C-Forward stays hot by avoiding dot-com niche

Tech consultant concentrates on educating client companies
Judi Ketteler
Courier Contributor

At the same time so many other Tri-State technology companies and dot-coms were losing momentum, Fort Thomas-based C-Forward continued to grow.

Since starting his company three years ago, C-Forward President Brent Cooper has grown the business from a one-man show to a staff of seven full-time employees, quadrupling his sales in that time.

Cooper, 33, likes to say he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but it`s clearly more than luck that has led his small technology consulting firm`s success.

Cooper attributes the company`s growth to the way C-Forward relates to the customer.

“I`m not a typical technology person,” he said. “And I surround myself with people who aren`t, either.”

He points to a popular “Saturday Night Live” skit about a mean, patronizing technology help-desk employee as an example of how people often view information technology professionals. C-Forward, he said, strives to be the opposite.

Cooper said he learned early on that when you are helping a company find a solution to a technology problem, it`s much better to educate and inform the company about the various options rather than to instruct and tell them what to do.

“Often, consulting firms really need to make money on the initial sale and installation. C-Forward doesn`t do that. We want to build a relationship with our customer,” Cooper said.

Cooper`s path to entrepreneurship actually began when he worked at a help desk as a temp after graduating from the University of Kentucky. The IT manager there encouraged him to make a career of it, and after working for a friend`s consulting firm, Cooper launched his own.

He received several technology certifications from companies like Novell and Citrix and became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. Cooper believes employee training and retention are cornerstones to building a strong business. Since beginning C-Forward, Cooper has spent more than $40,000 in employee training, with most employees having several certifications.

Once Cooper signs on a client with C-Forward, he sends the same technicians each time.

“Seeing the same people over and over again keeps the consistency,” he said, which is why it`s important to hold on to good employees.

Ninety-five percent of C-Forward`s business has been word of mouth, Cooper said. The company started with just two clients, and the list has now grown to around 80.

Cooper believes C-Forward was able to avoid the dot-com crunch when many tech-based companies started losing — rather than gaining — momentum because his clients come from a wide range of industries.

“C-Forward is not a dot-com. We do provide computer solutions, but more than that, we try to provide business solutions,” he said.

From the beginning, Cooper has targeted small businesses, since they are more likely to outsource technology needs.

Clients such as Kingsgate Transportation, Fath Properties, The Madison E-Zone and Esarey, Kirsch & Esarey have allowed C-Forward to expand their business.

The company has also focused on doing work for nonprofit companies in the area at reduced rates, such as the Children`s Home of Northern Kentucky and Tender Mercies.

Nicole Christian, vice president of business development for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, has been studying high-growth companies in Northern Kentucky.

She said companies that have sustained growth this year, despite a sluggish economy, have employed four strategies: networking, aggressive marketing, developing areas of specialty and adding staff. C-Forward, she said, shares all those characteristics.

“C-Forward has focused their services, which has probably helped them to grow during this time. And they`ve been able to identify companies that are still investing in technology,” Christian said.

Cooper plans to add additional full-time employees in 2003 as well. He`s excited about the new technology initiatives in Northern Kentucky and the New Economy focus.

“We`re positioning ourselves to be able to take advantage of the growth in the area,” he said.

Computer consulting firm touts its client relationsips

By Jenny Calison
Enquirer Contributor

COVINGTON – Although C-Forward prides itself on its technological sophistication, its operating credo is simple: Do what`s best for the customer.

Following that philosophy has enabled the young company to sustain healthy growth and high retention of customers.

The computer network consulting firm touts its record of continuing relationships with 99 percent of its customers and expanding its customer base almost exclusively through referrals.

When the firm was established in 1999, it had two clients; it now has about 100.

“Everything we`ve done has been long-term image, long-term investment,” founder Brent M. Cooper said.

Simply put, C-Forward helps small businesses use everyday computer software effectively. It serves as a network administrator for companies that don`t need a fulltime IT professional. It can enable different kinds of computers to work together on a network or remote location. And it can provide voice and data cabling, antispam and antivirus software, and wireless technology.

Cooper said this year has been exciting for the firm. It moved its offices from Fort Thomas to downtown Covington to help revitalize the city`s core and to be near the Madison E-Zone and other high-tech companies locating nearby.

The numbers look good. After first-year revenues of $180,000, C-Forward doubled its sales. With annual growth in subsequent years of 15 to 20 percent, the company is on track to reach sales of almost $1 million this year.

And within the last three months, C-Forward has garnered three different honors. This summer, it was one of two service category winners of the Northern Kentucky Chamber`s Small Business Success Awards (the other winner was Systems InSight, profiled Sept. 7). In September, C-Forward was named one of the chamber`s “Emerging 30” small businesses, based on its size and growth. And at about the same time, the Better Business Bureau said the company was one of 14 Tristate finalists for its Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics. The winner will be announced Oct. 23.

Being honored for consistent growth and other good numbers is great, sales manager Brant Puckett said, but the company prizes the BBB`s appraisal of its business practices.

“Our entire organization has worked hard to follow ethical guidelines in such a competitive market, and it is so nice to be recognized for our efforts,” he said. “We like to think that we`re not sitting across the table from our clients, we`re sitting next to them.”

The company hit some potholes in the early part of its journey. When Cooper launched C-Forward, he was its only employee. He invested about $10,000 in training the first person he hired, only to have the technician leave soon afterward. A software program he`d seen as a strong element of his consulting portfolio was discontinued. The company`s first vehicle was badly damaged in an accident, and the technician driving it was laid up for two weeks.

But there were some early successes as well.

“The first week I got a call from someone I`d never heard of,” Cooper said. “His company became a client and is still a client.”

That first hire was replaced by Scott Johnson, who is now technical support manager. As C-Forward`s workload has increased, so has its work force. In addition to Cooper and Puckett, the company now employs six people.

Puckett said Cooper`s ability to maintain a consistent staff has been important in keeping the company`s customer base.

“We`re in it for the long-term relationship,” he said. “If you have the same technician coming out time after time, it helps both the employee and the customer. The more you know the customer, the more you can do a better job of serving them.”

To keep his staff, Cooper has invested heavily in training and benefits. He has also established a collegial management style and invited employees` input on critical decisions. One such occasion was when the cost of C-Forward`s health-care plan increased 26 percent and Cooper decided to explore alternatives.

“Brent took three quotes from three different insurance companies, and we got to vote on which one we would like to select,” Puckett said. “We didn`t pick the cheapest one.”

When Cooper contemplated moving the operation to Covington, he asked his staff for their thoughts on the matter. The plans took into account several employee concerns. Because the payroll tax in Covington is twice what it is in Fort Thomas, Cooper adjusted each person`s salary so take-home pay wasn`t affected.

“It`s good business,” he said. “I believe that if we treat employees better than they expect, they`ll stay with us. If we can keep this core group of people, we`ll be a successful company.”

Creating people networks

Although it works with computer networks, the networks that C-Forward finds most valuable are those it forges with people.

The company is active in the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Mason-Landen-Kings Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau. It also works closely with the Children`s Home of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati social services agency Tender Mercies.

Every three months, C-Forward sponsors a free seminar designed to help users of small-business computer software or other technology. Topics include remote access, wireless technology, servers and e-mail.

Nov. 12, the company plans to host an open house in its new quarters at 5 W. Fifth St.

Information: (859) 442-7877 or Web site.

N. Ky. chamber names Emerging 30

This year`s “Emerging 30” companies in Northern Kentucky averaged an annual revenue growth rate of 91 percent and added an average of four employees, according to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber today announced its 2003 class of Emerging 30 businesses, the fastest-growing small businesses in the area. They are: ADCM Inc.; AZA Construction Inc; Bertke & Sparks CPAs; Beverly International Inc.; Blue Star Inc.; Boggs & Colvin LLC; Business Communication Services; Capital Software; Cardinal Laboratories Inc.; C-Forward Inc.; Chas. Wagner Enterprises; Christopher Financial Group; Cindy B! Realtors; dbaDirect Inc.; Donna Salyers` Fabulous-Furs; FocusMark Group LLC; Furniture Solutions; K4 Architecture LLC; Minuteman Press-Crescent Springs; Nielson & Sherry PSC; Parsons & Associates LLC; PediaMed Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Pediatric Associates PSC; Pohlgers/Shelter Insurance Agency; Regis Office Supply; Seasongood Asset Management; Select Specialties Corp.; Steinkamp Molding LP; Vector Construction Co.; and Wealth Advisors of Cincinnati LLC.

Eleven of the companies have previously been selected for the Emerging 30, with AZA Construction and Bertke & Sparks landing their fifth consecutive designation.

The competition is open to all companies over 3 years old that are headquartered in Boone, Kenton or Campbell counties, or were Northern Kentucky Chamber members that averaged at least 15 percent revenue growth over the past three years. The businesses also had to exceed $250,000 in revenue and have fewer than 150 employees.

Tech firms tie for award

By Alexander Coolidge
Post staff reporter

While their business may be technical, their success is not. Two Covington tech companies tied Tuesday in their bid to win the services award handed out by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in its annual Small Business Success Awards.
Computer-networking company C-Forward Inc. and consulting business Systems InSight Inc. shared the award in the services category. Jeff Hassan, the director of business development for Systems InSight, said the split honor between the two Covington tech companies spoke volumes about the local business sector.

“The economic vitality of the Covington tech corridor makes this is a great place to be right now,” Hassan said. He credited his company`s success to diversifying its customer services to help both large and small clients.

Brent Cooper, president of C-Forward, said his business has thrived by lavishing attention on small businesses that larger networkers ignore. As a result, his company has reaped loyalty from his 100 customers.

“Just because they`re small, doesn`t mean they aren`t great,” he said.

The awards were handed out during the chamber`s eighth annual celebration at Receptions Banquet & Conference Center in Erlanger honoring business leaders in four categories: retail, manufacturing/distribution, construction and services.

Flottman Company Inc., a printing company in Crestview Hills, won top honors in the manufacturing/distribution category. The company specializes in printing for pharmaceutical companies.

“It`s really exciting — we`re thrilled to get it,” said Sue Flottman-Steller, one of the family owners. “We`re a third-generation, family-owned company, but we`ve got longevity and some unique alliances.”

Newport`s Costume Gallery took home the retailer award. Starting in a garage in 1983, the company moved to a building on Monmouth Street, offering a large inventory of theatrical costumes for regional, stock, educational and local theaters.

Covington`s Kohrs Lonnemann Heil Engineers PSC, a mechanical and electrical engineering firm, nabbed the trophy for construction trades. KLH is offering HVAC, electrical, fire protection, plumbing and communication technology consulting engineering services.

N. Ky. small businesses honored

Five Northern Kentucky companies were honored Tuesday as winners of Small Business Success awards from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. They include:

  • Costume Gallery for retail. Founded in 1983, the costume shop now is in Newport, with four full-time and eight part-time employees.
  • Flottman Co. Inc. for manufacturing and distribution. Founded in 1921, the printing company is in its third generation of family ownership.
  • Kohrs Lonnemann Heil Engineers PSC for construction trades. The mechanical engineering firm started in 1955 and employs 39 people.
  • C-Forward Inc. for service. Founded in 1999, the computer networking company earned a profit in its first year.
  • Systems InSight Inc. for service. The technology-consulting firm has been in business for more than four years.

“Small businesses are a powerful force and provide a thrust to the economic engine of our nation,” chamber president Gary Toebben said.

Companies at least three years old with fewer than 100 employees and less than $5 million in annual sales were eligible for the awards.