Downtown business beams on: Constellation keeps troops in touch with families; adds second portal for National Geographic

TRAVERSE CITY – From her fourth floor office overlooking Front Street, Kristin Grassa lists off some of the far-flung places her company provides communication services: Antananarivo (Madagascar), Manama (Bahrain), Macha (Zambia).

As head of Constellation Networks Corporation (CNC), a satellite service provider, Grassa and her staff of four provide communication such as email, webcams and instant messaging to areas where a fiber communication infrastructure doesn't exist or has been damaged or destroyed-places far, far away from its northern Michigan home base.

For example, the company has tripled its number of communication sites over the last year for troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, helping them remain in contact with family. Earlier this fall, CNC began to launch another portal for National Geographic, this time in Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory (near Darwin), to view the habits of native animals. CNC was also the company that rebuilt communication systems after a tsunami struck Indonesia in 2004.

Some 50 percent of CNC's work volume is in the lower three-quarters of Africa and Madagascar and the remainder is in the Middle East, said Grassa. It also has sites in Australia, India, China and Europe.

Grassa brings a uniquely mixed background to CNC: formal education in animal training, animal behavior and accounting; life experience from traveling; and professional experience in the satellite technology field. Grassa started CNC from a similar networking global communications company she was working for at the time that was going bankrupt. She founded CNC in February 2003, her co-workers stayed on, and nearly five years later, things are hopping.

Grassa said she was hoping for slow steady growth over the last year, yet lately work contracts have been "over and above" what she anticipated. Company revenue increased by 30 percent annually over the last two fiscal years. She attributes recent growth to the addition of a fourth satellite, which expands the company's coverage area, as well as the addition of two new service partners.

CNC currently has 185 clients, a number that has more than quadrupled since year one. The company does no marketing, Grassa noted, relying solely on word of mouth.

Grassa and most of her employees grew up here and graduated from Traverse City Central High School.

"It's remote communications," added Grassa. "We can do it from anywhere."

But they all are happy command central is here. (CNC does have a 24-hour network operations subsidiary, and two other employees, in Sweden.)

Though CNC doesn't do any local work, the company did make local headlines this past summer when its vice president was charged with embezzling over $50,000 between January 2004 and July 2007.

While the incident shook the close-knit company to its core, Grassa said, everyone has learned from the situation and is moving on.

"We're an honest company and alive and kicking," she added. BN