When Greg Wood Sr. started Gage Telephone Systems in 1980, there was no Internet, and there were no personal computers or smartphones. There were only two phone companies, one for long-distance calls and one for local. It had only recently become legal for businesses to buy their own phones.
“A lot of changes were being made, so I just jumped on it,” Wood said.
Wood had worked for South Central Bell for 14 years installing PBXs, or private branch exchanges — the private phone networks that businesses use. With access to the same equipment as Bell, Wood could now do the same.
Wood can’t remember the exact date when he realized the business would succeed. It might have been when he won his first contract.
“I put the bid in; I made like $1,500 in a couple of hours. I said, ‘Damn, I can’t believe this’,” Wood said. “It took another two months before I sold another job. I probably didn’t make fifty grand the first year.”
But in the early ’80s, things “went wild.”
It turned out businesses — and consumers — liked owning their phones. A lot. By 1984, Gage had dropped $50,000 for one of the first lots on Industriplex and was building the offices and warehouse space that still house the company.
Thirty-four years and more than 7,000-plus customers later, about the only thing that’s the same for Gage is its name.
In the late ’90s, Wood’s children took over day-to-day management of the company. Greg Wood Jr. is vice president, operations; Anne W. Hebert, chief financial officer; Laura W. Pearce, office manager; and Jason Landry, one of Wood’s sons-in-law, vice president of sales.
At that point, the digital era was well underway, but Gage was still very one-dimensional.
Businesses that once had just a phone guy now had a computer guy, too.
“At some point, we decided to be the guy,” Greg Wood Jr. said.
The Internet was a game changer for every business, especially Gage. The company could now network multiple offices, setting up phones through the Internet at other locations.
Networking became an entire line of business. The structured cabling Gage had done for on-premise telephone networks expanded into information technology, which meant Gage needed to bring in more people with that skill set.
These days, Gage offers voice, data, network, structured cabling and backup services, including generators.
“We handle everything up to the desktop, and we make all those things work,” Greg Wood Jr. said.
About 75 percent of the company’s business is on the voice side. Among other things, Gage makes sure its customers remain connected, whether that’s through a wireless network and hotspots or unified messaging apps that connect workers’ smartphones to their voicemail.
But Gage really sees itself as a service company. Customers will pay a fixed monthly price for those services, although the menu — IT, cabling, networking — will vary from business to business.
It’s an extension of a trend that’s been underway for some time: software as a service, hardware as a service, and so on, Greg Wood Jr. said. All of the company’s offerings will be available under Gage Insite, a managed services program that makes it simpler for customers to deal with their technology needs and help them control costs.
For example, Gage can monitor, manage and maintain a customer’s servers online for a monthly fee. That’s a far better alternative than forking over $12,000, even if the customer has that in the bank, if the server crashes.
The longevity of a family business is often tied to the company’s commitment to customer service, establishing a deep level of trust in the marketplace and strong talent, said Devin Lemoine, president of Success Labs, a Baton Rouge-based consulting firm. It’s also very important to develop strong acumen and agility to be competitive in a dynamic market.
Finally, a company must make sure it addresses all aspects of the succession planning process, Lemoine said. This means identifying and addressing the current risks and future needs with strong legal, financial and people strategies.
The Woods managed to make that shift without a ton of planning, Greg Wood Jr. said. The company didn’t really put together a road map until 2004, when it joined the Technology Assurance Group and got help with best practices, including assistance with technology, sales and finance training.
With the group’s help, Gage was able to widen its menu of services and solidify its business base.
“Some people say we should change it to Gage Telephone and Data and what have you. I see names like Total Teledata Solutions, Integrated Technologies Unified, blah, blah, blah,” Greg Wood Jr. said.
That’s not going to happen. “We have a brand.”
The marketing has shifted to emphasize Gage and away from Telephone. The services are marketed as Gage Voice, Gage Backup or Gage Data.
Because the company’s services and the technologies are so diverse, worker training has become both more intense and more specialized. Even though lots of issues can be addressed online, from time to time Gage has to make service visits.
“You have to make sure you send the right guy. You can’t just throw a warm body at it,” Greg Wood Jr. said.
The customer’s account history, the technology it has, the worker’s certifications and training all have to be considered. And training is just harder now.
Instead of a weeklong session in Dallas once a year and updates with technical bulletins, there’s 35 to 40 hours of online classes and homework on top of that. There’s also training in the so-called soft skills, which help workers build those all-important relationships with customers.
At the end of the day, technology is just equipment. Eventually, a customer is going to need to call someone to help with whatever issue arises.
Gage plans to keep being that guy, Greg Wood Jr. said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.