A3 Communications captures the nation’s attention
Brian Thomas, president; Chad Hendrix, vice president – engineering; Dave Lewis, chief financial officer; Michelle Moshinskie, director of marketing; and Scott Grainger, vice president – physical security, review plans for an upcoming implementation.
Photography by Davey Morgan
A3 is seen as an industry leader in systems integration, combining all of the technology into one comprehensive system that speaks easily to each other. The company basically handles everything except software development. They provide IT and communications solutions in the areas of enterprise networking, IP video surveillance, card access control, electrified door hardware, unified communications, voice, data and fiber cabling, audio visual, hosted and managed services, as well as electrical services.
In 2015, the systems integrator was ranked 1302 on the Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine’s annual ranking of the country’s top 5,000 fastest-growing private companies. The company had revenue of $22.1 million the year before and had exhibited a remarkable three-year growth of 319 percent. That followed 2014 when it landed at No. 1435 with $17.5 million in revenues and 297 percent growth over three years. When A3 first debuted on the list in 2013, it was No. 4229, with $8.5 million in revenue and a mere 60 percent growth over three years.
A3 is sure to keep climbing in the rankings. The firm’s 2015 revenue was around $35 million, and the 2016 projection is for somewhere north of $45 million, according to company president Brian Thomas, the son of company founder F. Joseph Thomas. With those kinds of numbers, it should not be too many years until A3 cracks the Inc. 500, the top 10 percent of the Inc. 5000 rankings.
Based on its amazing growth, A3 was named the country’s sixth “Fastest Growing Systems Integrator” in 2015 by SD&I magazine, actually falling from fourth in 2014. In 2013 it was only the 17th fastest growing. The company was just announced as number two on this list on the main stage at the ISC West conference in Las Vegas in April 2016. Not bad for a company that got its start in 1990 in a room over Joe Thomas’ garage.
Joe, a University of South Carolina graduate with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, had worked for Lockheed Missiles, Space Co. and Bechtel Worldwide. His own company, originally named SouthTec, grew out of Joe’s moonlighting as a software developer when Hurricane Hugo devastated South Carolina. Joe wrote the software that helped manage the system that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state used to disperse and track funding for disaster relief. He had already been doing some consulting for the state.
Joe eventually acquired a small company, Entre Computer Center, that would become A3 Communications, and in 1994, he moved away from software development and into networking and IT services. One key to A3’s success was its adoption of VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, in 1996. Realizing that the voice and data worlds were merging, in 2001, the company formed a fiber and cabling division. And in 2007, it launched the physical security division. In a world where the physical security of facilities — access through locked doors and video cameras all tied in to a company’s IT network — has become increasingly important, that line of business has become a major emphasis for A3.
“The growth has all been organic. There is no magic silver bullet here that we can point to that really explains it,” Joe says. “I would say it has to be the combination of networking and security expertise that really escalated it to the point it is now, and it has taken over 80 percent of our business. We caught the convergence of security with the network at the right time as we did years ago with VoIP. Other companies that are in the same market are playing catch up to us.”
A3 has found a very successful business model in being both a true network integration company and a true security systems integrator. “Typically that is two different companies. What we are able to do is leverage across those two divisions,” Brian says. “It gives our customers peace of mind. This enables our customers to work with a single integrator.”
What that model has also done is attract a lot of interest both from potential investors, some interested in acquiring the company. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I get,” Brian says. But Brian and Joe, who own the company 50/50, have no interest in selling or going public. “Our goal is to continue to grow the company,” Brian says, “and to remain a family business.”
Brian, 36, literally grew up with the company. He was 11 when his father launched the entrepreneurial venture that would become A3. Brian worked as a field technician in high school and then in sales for about two years.
Following a stint in the United States Marines, Brian settled in Atlanta where he worked for various telecoms and eventually found his way into the mortgage industry. But as that industry began to implode in the mid 2000s,
he called his father and said he wanted to take a look at joining the family business.
Brian returned to Irmo in 2006, and after about two weeks observing A3’s operations, he told his father that he was excited about the company and felt there were areas where they could make progress. He wanted to make an impact on the service side of the business. “I felt there was a lot opportunity there, and I could make the biggest impact on it,” Brian says.
When he made the moved back to Irmo permanent, he expected to take over as a well-paid vice president of sales — after all, he had done very well in Atlanta and was making very good money when he left the mortgage industry. His father told him, “Absolutely not. You’re not going to be director of anything. You’re going to learn this business. You’re a junior sales executive, and your base salary is very low.”
Brian admits to being a little uneasy about the turn of events that had taken place. “But today I’m extremely grateful for what he did. Then I wasn’t. I know now he was testing me and he did this on purpose,” Brian says. He did become vice president of sales two-and-a-half years later, and his father named Brian president in January 2012. Joe, now 65, retained the title of chairman and continues to stay involved with the business working out of the Irmo office while he fully transitions A3 to Brian’s control.
A3 began its exponential growth in about 2012, and it continues to escalate under Brain’s leadership.
A3 today has 86 employees — 19 were added in 2015 — with 35 working out of the Irmo building. When Joe built the headquarters office in 2002, the company only had about 10 employees. In addition to the Irmo headquarters, A3 also has offices in Greenville, Charleston, Charlotte and Atlanta.
Brian moved back to Georgia a year after becoming A3’s president and works out of the Atlanta office, spending about one week each month in Irmo and also traveling to the company’s other locations.
The thought process behind his moving to the Atlanta office was that they needed to expand geographically, and one goal was to expand the enterprise/corporate level business. Atlanta thus made the most sense.
While it is unique for him not to work at the corporate office, Brian says it gives him the opportunity to serve the business in a different way. Not being tethered to the day-to-day operations as much allows him to take an outsider’s view. “It’s allows me to really see things a lot more clearly and make some strategic decisions. Working out of Atlanta may be somewhat counter intuitive, but it has allowed me to work on the business instead of in it,” Brian explains.
Since becoming president, Brian has made several changes, including the strategic decision to refocus the company on large enterprise businesses. Historically, A3 had focused exclusively on small to medium size businesses, but Brian saw that the larger enterprise customers would offer A3 a bigger payoff for the same effort, while maintaining their SMB offerings.
Not wanting to put all of its eggs in one basket, A3 also began to pursue state and local government and education business as well as the enterprise level commercial customers. With the downturn in the economy, the decision to go after government sector business, such as schools, proved fortuitous. The government sector was still spending money and had needs, so the company made a complete shift toward government and education, primarily K-12, as well as enterprise businesses. “Immediately, we went from 2011, where we did right around $5 million in sales, to 2012 where we did $8.7 million. That was the most we’d ever done as company,” Brian says. By comparison, projected revenues for 2016 are more than five times that as government and education continue to be a large sector for A3.
Other moves included rebuilding the sales team and hiring a marketing and communications director. “We had not had anyone focused on marketing and communications, but we knew if we were going to recreate this company, we had to recreate our brand at the same time. We really changed who we were, so we changed our brand, our market strategy and our end user. We completely changed our go-to market strategy,” Brian says.
Brian believes the way for A3 to sustain its phenomenal business growth is by expanding geographically. The company has been very successful with the Charlotte office and grew business in North Carolina very quickly. “We are working to move into Raleigh, and we just won a multi-year contract in Tennessee for E-Rate business, which is a federally subsidized program for school districts to buy technology. We are also looking to open an office in the Nashville area pretty soon as well as possibly in Florida and Alabama.”
Despite the emphasis on geographic expansion and working out of Atlanta, Brian says A3 will remain headquartered in Irmo. The high growth rate will undoubtedly dictate that A3 move its headquarters into at least a bigger building at some point. A 2014 expansion added 1,800 square feet to the building’s original 4,500 square feet, but it still feels a bit cramped.
“We’re very comfortable. South Carolina has been very good to us, and Richland County and Columbia are very good to us,” says Michelle Moshinskie, A3’s director of marketing and communications. Illustrating the company’s remarkable growth, Michelle noted that when she started a little more than three years ago, she was the 27th employee. Brian says his goal is to sustain A3’s growth by continuing to open offices throughout the eastern United States while maintaining their excellence of customer service.
Walking into the headquarters of A3 Communications on Kinley Road in Irmo gives the impression that the company is doing well — very well. A3’s accolades and plaques hang from the walls and line the shelves in the anteroom of an otherwise fairly nondescript brick building.