February 2, 1998 in Nation/World

Rick Hansen High Demand Disrupts Plan For Slow, Controlled Growth In Electronics Form

Michael Murphey Staff writer

Visiontec doesn’t have a president. Neither does it have a director of operations, nor a vice president of engineering nor an administrative assistant nor a purchasing agent.

It does have, however, a vision maker, a trail blazer, an imagineer, a juggler, an appropriator and an orchestrator.

And it’s growing like crazy.

In business for less than two years, Visiontec has grown to 40 employees and about $2 million in sales. All that despite founder Rick Hansen’s original determination to be a $1 million company with about 15 employees.

“I just didn’t think we wanted the headaches of being bigger,” Hansen says. “I felt, ‘Let’s just stay small. Let’s just take it easy. Let’s not work too hard at it.”’

But success keeps forcing the parameters to change. Until a few weeks ago, Hansen was going to keep things contained at about 50 employees and $5 million in sales.

But more business came through the door, and now, the upper limits are “a couple of teams of 50 employees each, and $10 million.”

If Hansen, who carries the corporate title of vision maker, doesn’t sound exactly like the typical entrepreneur, it’s because he isn’t.

And he doesn’t want his company to be a typical one, either.

“One of my beliefs,” Hansen says, “is that if we’re not having fun at it, it doesn’t matter what our goals are, because we won’t get there.

“We are trying very hard not to be that standard stark-white electronics company.”

Visiontec is a Spokane Valley company that specializes in the custom manufacture of electronic cables, and the repair and custom manufacturing of surface mount circuit boards. And despite Hansen’s careful designs, the customers keep showing up and asking for more.

Visiontec currently has six customers in the Northwest. It hopes to expand that to 10 and add other geographic areas, like California or Utah, to the mix. As is typical in the electronics industry, Visiontec is reluctant to name its customers.

The company was born of loneliness.

Hansen, a Spokane native, obtained a three-year electronics degree from Spokane Community College and went to work for ISC Systems in the 1980s. Then he moved to Quality Controlled Rebuilders, which rebuilt electronics equipment used in the nuclear power industry. There, he got a good background in quality management and formed his own company, The Qualifier Corp., to provide consultation to manufacturers, service providers, utilities and research and development companies in the Northwest.

The company was successful, but, “Consulting can be a lonely profession,” Hansen says.

“In consulting,” he explained, “you always end up the bad guy. Whether what you offer is good, bad, right, wrong or indifferent - as soon as you leave, if anything goes wrong, it’s the consultant’s fault.”

He would make suggestions about management solutions to clients, and couldn’t help but think what it would be like to be able to choose the people, choose the course and build the team to implement the solutions.

“And that’s the biggest thing I was missing in my career,” he says. “I wasn’t a part of a team.”

So in March 1996, he and four partners founded Visontec as a company that was going to build cables for electronic equipment.

“Our goal was to build a million dollar company and go to Hawaii or Southern California once a year for a business retreat,” he says.

But things just got out of hand.

The company jumped from seven to 15 employees in the first three months. By the end of the year, the work force had expanded to 25, and Visiontec was going beyond cables to the repair of complex, expensive surface mount circuit boards.

That happened because a happy customer asked Hansen if he thought Visiontec could do the repairs. He decided they could.

“My background in consulting led me to believe that no matter what a company makes, it’s really a service company,” Hansen explains. “So if the customer wanted a higher level of service, I felt like we needed to try and provide that.”

He had to hire a couple of key people with surface mount expertise. Once that was done, it was only logical to try to expand that aspect of Visiontec’s business. Now the company custom manufactures the surface mount boards to customers’ designs.

With the growth came management issues that Hansen initially hadn’t wanted to deal with. His response, though, was to put into practice some of the concepts he had dealt with as a consultant.

“We don’t have production managers or supervisors,” he says. “Our people are led by team-leads. They don’t perform any of the disciplinary actions most supervisors do. And we’re working to help the teams so they can hire and fire their own employees on the team.”

The model requires a higher level of investment in the employees in terms of training and responsibility. But that fit with Hansen’s consultant-based beliefs as well.

In his consulting work, Hansen says, he would see the bits and pieces that each individual company did very well.

“I saw one organization that treated its people with the highest regard and respect,” Hansen says. “It would give them every opportunity to improve themselves. It would invest in them. And I thought, ‘what a great concept.”’

So Visiontec is a company without offices, with a limited hierarchy, with a premium on communication.

“We tell everybody where we are, where we are going, what difficulties we face,” Hansen says. “We try not to leave anyone in the dark. We try not to wait for a crisis before we tell them what’s going on.”

The non-traditional corporate titles are at least in part an effort to separate the company from its traditional counterparts in the minds of employees.

Visiontec’s rapid growth has required an influx of new money to feed the growth. It is now a partnership of 14 investors.

All-in-all, it’s shaping up as a much more complex operation than Hansen and his original investor group had wanted.

But the excitement of growth has more than offset those original misgivings about making life too complicated.

“What changed it for me,” Hansen says, “was when I began to see what Visiontec’s capability had become.

“We started seeing there was a lot more potential here than just doing cables. We started to see that if we invested in our people, we could be much more than the vision we initially wanted to limit ourselves to.

“We saw the opportunity here for what it could be.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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