Case Studies

Communications Engineering Company

Remaining Many Steps Ahead of the Competition

Communications Engineering Company (CEC) is a nationally recognized technology systems integrator that has been continually evolving for nearly 70 years.

With 225 employees across eight locations – six in Iowa and two in Wisconsin – CEC holds the resources and reach to serve global customers that are seeking solutions tailored to their specific market needs. Headquartered in Hiawatha, Iowa, CEC offers consulting, design, installation, technical support and ongoing maintenance in sectors including audio/video, fire and security, healthcare communications, information technology (IT), and two-way communications.

Matt Dlouhy, CEO of CEC, started out as a technician 30 years ago and steadily rose through the ranks to become president in 2006, and he assumed his current position in 2012. Building off a wealth of firsthand experience in supporting customers from solution design and project implementation to training and technical support, he is now leading the company in its most profitable era to date.

Historically Set on Evolving

In its current form CEC serves customers in public safety, business and manufacturing facilities, schools, government buildings, healthcare facilities, hotels and houses of worship, though the company wasn’t always as diverse. “We started off as a small two-way radio shop back in ’40s,” says Dlouhy. Paul Parmer founded the company in 1946 to provide radio repairs, and its first customer was Checkered Cab. A decade later, CEC entered healthcare communications by getting certified for nurse call and intercom systems. Throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s CEC continued to grow, offering intercom and professional sound systems, and eventually opening an additional office in Iowa City.

“In the mid-’80s we installed one of the first broadband systems that successfully transmitted voice, video and data at one of the world’s largest heavy-equipment manufacturers,” tells Dlouhy. “That launched us into the IT arena.”

Positioning itself as an expert in IT early on, as well as a preferred strategic partner to the structured cabling and security markets, CEC opened two more branches in the ’80s, and the company’s IT department continues to be a focus (and one of the larger departments) today. “IT pulled it all together and positioned for the future,” says Dlouhy.

Where CEC truly differentiated itself from the competition, however, was in seeing the importance of integrating related services for a complete technology offering. “We have been focused across multiple technologies for literally decades and you could say we were a bit ahead of our time as most competitors were focused on one or two technologies,” explains Dlouhy.

In the 1990s organizations became very dependent on technology, as it provided clear competitive advantages across all sectors. Of course, CEC was there from the beginning when broadband was introduced into the market. A decade later, as the company evolved, CEC designed and installed one of the first gigabit network backbones in the U.S. (and the first in Iowa), which dramatically increased efficiencies for this Fortune 100 manufacturer. CEC also rolled out the first utility-owned metropolitan area network (MAN) in the country.

Full-service Technology Solutions

Today, CEC continues to stay one step ahead, which is critical to the success of the company. Dlouhy explains, “Technology changes all the time: the landscape changes, the products change, and we continue to evolve.”

The company typically self-performs all its high-end technical work. “We do all the designs and technical installation ourselves,” says Dlouhy. “In special circumstances we have a network of proven partners who can augment our team.”

This continues to be a solid option as CEC’s diversity and footprint continues to grow. CEC has experienced year-to-year growth for the last several years, including record high numbers. “Since ’06 we’ve experienced 130-percent growth,” says Dlouhy. “We are very diverse. Even when we see some slowing in one discipline, it’s never across the board: when one discipline is down, another one is up.”

Augmenting CEC’s already impressive professional credentials, and its corporate culture of hands-on training, are key acquisitions. For example, CEC purchased Entre in 2000, giving the company strategic diversity in application development and data collaboration. By continually offering new products and systems, CEC has assured the company’s markets also continue to expand. “In 2011 we did business in eight countries and 22 different states,” says Dlouhy.

CEC provides services across all sectors and that span markets from small business to Fortune 100 companies, and many recent jobs have involved the design and installation of numerous low-voltage commercial systems. For example, CEC recently completed a complex system integration for a healthcare provider in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Corridor, which meant incorporating a lot of different technologies – nurse call systems, antenna systems for paging and mobility, board rooms and conference room systems, and A/V equipment.

However, it isn’t just knowing what systems are best that is at the core of CEC success; it’s having the right people that can best implement them. Dlouhy explains, “We’ve aligned ourselves with the best products in the industry, but, more importantly, it’s our people. We focus on hiring, developing and retaining the best in our industry. We are not a manufacturer. We are a technology service provider so it’s all about the right people capable of delivering the best experience possible.”

And CEC strives continually to reinforce its staff’s best practices. Since ’06 CEC has followed a strict continuous improvement program that drives evolution of the company. In order to meet the needs and wants of its customer base, “we have a customer advisory board,” says Dlouhy. “There is no guessing game. They tell us exactly the best ways to service them. It’s about getting better at what we do all the time.”

Following customer feedback has proven fortuitous for CEC on multiple occasions. When the security industry was booming in the 1980s, CEC entered the market at the request of its customers, and today CEC is known for its security system design and project management expertise. Then, in the 1990s, CEC stepped into what is now one of the company’s niche markets – fire alarms – thanks to being receptive to feedback in the form of “several customer requests.” Additionally, CEC recently acquired A&A Fire and Security (based in Green Bay, Wis.) and solidified its offerings in fire alarm test and inspect services.

Going Above and Beyond

CEC is an organization that is passionate about customer service and views its customers as partners. To support the business of its customers, CEC offers industry news, technical updates and educational events, including an annual Business Technology Conference every fall that is free to end-users. With specific customer service standards, the company stands behind the belief that “quality customer service means providing for customers beyond the solutions and service we offer … and (taking steps) to enhance the quality of life for customers, business partners and employees.” In addition to supporting the business of its customers, CEC and its employees support a number of customer community and charitable causes.

Also, several years ago, CEC implemented the first Electronic Systems Technician apprenticeship program in the U.S., a move commended by the U.S. Department of Labor. With a focus on developing employees, CEC continues to enhance its technical and professional development programs, including numerous certification opportunities and a nationally recognized leadership program..

This proactive approach has resulted in CEC growing by 23 percent in 2012. “We’re a solid company and we’ve been around a long time,” says Dlouhy. In the next few years, he predicts the company will continue to see that kind of growth, and gain “more of a footprint across the Midwest.” In December 2012, Systems Contractor News put CEC on the annual Top 50 Systems Integrators list, an honor CEC has received for the sixth straight year.

In the end, says Dlouhy, CEC’s track record of accolades and repeat customers is the logical result of “being constantly in a mode of improvement” as a company and having the right people in a team approach to deliver what customers need and want. Expanding on that concept, Dlouhy explains that CEC will always strive to “… do the right thing, and always stand behind what we do.” Led through evolution and record growth by executive management members that truly loves what they do, Communications Engineering Company will continue to realize its vast potential while feeding its customers’ appetites for the more innovative, integrated technologies.

Published on: March 28, 2013

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