Culture is key to success at Open Systems Technologies

July 11, 2011
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A casual stroll through the new offices of Open Systems Technologies reveals plenty about the company without a word being said.

There’s the open feel to the floor plan at 605 Seward NW, which is light on formal offices and heavy on shared workspaces where employees are encouraged to bounce ideas off one another, share work-related successes and brainstorm on common problems. There are also kitchens on all three floors that serve as mingling areas in addition to food-preparation stations. And when it’s time for a little privacy, a number of common conference rooms are tucked away for use by any and all.

The names of the conference rooms, however, belie OST’s link to Grand Rapids and the past.

The technology firm’s new digs are in the building that formerly housed Drueke Games, so the conference rooms, with names like Cribbage, Backgammon, Checkers, and the newest third-floor addition, Shoot The Moon, are actually nods to the building’s history.

And history — specifically the lessons it teaches — is huge for Dan Behm.

“We’ve learned a lot over the past several years,” said the technology firm’s president. “In fact, I would say we’ve been re-creating ourselves every six to 12 months for the last 10 years.”

Reinvention is a common theme for Behm. While working with GS Leasing in Troy, Behm took part in at least three different startups, one of which went on to become the forerunner to OST. His penchant for trying new things and deciding whether they would fly in the long-term prompted him to take that next entrepreneurial leap.

“About nine years ago, we did a company buyout with seven people total at that time,” he said. “Now we’ve got about 80 employees (and) 40 full-time contractors.

“The most difficult thing, for me, was convincing everyone to do it. But I saw the people we had and the talent they had, and I knew we could. Since then, we’ve really maintained that entrepreneurial spirit.”

A decade later, Behm cherishes that entrepreneurial spirit and nourishes it within the confines of OST.

OST (Open Systems Technologies)
Position: President
Age: 51
Birthplace: Grand Haven
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family/Personal: Wife, Barb, and children Heidi, 27, Kyle, 25, and Jill, 23.
Community/Business Involvement: Metro Health Hospital Foundation, Advisory Board – HP Division of Arrow ECS, Thornapple Evangelical Church.
Biggest Career Break: The employee buyout of OST in 2002.

“What we do here are really businesses within a business. We are constantly giving people opportunities to go out on their own. We’ve probably got 12 business initiatives right now with what we call a business owner and an executive sponsor.”

Internally, OST will work on a project for an existing client with an eye toward spinning off a separate business if the solution can be applied to more clients. Behm said a “business owner” and “business sponsor” are assigned to the project so that committed leadership is in place — “then we drive that business initiative forward.”

Behm estimated that approximately one in four of the ventures is successful, all of which have added to the company’s 39 percent compounded annual growth in the past four years.

OST is currently a $55 million company.

The business-within-a-business model requires the right people to succeed, however, so Behm makes it a priority to perform due diligence during the hiring process. Skills are important, but so is the ability to fit in with a team.

When asked what he looks for in a successful OST candidate, Behm doesn’t hesitate.

“Being humble and having a servant attitude,” he said. “We really try to remember our roots here. We want our customers to be successful and we want our (employees) to be successful. It works both ways for us.”

Behm pointed out that the industry turnover rate is about 20 percent annually, while it’s closer to 5 percent at OST. He indicated numerous flat-screen TVs lining the walls, ethnic luncheons prepared for all staff by their peers, and even “March Madness” NCAA basketball tournament parties as examples of what makes OST a “fun” place to work.

“We try to make it fun,” he said. “It has to be fun for me to want to come in to work, and I think everyone feels that way.

“People say our culture now is just as intact as it was six, seven, eight years ago, and I’m really proud of that,” he said.

OST provides technology solutions to companies nationwide. As time has passed, Behm has steered the firm into more of a service provider than a strict seller of hardware and software. Technology is changing at a rapid pace, he said, and OST wants to do more than just keep up — it wants to lead.

Today, most of OST’s revenue comes from companies that do more than $1 billion in business annually themselves.

Behm’s approach to clients, whether large or small, is pretty much the same. “First, what are the biggest issues you face? And, second, what keeps you awake at night?

“We find that out and then we go to work.”

Behm’s eyes twinkle when he relates the story of a huge Minneapolis-based company with which the OST team had somehow gained an audience. The firm, which spent about $750 million annually on technology, had little faith that a small Grand Rapids-based company could meet its burgeoning production needs.

“The way their infrastructure was set up, it was taking six weeks, and it was killing them,” Behm said. “We ended up handing them a proposal to take those six weeks to less than a day. Today, it takes less than four hours.

“We want to provide a custom solution (to customers) that allows them to do what they do best, whatever that may be.”

One of the benefits of doing business nationally, Behm said, is that it actually creates more jobs locally.

“One of the things we are really excited about is creating a lot of jobs in West Michigan,” he said. “We’ve got about five business initiatives that reach out nationally, but here is where the jobs will be.”, which was just launched last month, is one of those business-within-a-business initiatives for which Behm has high hopes. It’s a fundraising site open to anyone around the world, for anything from cancer research donations to paying for bachelorette parties. It helps customers set up their own private fundraising websites for specific causes, and those who donate or who pay to sign up to attend a specific event are charged a 99-cent service fee for participating.

“We’re being innovative about the things we do here,” he said. “It’s not all done in Silicon Valley. We’re just as good, if not better.”

Maybe that’s one of the reasons Behm was recently honored with the 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Michigan and Northwest Ohio in the technology category. Behm was the only award recipient from West Michigan.

While proud of the accomplishment, Behm is quick to point out that it’s a team award.

“When we hire, we hire only the best. We have very high-end people here who are very successful, but they have to fit into the culture. When you hire these great people and they’re arrogant, then you lose that.

“I never want to lose that. Never.”

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