Laconia IT firm shows its staying power

For many businesses, the past three years have been a time of cutting back, laying off and hanging on. But for Mainstay Technologies, it has been a very different kind of ride.Ryan Barton, who started Mainstay seven years ago as a one-man operation, said technology firms with good ideas and good execution can grow at an extraordinary pace, even in a down economy. Simply put, in the information age, information technology services — like those provided by Mainstay — are a consumer staple, a necessity for businesses, nonprofits and governments.When times are good, businesses and other organizations expand, opening up new opportunities in the IT field, said Barton. But when times are tough, there are opportunities for growth for IT firms too, he said, because that’s when businesses look for ways to be more efficient, and “technology gives you the edge to do more with less.”Mainstay’s customers include small businesses, nonprofits and municipalities, among others. But when Barton started the business in 2004, he had just one client, Laconia Christian School.In 2007, Mainstay became an employer when Barton hired four IT technicians to help with his growing workload. Today the firm has 18 full-time employees and Barton expects that number to grow to 20 soon.Personal approachMainstay, based in Laconia, is expanding its presence in the southern part of the state. It currently uses a shared office in Manchester and plans to open a full-service facility from which it can respond more quickly to clients located in the southern tier and Massachusetts communities close to the border.”We value the personal approach, and as we expand we are continuing with that personal approach,” said Barton.”We understand (our clients’) pressures, and their budgets. We need to learn their goals and how the use of technology can serve those goals.”The New Hampshire Humane Society in Laconia switched to Mainstay for its IT service needs about a year ago after having what the society’s development and volunteer director, MaryLee Gorham-Waterman, called unsatisfactory experiences with three other IT service firms.”We found that for some (IT) companies, nonprofits were not a priority,” she said. “We’d have a problem, and we’d wait a week for a technician to come and get us up and running. We can’t be down for a week because then we can’t do business.”Gorham-Waterman said Mainstay was able to come up with a service plan mindful of the financial constraints of an organization that depends on donations.The animal shelter relies on its website to build public interest and support. It uses other Internet-based programs to reach out to donors and track donations, as well as document pet adoptions.Barton said his firm’s main strength is working closely with clients to devise an IT system that meets their requirements.And the culture for that personal approach starts at Mainstay itself, where he puts a great deal of effort into hiring people who will be team players and want to work in a collaborative environment. Besides seeking employees with strong technological capabilities, he looks for them to have the ability to manage their own time effectively and to have good people skills — something, said Barton, that’s fundamental to the company’s emphasis on developing a strong relationship with clients.Barton acknowledged that recruiting people for his company can be challenging, especially since it’s not an entry-level employer.”We’re not a good first IT job,” said Barton. “We’re a good second or third job.”While two of the latest additions to his workforce were people living in central New Hampshire, two other new hires are coming from far away — one from Wisconsin, the other from Arizona.This stable of IT talent is Mainstay’s strongest asset, said Geoff Ruggles, finance director for the town of Gilford.”The biggest challenge is keeping up with the technology,” said Ruggles. “It’s hard for one person to keep up with all of that,” ranging from security to software products.Ruggles said that since hiring Mainstay three years ago to handle the town’s IT needs, its system has become faster and more reliable. He’s also pleased that the firm has offered cost-saving ways to upgrade technology, such as a proposal to replace two aging servers with one server with the capacity of handling several virtual servers.The town is one of Mainstay’s more than 100 clients. For many of them, Mainstay provides the full range of IT services. But it also works with those that have an in-house IT director, but need additional resources to plan for future IT needs or to get systems back up and running quickly when there is a malfunction.’Stable growth’Barton was 9 or 10 years old when his father, Dwight, brought home a computer with a black-and-white monitor. Within hours, he was hooked.His interest in computers continued to grow, and he took computer courses while he was in high school. But after high school, he didn’t go to college to study computer science, choosing instead to attend a Bible college. Afterward, he took some computer courses at what is now Lakes Region Community College. But he did not take the full program, because he found that the experience he gained working in the field was far more valuable.While many small businesses have cited the difficulties in obtaining bank funding during the current economic downturn as a disincentive to expansion and new ventures, Barton said that has not been the case with Mainstay, largely because of the nature of the IT services business itself.Because Mainstay is “a cash flow-intensive business, not a capital-intensive business,” it hasn’t had to borrow a lot of money. He also said that though the company’s growth might appear extraordinary to some, he considers Mainstay’s approach conservative.”We’re about stable growth,” he said. His philosophy, he said, is “Start small, husband resources and grow out of your strength.”The company was on track for $3 million in revenue in 2011 and its goal is to see that number grow to $4 million or more in 2012, said Barton. And while it acquires about $1 million a year in software and hardware on behalf of clients, Barton said it does so strictly at cost, choosing instead to make its money from the service side of the business.Barton is optimistic that Mainstay’s growth will continue. He envisions that the company will expand to a staff of 40 to 60 people and the geographic area it serves will grow as well. While he has no interest in getting into the Boston market, he hopes eventually to serve clients in western Maine and eastern Vermont, as well as northern Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border.”Industry needs to reinvent itself every five years or so,” Barton said, pointing to the potential for continued growth for Mainstay. He said that means the company must be constantly innovative.”Technology is a mainstay in business,” Barton said, referring to its outlook for the future as well as the firm’s moniker. “It sums up our essence.”