting on older equipment and saying to us ‘Can you make it work?’”

Making it work is what keeps small businesses like RLJ Dental in Menasha in Heartland’s orbit. The dental office – part of a seven office group – recently integrated digital X-rays into its office and operatory computer system. Now, dentists can call up an X-ray in operatory in the office.

Heartland’s ability to perform the integration is one of the reasons the practice has relied on the company’s ability to deliver, says Karen Lang, the office manager at the Menasha clinic.

“We love them. We can call them on their cell phone and they are there for you,” Lang says. “The techs are just great. They will dial into the system and take care of problems as soon as we call. They are really with it.”

It is the small and medium businesses like RLJ Dental that play a large part in Heartland’s continued success, says Helander. The big projects from big companies may have dried up for now, but many small-and medium- sized companies are still seeking solutions to remain competitive.

“They look to us as a partner and we have seen sales there increase,” he says.

In fact, recessionary times don’t seem to bother the folks at Heartland. The company was born in the recession of the early 1990s, and during the 2000 recession it began to acquire competing companies that were struggling.

The product mix may have changed, but Heartland’s services are still in demand.

“We are plotters, if you will,” Helander says. “Heartland has to be able to turn on a dime and have the assets to do so.”

Heartland’s roots date back to 1990 to provide packaging labels to the grocery industry. Around the same time, its owner created Alferi Communications, which is where Helander entered the equation, having just returned to Wisconsin.

In 1992, the two companies merged and moved to the present location along Hwy. 41 in Little Chute. While the labeling division was the stalwart of the early years, the demand for the company’s technology expertise continued to grow. That led to the creation of Heartland Business Systems.

When Internet technology burst into the private sector in the 1990s, Heartland’s growth exploded.

In 2004, the company added its third division, Avastone Technologies, which is focused on custom programming, Web development and other related services.

From its start in the grocery industry, the company now touches business ranging from health care to education. Already Heartland is making plans to take those companies into the future, through its secure data centers, which allow customers to increase access to their data without having to install their own infrastructure.

“Mobility is a big component of IT today,” says Greg Huza, a Heartland enterprise system consultant who specializes in the education sector. “We want to provide the information when they need it. Rather than building their own infrastructure, it may be more economical for a company to rent it.”

By leveraging the assets already in place at Heartland, many small- and medium-sized businesses can not only reduce their capital costs – no need to install servers or cabling – but they can reduce operational costs by reducing their power consumption.

“We like to help solve those kinds of problems,” Hansen says. “It’s a different way to look at being a company repairman.”

A lot has changed since the company’s start in labels.

When the company started, cell phones were the size of a small brick and the Internet was largely a research and military tool. Now, there are cell phones with the computing power of PCs and companies that want to leverage those resources to stay competitive.

For Heartland, that has meant remaining ever vigilant about the change of pace in the business culture.

“The Internet has changed the way businesses do business,” Helander says. “They are not building brick and mortar anymore. There is not always a business model to follow. We have to be ready to change with that.”

Helander uses the example of e-mail. As a technology, it’s pretty basic, but the impact it had on business communication and the ability to send information changed the business dynamic, Helander says. Now, people have portable devices that allow them to receive and send from anywhere, and in many cases they are expected to do so.

Prior to e-mail, it was PC-based accounting programs, which liberated small- and medium-sized businesses to be more productive, Helander says.

Now, voice over IP and the merger of voice, data and video are changing the dynamic of the workplace, Helander says.

It also means plenty of opportunities to come up with solutions to help clients tap into the new technologies to keep their businesses competitive.

“A lot of our competitors sell just one thing,” says Doug Westemeier, vice president for sales who joined Heartland in the 1990s and specializes in medical and dental software. “We listen to what they need and design a system to solve the problem. They need a company who will look out for their ROI.”

That’s where the company’s data center comes into play.

What clients want is a system that allows access to data, voice and e-mail from a single device. But it can also be cost prohibitive for a small- to medium-sized business to build that kind of infrastructure and provide the security and redundancy required.

“Mobility is a big component of IT today,” says Huza. “Most environments now are not a desktop. It creates a lot of challenges for security and power to have it on-demand all the time. That’s going to drive a lot of growth for us.”

Westemeier says the push for completely electronic medical records provides a good example of how the data center can help clients.

What the doctor and staff will need is the ability to access and view those records from a portable device as well as in-room monitors. That will require powerful servers, infrastructure, increased power consumption, security and off-site backup – a pretty expensive venture for a single clinic or small group of clinics, Westemeier says.

But, Heartland already has the infrastructure in place, as well as security and off-site backup. By using the data center, the medical staff of a clinic can get secure access to patient medical records without having to increase its capital budget. In fact, they may see costs for power go down, since they will not have to install and operate the hardware to make such a system possible.

“We can host it, lock it down and back it up for them,” Westemeier says. “If something catastrophic happens, we can have them back up in an hour. They don’t have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it happen.”

People are what really make it happen for Heartland.

With the focus on solutions more than hardware, Heartland staffs a wide variety of professions, ranging from programmers to engineers to project managers. Highly educated to start with, the company also invests substantially in ongoing education for its employees to keep them abreast of current trends in technology, Helander says.

Indeed, the “walls of fame” inside the company’s building in Little Chute are covered with plaques and certificates signifying the continuing education efforts of Heartland Employees.

To Helander, finding enough of the right people to keep the company growing is one of his biggest challenges he faces as CEO.

“Labor is 90 percent of any problem we face,” he says. “If I can get the best folks to come work here, then the business piece takes care of itself.”

In addition to its ongoing professional education efforts, the company has hired its own internal recruiter to help find qualified employees to fill its vacancies. Yes, even in the midst of the massive layoffs in the current recession, Heartland is seeking professionals ranging from software developers to system engineers.

The open positions are attributable to growth, says Westemeier, adding the recruiting effort is a constant for top managers within the company.

“We are out there talking to people and doing whatever it takes,” he says. “We have several techs here that we have met just being out and about somewhere.”

The company’s efforts seem to work. They are not only attracting talent regionally, but nationally and even internationally as well. An engineer from the World Health Organization in Switzerland recently joined the staff. Turnover is also minimal, says Hansen.

“We compensate them. We educate them and we challenge them,” Hansen says. “When what you are selling is intelligence, it’s even more critical that we get it right.”

They certainly seem to be doing that.

In June, the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce recognized the company with its 2009 Growth Award, which recognizes small businesses that have seen growth in sales, service and employees while having been under the same management for at least three years.

No one seems content to stop there. Heartland’s goal for its next three years is to double its revenues, according to the company profile information submitted for the Growth Award.

Despite the rapidly changing environment, the leadership at Heartland fully expects to realize that goal.

“If the changes frustrate you, then you are in the wrong business,” Westemeier says. “I love that we have the capability at Heartland to do these things. We need to always stay ahead of our competition.”

For Helander, future success is a matter of attracting the right people and giving them the tools they need to do the job. The rest seems to take are itself, he says.

“I love the business,” Helander says. “The greatest joy I have is to work with the people here and watch them develop. My goal is to set the professionals here up for success. By and large, the people here are pretty smart and they make the business grow.”