If you’re already one of the hundreds of small to medium-sized businesses across nine States who rests easy knowing that your IT department is in the hands of St. Louis-based Forward Slash Technology then you won’t at all be surprised by what company president Monte Hickey told Spotlight on Business in early July: “We have a very aggressive growth strategy over the next 24 months,” he said with unwavering determination and enthusiasm in his voice. “We’ve really built-up our central infrastructure over these last five years with our local and regional efforts and it’s time to take our product line national. Our clients are so well-looked after and a lot of them are like friends and they’re encouraging us to go for it.” Hickey’s resolve rests on two factors: he knows Forward Slash is “a better investment” and he and his managing partner Matt Blank recently brought in IT specialist and boss man extraordinaire Jerry Driskill to fill the role of CEO. “Jerry’s sitting at my old desk now,” Monte continued. “He’s going to run the day-to-day around here moving forward while Matt and I will continue to build us out regionally and nationally. We have something here that is instantly expandable; we can expand right now by 10 by just adding people to our new help desk. The infrastructure is all there.” The ever-growing infrastructure he’s referring to has already made it possible for small and medium-sized businesses throughout the Midwest and beyond to outsource their IT and benefit from the same supports and services and performance levels that corporate power players take for granted. Monte, Matt, and Jerry spoke with me by way of conference call from their St. Louis headquarters.
Before we hit the ground running towards your exciting future as a company, let’s hear a little about the road that got you gentlemen to where you are today.
MH: I was one of those kids in the ‘80s in fifth grade and sixth grade working on Fortran and Trash-80s as a programmer, building programs to throw images to the screen. Ocean Pacific was a big marketing logo back then – I’m sure a lot of people out there remember Ocean Pacific, OP – and we would make the sailboats and stuff appear on the screen, and that was a big feat, just by putting in code. From that point I knew I wanted a career in technology so out of high school I went to study to become a programmer. I was writing COBOL and BASIC and C++ and Visual Basic and then realized that kind of spun off into database administration and management. From there I got my first job at a large local financial institution that ended up becoming US Bank. I worked with them as a senior systems manager through the ‘90s into early 2000s and stayed on throughout all of the acquisitions and mergers. They wanted me to go with them to Minneapolis, but I wanted to stay local and become a consultant. From there I became a director of a managed services organization and that’s how I met my managing partner here at Forward Slash, Matt.
MB: It’s a similar story for me. Computers came out when I was in grade school and I have really been working on them ever since. I took it from a different perspective, though. I was more interested in electronics and connecting things together and making them work so I always had home computers from the time the first PCs came out, like the old 80-86s. I was one of the only kids my age back then who had a computer in their room that was their own. I worked with computers all through grade school, in high school I took programming classes and I became really interested in networking, connecting different systems together, and moving data. I didn’t quite finish college but my studies there were IT-related. My first job was IT-related, too, at a payroll company. I managed all the PCs and printers they used for creating those payroll reports and paychecks and I haven’t looked back. I’m genuinely interested in how things connect, solving the problems of connectivity between sites when they occur, and things like that. So you could say that my background is more engineering from the network side, security and connecting devices, that sort of thing.
JD: I think a great comparison for these guys is the show Young Sheldon. You know the scene where he’s standing dazed in Radio Shack in front of the shelf of computers salivating – that was these two.
MH: [Chuckling] That’s accurate. You should also know that Matt and I are 11 days apart in the year, so the 80-86 that he’s working on is the same thing I called the ‘Trash 80s’ back then, the Texas Instruments ones. Like he said, he was approaching everything from a different angle; we both had the same computers in our rooms at the same time and developed two different philosophies of technology – and eventually ended up in the same area.
I can’t imagine a more balanced IT business model. You must have been confident coming out of the gate.
MH: Well, we started on April Fool’s Day in 2011, which I’ve always found funny. But we knew that we were building a business that was about serving clients with their interest at heart. Matt’s an engineer and I’m a programmer but our ideologies and methodologies are the same: we both believe in managing technology from the business perspective first, technology second. That means having a real grasp of how departments within a given business collaborate. Rather than sports memorabilia in my office I have two pictures of bridges as a constant reminder that we’re trying to build relationships at every level of what we do at Forward Slash. We have very close relationships with our clients.
We really take technology very seriously. I become a virtual CIO to all of our clients. I get into their budget processes and here’s an example: we have a client right now that has multiple locations and now they’re moving to a new location in Nebraska. We will be part of that conversation before they even get started. We are at that level with our clients that we are their IT department. We truly work out their problems at all levels, not just the technological stuff. They don’t just tell us, “Hey, this is our existing infrastructure and here’s what we think we need moving forward.” We actually go in, assess, and propose and recommend. We’re a part of the budget process completely.
I understand that Forward Slash provides IT services for The City of Perryville, Missouri whose municipal council recently spoke with Spotlight on Business.
MB: They’re a good example of where we are different than other IT providers. They are a city and within the city they essentially have different little companies. They have a public works division, a parks department, they manage the airport there, they have City Hall, administration, the library, the police department, and we were able to come together, assess their current needs and their current solutions and really find ways to be able to look at the bigger picture. We looked at it all from an economy of scale angle and employed systems in a way that’s best for everyone. So, instead of the parks department paying one group to manage IT and the library another and City Hall another, we took over everything and connected everything. Now, communication across the board is improved.
Because we approach things from the big picture perspective, as Monte said, we can really give our clients a one, two, or three-year plan. That’s what we did in Perryville. We gave a full assessment on how we could connect the different departments together and how we planned to leverage that connectivity. We detailed how we were going to provide things like a phone system, a unified email system, and unified active directories. We also outlined how we’d be able to provide that same level of connectivity for tenants of all their municipal offices and manage their overall IT connectivity, their internet connectivity, their wireless, and extend their fiber. We were even able to help them with the TVs in their council room and with projecting images from their laptops. All of those things where you might have to go with different vendors and maybe not get a cohesive solution, we’re a one-stop shop for all of it. I think that is what makes us stand out from the other providers.
We were also able to deal with the challenges they were having at the airport.
Matt, you just mentioned the projections you’re able to provide your clients be it two or three years down the road. This in itself must make Forward Slash the leading choice for a lot of small and medium-sized businesses not only in their formative stages but when they’re planning expansions or restructuring.
MH: So, it’s very funny that you say that, David. The one-year, three-year, and five-year perspectives we conduct are invaluable to our clients – they see the value in it right away and down the road.
There’s another city council we’ve represented for eight years now – we actually had them before we even started the company – and they followed recommendations all the way through to our five-year perspective on their shoestring budget. Eighteen months ago I actually visited with that city council and we did a bit of a history lesson with them and showed them the outcome of our recommendations. They weren’t only impressed with the savings, which was significant, but also with the energy we brought with us and infused in and between their departments. Now we are upgrading their council room for some new needs of theirs that have come up like electronic locks. We do a lot of cross-platform work and have a much more extensive product line than most of our competitors. Everything we install interacts directly with a central system. It’s all about creating silos of technology that all feed into the main network with just one cable from each silo. All of the cameras we install are the same technology, all of the printers, the phone systems. Our forward-thinking approach, our belief in the necessity of a core infrastructure, comes from a business perspective. We know our clients want a complete IT system that supports their long-term growth without having to add to it every other month – we get why that’s important.
We were able to tell that city council that we never really broke budget. Our five-year projections right on par.
I’m interested – and I’m sure the readers are interested – to know about the company culture at Forward Slash. IT companies have a reputation for unconventional work environments. Is that true in this instance?
MB: We work hard, and we play hard, you could say that. We are kind of a Google environment. We have shuffleboard in the office. We barbeque almost daily and provide catered lunches. And there are fish fries on Fridays. We have a full-staff kitchen. When you get hired we ask you what you like to eat, what you like to drink and that’s because they’re working so much, they’re in their office so much that we try to make everyone feel at home as much as we can. We’re big on keeping the place stocked with whatever sodas or teas or coffee people want – we try to accommodate. We also do a lot of IT for craft breweries, too, so we’ve learned to brew our own beer – it’s a part of team building.
Your commitment to your community in St. Louis is truly something to admire. Can you please tell the readers why giving back is so important to company culture at Forward Slash?
MH: We are huge non-profit supporters. We’re currently actively supporting seven non-profits to the extent that I personally put on parties and hold wine tastings at my house. For example, once a year we host golf tournaments to support Angel Farms and The Center for Head Injury Services here in Missouri. We’re also the largest sponsor of Coordinated Human Services for Nurses for Newborns. We donated a whole network infrastructure to them and did all of their website development all pro bono. I’m very proud of a lot of the work we’ve been up to with Angel Farms these days, too. We took on a program for kids who are aging out foster care who need help moving onto the next stage of their lives. It offers avenues to employment and education – it’s called JumpStart. We’ve actually started a co-op program with JumpStart that provides a six-month internship with us. Positions range from the help desk to working with engineers to telecommunications to docking. We also take advantage of how diverse our clientele is. Sometimes a kid has a particular need to meet requirements for scholarships and things like that, so we reach out in the community using our connections and see what internships are out there.
We’re also building our own programs here at the office. We’ve been going to nursing homes and community events to play music at Christmas time, for example.
What about day-to-day challenges in the IT industry? What else do you want prospective clients to know about your proactive approach?
MB: I think that if you were going to identify one particular challenge as our biggest challenge it would be that technology changes every 45 minutes. We are always on top of that, new technology I mean, and we’re aware of new threats. We are always working to mitigate the risk provided by those threats and one of the things that we do when we are selecting products and partners is to ensure that we’re working only with partners that have a good track record. It’s all about doing your homework. We put in a lot of work ahead of time so that we’re in a good position to respond when things quickly change.
JD: We are of course dealing with people’s equipment that has all of their data and information in it. Making sure that they feel comfortable knowing that what they have saved is truly saved and they can find it when they need it is what it’s all about.
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By David MacDonald