The Ultimate Integrator: Ascomnorth dives into the details of data, video and telephony

When Ascom of Northern Michigan began offering professional communications services in 1983, Sony had just introduced its first CD player, Apple was a year away from launching its MacIntosh computer, and fiber optic cable was used for long distance digital audio transmissions for the first time.

Technology has changed dramatically since then and the scope of the company now known as Ascomnorth has expanded with it.

Today, Ascomnorth is considered the region’s leading communications, security and technology integration company, specializing in audio, video and technology systems including telephony, professional sound and professional video as well as data networks, video surveillance, nurse call and access systems.

The company primarily serves hospitals, schools, churches and businesses.

Most recently, the team has been keeping busy working with Munson Healthcare on all of their facilities throughout northern Michigan, including Traverse City, Manistee, Kalkaska, Gaylord, Cadillac, Grayling, Frankfort and Charlevoix.

“Many times, I feel like the ‘monkey in the middle’ trying to move large entities such as Charter, AT&T, ASCOM [manufacturer] and Munson to accommodate customer timelines and needs,” said Dave Barth, who joined the company in 1992 and is now co-owner and vice president of sales and administration.

Originally founded in 1983 as Ascom of Northern Michigan, the company celebrated its 35th anniversary in June. Barth and co-owner Dave Wierenga lead a 10-member team serving clients throughout northern lower Michigan and the eastern upper peninsula.

Ascomnorth is an “integrator,” Barth said, bringing together many technologies to implement a client’s overarching goals.

“We’re connecting and coordinating many different systems … and working with facilities and I.T. departments,” he said. “There can be a lot going on … there may be a lot of telephony that also needs to be networked through iPads, the cloud and other services.”

Continued advancements require technicians and engineers to stay updated on networking concepts, new software and systems, he said.

“Networking for internet access has been upgraded and required many of the systems that we install to be put on our customer’s network,” he said, also noting nurse call systems, video surveillance, VoIP phones, card access and sound and video systems are all IP (internet protocol) enabled for remote access.

“It’s a niche business,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people that do what we do.”

Ascomnorth’s history precedes today’s high tech world, but was always rooted in communications and filled an unmet niche. The early days began in 1983 when Larry and Starr Garter opened the Acme-based company in partnership with Grand Rapids-based Ascom owners Mel Wierenga and Fred Billin.

“It was a dream come true for a young husband and wife,” said Starr Garter, noting they were interested in opening a communication business similar to Ascom, where Larry worked at the time.

Discussion during an employee review led the Garters to join Wierenga and Billin in starting a separate entity in northern Michigan that was operated by the Garters. Ownership later transitioned with Larry Garter leaving to pursue consulting in 1995, and Barth and Dave Wierenga purchasing the business from the Starrs and Mel Wierenga in 2000.

Barth, who joined in 1992 to handle sales and marketing, and Wierenga, who oversees engineering and operations, have retained joint ownership since their 2000 purchase, expanding to Ascomnorth’s current location at 6100 U.S. 31 N. They later bought the building complex, which they renamed Acme Creek Commons in 2012.

Early work focused on sound and telephone systems for churches, schools and hospitals, including early iterations of nurse call systems. As technology evolved, projects included designing systems to accommodate increasing demand for online connectivity. Sales and staff grew substantially during the 1990s when schools and libraries were able to access grants through the federal Universal Services Fund to bring technology and internet access into their facilities.

Barth remembers the challenges and fulfillment in bringing tech to their clients.

“In the late 1990s, we worked with Charter to provide fiber connectivity to connect all of the schools at the Crawford AuSable Schools,” he said. “We worked for months to design and build that project.”

Continually changing technology drives Ascomnorth’s evolution, services and staff skills.

The business has been consistent with a steady average of $1.5 million in annual sales, as well as 10 long-term employees and thousands of clients. New business is generated from existing clients, new customer referrals and the bid market.

“People buy from people,” Barth said, noting the proven importance of building relationships with his customers as his top marketing tool.

Clients range from small offices to complex multi-hospital health care systems. Nurse call systems have always been a mainstay of Ascomnorth’s business. Munson Medical Center was an early client, a relationship that has grown with Munson Healthcare to include the expanded acquisition of the system’s many northern Michigan hospitals.

Barth also credits the evolving changes in health care with greater demand.

“Technology advancements in health care have been steadily increasing over the years. We represent [another company named] ASCOM, which is the only manufacturer that provides Nurse Call Systems, Middleware software and phones that integrate with the facilities reporting and admissions software and other systems such as the VERSUS RTLS [a real-time locating system],” Barth said.

Barth anticipates business will continue on the same steady trajectory.

“We struggle just like most of the trades finding qualified technicians, engineers and salespeople,” he said, noting the niche nature of the business as well as some limitations in college and trade school curricula.

“Most of the specific training on our systems is provided by the manufacturers that is specific to their systems,” he added.

Barth noted with technology’s increasing sophistication, the skills of his team are evolving away from the physical nature of pulling cable and installation, into greater planning, programming and proficiency in multiple systems.

He also looks forward to Ascomnorth continuing to evolve with the market, team and customers.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I love helping people, putting together systems and closing the deal.”