From Managing 1’s and 0’s to Managing a Growth Engine

To succeed as an entrepreneur, Tom Salonek shifted, and narrowed, his focus.

By By Dan Emerson

In 1997, Tom Salonek and Intertech, the IT training and consulting firm he founded six years earlier, faced a major challenge. After a management change at Intertech's largest customer-representing about half of Intertech's business-the customer's new management regime "fired" Intertech. To survive, "we were forced to prospect, cold-call and sell ourselves very hard,"  Salonek recalls. Eagan-based Intertech emerged from that trial a much stronger company, with a larger, much more diverse client base. "Today, we have hundreds of clients and no one client dominates our revenue," Salonek says.

In spite of the sluggish economy, Intertech expects to end this year with sales exceeding $10 million, its best performance ever. The company has developed a national profile as a respected trainer of IT professionals, with major clients such as NASA. And, Intertech has been included twice in INC. magazine's annual top 500 growth companies and several times in Inc's top 5,000 growth companies.

Focus on Business

Another key decision Salonek made not long after founding Intertech in 1991 helped lay the foundation for its subsequent growth. A computer science major at the University of St. Thomas, Salonek relished the intellectual challenges involved in hands-on programming-turning lines of 1's and 0's into functional software applications. But he realized early that building a successful tech company is about much more than technology. 

As his company grew beyond the start-up stage when he was a "do-everything" leader, Salonek knew he would either have to focus on the technology or on the business aspects of running the business. He chose the latter and took steps to bolster his management skills through executive education at the Harvard School of Business and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Writing code also taught him lessons that would serve him well as a company leader. "One thing I learned as a coder was that persistence beats resistance. If I had a particularly difficult problem that I was trying to solve, my dedication and focus on solving the problem was as-or more- important than my core 'smarts' as a coder. In business, this is definitely the case."

Fueling Growth

To help fuel Intertech's growth, hosting user groups has been an important marketing tactic. The company started popular user groups for two of the most widely used software applications, Java and Azure. The Java user group reaches a national audience, through live simulcasting of events. And Intertech's trainers often write the training guides used by other tech-training companies, and also courseware for Microsoft. 

Intertech was also quick to take advantage of virtual training. Nearly half of its training courses are provided virtually, and students across the United States can remotely log onto the learning lab computers, rather than needing to configure their own computers for courses. 

Another reason for the company's success, Salonek believes, has been its focus on retaining tech talent. Salary is not the only key factor, Salonek says; more important are recognizing each employee's contributions, and also providing them with steady challenges, he contends. "Service professionals are drawn to challenges. One way to make a solid person leave your firm is to give them a rote task without any deadline."

Never forget that any company's most important asset is its people, Salonek says.

"An early book I read on coding, called Decline and Fall of the American Programmer by Ed Yourdon, stated that the difference between a poor or a just good programmer and a great programmer is a factor of 8 to 10X. From salespeople to our consultants/instructors, this is something I've definitely seen: A smaller team of exceptional folks can out-produce a large team of average folks." mb


Giving Back
One of the most satisfying aspects of success is the ability to share the fruits of that success with others. Intertech President Tom Salonek does that through the Intertech Foundation. Salonek launched the nonprofit in 2003 to provide financial support to families with critically ill children. 

The foundation's primary partner is the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Upper Midwest. Intertech employees volunteer there, and Intertech has so far donated $130,000 to the foundation, which provides grants to families in need for a variety of purposes. The foundation also helps finance improvements to the Ronald McDonald House. 

"Having the foundation has helped to give us a focus and direction," says Salonek. "We feel we are helping the families. And, doing the volunteer events gives everyone a sense of perspective."

In his new book, Building a Winning Business, Intertech founder Tom Salonek describes in 70 short chapters the principles underlying his IT business success. He said he began writing it as "an internal resource to show people how we do things here. As I got into the process, I realized that much of what I was talking about applied not just to us but to all kinds of new businesses with project teams."


A few tips from the book:

» "Avoid hasty hires. _ Employees hired in a hurry rarely make a good fit."

» "Make sure everyone in your organization has the chance, at least once a year, to tell management his/her ideas." 

» "To keep employees motivated, provide challenging work that is important." 

» "Provide a clear assessment of an employee's performance by making expectations unambiguous and measurable." 

» "A company's purpose should be clear and unchanging." 

» "Effective companies make a conscious effort to identify values, asking employees to be part of the process." 

» "Find creative ways to recognize and reward employees who embody your company values." 

» "Tying compensation to outcomes gives everyone a stake in successful business performance." 

» "Work most effectively by following-and continuously improving-the work process."