Family business all about connection
Western Tel-Com has been installing communications utilities in West Michigan for 33 years.
For the past three-plus decades, Holland-based Western Tel-Com has worked in the trenches to connect voices and keep data flowing in the Midwest.
Founders George Friedriechsen and Darold Onstott left their jobs at the GM Parts Division in Flint in 1972 to pursue the emerging field of underground utilities cabling.
They uprooted their families and crossed the state to start West Michigan Utility Contractors in Holland with Bell Telephone as its first customer — and later AT&T.
In 1986, after a close shave with bankruptcy from an investment that went south, the founders rebuilt, diversified and rebranded the business as Western Tel-Com. Its growth over the next few decades was fueled by demand for fiber optics and voice and data services, and the company was laying and splicing underground and aerial cables and providing maintenance for clients such as Steelcase and other furniture companies, the state of Michigan, Wayne State University, Grand Valley State University and new businesses throughout the region.
By the end of 2002, Western Tel-Com employed 123 people with annual revenue of about $10 million.
Coming along in years, the founders were ready to retire. They began negotiations with a New York-based firm about selling the business in 2003.
Before they could close a deal, their sons, Kurt Friedriechsen and Jason Onstott, matched the offer using everything they had as collateral, wanting to keep the company in the family.
The founders — who had been watching their boys progress through the ranks from trench labor to machinery operations to designing technology to sales, marketing, research and supervision — agreed to sell the company to them, and the business changed hands in August 2003.
Kurt Friedriechsen is now president, and Jason Onstott is vice president.
Friedriechsen said the company continues many of the same services it provided from the beginning, in addition to computer cabling and networking, and maintenance for wide area networks.
During President Barack Obama’s administration, the government issued nearly $3 billion in grants for improving rural broadband access across the nation, according to obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
In Michigan, Friedriechsen said Western Tel-Com worked with a nonprofit called Merit Network that received some of those federal funds to build “hundreds of miles” of fiber optic cables throughout the state because fiber is “the fastest and most efficient medium” for internet connections.
Western Tel-Com also is working with Cassopolis-based Midwest Energy & Communications to connect the rural areas south of Kalamazoo all the way to the Indiana border with high-speed internet.
“They’re overbuilding their electrical network with fiber, and we’re doing that for them,” Friedriechsen said.
The Business Journal previously reported on the “digital divide” of low connectivity rates in rural vs. urban areas. The nonprofit Connect Michigan, which is working to expand broadband access, said people in rural areas typically only have three options for internet connectivity: cables/fiber optics, if the infrastructure exists, which in many spots it doesn’t, and it’s very expensive to install; satellite internet, which is costly and slow; and fixed wireless internet, which relies on towers, and often there aren’t enough to serve all the households in a given area.
Friedriechsen said several nonprofits, as well as for-profit carriers such as Comcast and Frontier, continue the work of expanding fiber optics in Michigan, although they don’t always port the fiber directly to homes.
“Comcast will bring fiber to the curb, and then they’ll bring a copper cable into the house. Other companies do that as well, which is still better than some of the alternatives,” he said.
Western Tel-Com’s client roster today includes organizations such as Steelcase, Herman Miller, Zeeland Board of Public Works, Switch, Grand Valley State University and the state of Michigan for fiber and copper voice and data cabling internally within buildings and externally between buildings.
Between its offices in Holland and Livonia, the company employs 65 to 75 employees depending on the season, including project managers, technicians, equipment operators, laborers, administrative staff and the leadership team.
Its average annual revenue is $13 million.
When Friedriechsen and Onstott bought the company, their goal — besides “not going bankrupt” — was to focus on the employees and maintain good connections.
“Jason and I are both very employee-driven,” Friedriechsen said. “We feel a responsibility to keep people working and families fed. That was a pretty big responsibility in the early days when times were tough.”
During the Great Recession, which came just a few years into their ownership tenure, revenues dipped, and the co-owners looked for ways to create efficiencies.
While their base goal to provide a “happy, healthy workplace for everybody” has stayed the same, Friedriechsen said they have to continually adapt to the needs of the industry to avoid being stagnant.
One current market need they are seeing is shoring up the capacity of cell towers as data usage increases by replacing copper coax cables with fiber optic cables.
“The requirements for the cell towers have grown immensely (so we need) to bring fiber to those cell towers. The more data that we have with our phones, the bottleneck has always been from the tower to get out into the internet, so there’s more need for broadband into the towers,” he said. “That’s a big area that we’ve been servicing the last few years.”
Friedriechsen said Western Tel-Com aims to be a one-stop-shop for customers’ connectivity needs.
“We offer a turnkey solution for their needs. We can go anywhere from providing them Wi-Fi for their laptop to providing a hundred miles of fiber build to connect their locations,” he said.
“And, as well as we can maintain that, we can also design, engineer and build all of the networks that they need."