Speaking IP Opens Doors

March 11, 2014
SD&I Fast50 #4 (tie): A3 Communications migrates from IT to security by leveraging its IP skills

If you are moving into a new country, you better speak the language. When A3 Communications of Irmo, S.C., expanded into new territory, that language was IP.

A3, notes company President Brian Thomas, is a relative newcomer to the security business; however, it has deep roots in computer systems. The company comes to the security marketplace with a full complement of Cisco Certified Network Engineers and extensive knowledge in computers and computer networking.

This year, A3 ranks tied for #4 in the Fast50 having jumped a more than a dozen places from last year.

Having a handle on IP, starting with VoIP, made the transition to IP-based security much easier; and easy — as in easy to live with — is another key component of A3’s success. “We try to create a fun work environment,” Thomas says. “We are entrepreneurial. We all are on the same ship, going the same direction.”

This benefits the company in several ways. Nobody is moaning when it comes time to burn the midnight oil to finish up a big project. And customers appreciate the extra effort and referrals follow; in fact, being easy on their customers is one of the keystones for A3’s corporate culture. “Not everything is a change order,” Thomas says. “If it is something that can be done simply, we take care of the customer.”

Company Roots

When Brian’s dad, F. Joseph Thomas, started A3 in 1990, the focus was totally on software development — they did software for government agencies and eventually migrated into hardware sales, selling PCs all over the Southeastern U.S. Eventually, they progressed with the market into IT services, networking and network infrastructure. This was about the time VoIP (voice over IP) came to the forefront. Along with VoIP, they offered clients audio-visual solutions and that was followed by surveillance and CCTV.

Joe named his son Brian as A3’s President in 2012. Brian’s role with the team began as vice president of sales in 2006. Brian continues to grow the company in his new position, always making sure to keep the company vision in mind.

It was in 2008 that A3 launched its surveillance and access control division. Today, A3 is an all-inclusive communications and IT service provider able to serve enterprise and education customers in every aspect of a technology infrastructure. “We are not your typical security integrator,” Thomas says.

Coincidentally, growth in the IP arena opened doors to services for customers who already were friends of the company. “We, as a company, saw 350-percent growth over the past three years,” Thomas says. However, this was not manna from heaven — rather, Thomas had made a conscious decision to completely restructure the sales organization and A3’s approach to the market.

At that point, the company served a number of small-to-midsized businesses along with education and government clientele. “We changed our approach to service the enterprise market from smaller businesses,” Thomas says.

At the same time, Thomas realized he needed to adjust A3’s market share in the education sector — a sector that ballooned to represent 80 percent of the company’s income. The thinking was simple. In the 2005-2008 era, corporations pulled back on spending. Many enterprises were building large cash positions and were spending nothing on network infrastructure; thus, their systems aged and declined in efficiency.

In the past year or two, that scenario has flip-flopped. Large enterprises are more willing to spend to upgrade systems and expand service offerings, and A3 is there to help them do it. It is a template they have followed in the past and expect to replicate in the future.

As a result, the education slice of the pie has dropped from 80 percent a year ago to 70 percent today. “That was a strategic decision,” Thomas confirms. He was worried about the company having too many eggs in one basket — no matter how attractive that basket is. Still, education, especially the K-12 market, is flourishing for security. With the return of the enterprise operation to the market, Thomas figured it was a no-brainer to go after bigger companies, but not to totally abandon their stronghold in education.

Finding the Right People

While it is nice to have a plan and projections for success, eventually it comes time to put up or shut up. For any security company, that means having the sales and service technicians on the ground to deliver what the customer needs.

Thomas admits that finding people is one of the biggest challenges he faces. “It takes a very long time to find the right people,” he says. Typically, the hiring process is a six-month odyssey. Once the right person is found, the training and re-training commitment is huge.

Thomas says they have had success hiring aggressively out of college and then training open minds to the company’s standards and requirements. “The younger generation is leaps and bounds above other workers when it comes to understanding technology,” says Thomas, who is just 34 years old himself.

People who are jazzed by A3’s culture love what they do and how it all comes together. “In a word, our people are ‘passionate’ about their jobs,” Thomas says. He adds ‘competitive’ and ‘prideful’ to his list.

“What separates us is the fact we are not a networking company,” Thomas says. “We are not just AV or physical security or cabling or virtualization — we are able to offer to serve all of an enterprise’s technical needs under one umbrella.”

What business would not be charmed by a company that has done away with the blame game when a system has a hiccup? For A3’s customers, there is only one team to deal with and that team is dedicated to fixing problems. “It does away with the finger-pointing,” Thomas says.

More Growth Coming

Over the next five years, Thomas says that he would like to see A3 expand its national footprint and go beyond the Southeastern regional market.

Make no mistake: the Southeast has been good to A3. A couple of years ago, they opened an office in Atlanta. Business boomed – again, following the template of success they established in South Carolina with offices in Columbia, Greenville and Charleston. The Atlanta office grew 200 percent in its first years, and it’s where Thomas is based.“We treat expansion almost like creating a franchise,” Thomas says. “We want to be a national integrator and I believe we can do that.”

North Carolina became the next growth target. In addition to geographic expansion, they are broadening their market footprint while always staying true to their enterprise, government and education foundation.

A typical growth pattern for A3 can be seen in the financial market. Several years ago, they got a contract from a regional bank in South Carolina. Things went well and they began talking to other banks in state. Soon, they found themselves serving some major banking customers. “We learn from what we do,” Thomas says.

Their customers learn, too. Twice in the past three years, first in 2011 and again in 2013, A3 has been named Axis’s Education Market Partner of the Year. “We are seeing in the education market the rise of big security systems. We’ve found we can do it for them,” Thomas says, adding that A3 understands the purchasing process schools follow and knows how to help them work with their client bases to assure them that their money is well spent.

Under Thomas’ leadership, A3 was recognized in April 2013 as the “17th Fastest Growing Systems Integrator” in America by SD&I magazine for the company’s exponential growth in recent years. Today it is perched at #4. Prior to joining A3, Thomas held various sales and management roles in the telecommunications and mortgage industries throughout Atlanta. He is also an Honor Graduate of the United States Marine Corps and served as an M1A1 Tank Crewman before his medical discharge in 2000.

From computers to IP, from security to accounting, Thomas speaks the language of success in the security business.

Curt Harler is a technology writer and regular contributor to SD&I. Reach him at [email protected].

A Closer Look

Company: A3 Communications, Inc.

Website: www.a3communications.com

HQ: Irmo, S.C.

Principals: Brian Thomas, president; F. Joseph Thomas, CEO

Year founded: 1990

Number of employees: 52

Residential/Commercial split: 100 percent enterprise

Top technology brands sold/deployed: Axis, Cisco Networking and Wireless, Exacq Technologies, Video Insight, Samsung, Sony, S2 Security, Paxton Access