Blackburn Drives Growth
Blackburn is general manager of SourcIT and Broadbreeze Communications, the information technology and wireless communications divisions, respectively, of 50-person accounting firm Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter. If all goes as planned, his charges will grow from a combined 10 employees to 30 or 40 in two years’ time.
“I think that’s very unique,” Blackburn said. “What makes Hungerford so special is how they are open to technology and what the future holds.”
Because the earliest exposure of most industries to IT was bookkeeping, technology consulting was a natural extension for accounting firms. The 66-year-old Hungerford was one of the earliest to do so. In the ’80s, it was one of the first firms in the Midwest to invest in the landmark AS/400 computer system.
To help cement its consulting business, Hungerford in 1999 purchased SourcIT, a small local technology integrator. Blackburn came to the firm as general manager in 2004, leaving behind a role as West Michigan branch manager for personnel firm Robert Half.
At the time, West Michigan, along with the rest of the nation, was beginning to recognize the potential of wireless Internet service. Every coffee shop and restaurant was racing to become the next “hot spot.” Grand Haven was in the midst of efforts to become the first hot city. Before the year was out, Kent and Ottawa counties both announced municipal wireless Internet initiatives.
One of Blackburn’s primary goals was to find a place in that burgeoning market. SourcIT had some exposure in the wireless world; it had launched a wireless network at the Hungerford headquarters three years prior. Adding to that, he led an acquisition of EIT Solutions, a local contractor that had done a number of early deployments.
“We brought all that brainpower together to take a look at what we felt was the future of wireless broadband,” Blackburn said. “We quickly determined we wanted to be in the licensed frequency, specifically 3GPP. From that point we were off and running.”
Unlike most other wireless Internet technologies, such as Wi-Fi, 3G does not require direct line of sight, is purely mobile and has an exceedingly long reach. Commonly associated with cellular phones, 3GPP is short for third-generation partnership project, identifying it as the successor of cellular and PCS technology.
The primary competitor of Wi-Fi, its barriers to entry have traditionally made it the playground of large telecommunications companies. As such, service models incorporating the technology are generally more expensive, for slower speeds, than comparable landline services. Unlike Wi-Fi, it uses a radio frequency licensed by the FCC, which is seldom available on the open market.
“Well, we did have to find a license,” Blackburn said. “That was part of the off-and-running phase. They’re not easily attainable, and they’re very expensive.”
In fact, Blackburn and his firm were now in a bit of a race — one he hoped to win before anyone else took the course. After extensive research, the firm found only one license available in the West Michigan area, an educational frequency owned by Plainwell Community Schools.
The school district eventually agreed to a 15-year license agreement, putting SourcIT in an enviable position among its peers. The license applies to most of the West Michigan region — a full 70 miles north-to-south and 35 miles east-to-west, spreading from Battle Creek to Grand Rapids, Portland to the Lakeshore.
Through Broadbreeze Communications, a wholly-owned subsidiary created to manage the ISP, SourcIT was named the vendor for Ottawa County’s wireless campaign. A pilot project is currently underway in Jamestown Township.
While its first priority is Ottawa County, Broadbreeze will eventually service the entirety of West Michigan, with rates as low as $19.99 per month.
“It’s very exciting, we’re having a lot of fun with it,” Blackburn said. “We’re providing a great service for West Michigan.”
For most of his career, Blackburn has led incredible growth within technology firms.
After graduating from Ferris State University, the Detroit native and his new wife opted for the weather of her father’s Orlando home over Michigan. It was in Clearwater, Fla., that he first was exposed to the technology field, as an account manager at a local firm later acquired by DataFlex.
After his father-in-law died, Blackburn and his wife decided they still wanted to start a family near family, and began looking for opportunity in Michigan. As luck would have it, he quickly discovered an attractive position at a little-known Grand Rapids company, CyberNET Group.
Blackburn was largely responsible for the legitimate side of what is today known as a notorious flameout. It was a $2 million company when he arrived. When he left for ethical reasons two years later, the division he launched, national accounts, grossed $35 million alone.
“I probably should have done my homework a little better,” Blackburn acknowledged. “But nonetheless, it was a great opportunity to grow something special.”
He came to Robert Half in 1999 as manager of its local technology division. An underperforming location at the time, within a year it was among the top five worldwide. He was subsequently promoted to branch manager.