Phone-system expert answers entrepreneurial call: Via savvy marketing, she turned her knowledge of telecommunications into a thriving consulting business

June 13, 2005

When Barb Grothe said goodbye to her paycheck and job security 19 years ago, she was just a little scared and wondered, "Now what do I do?" She had office space for her new telecommunications consulting company, Telecom Resources, and 15 years of experience, but no clients.

So she went about making herself known: she wrote articles for magazines, newspapers and journals (including IBJ) and scheduled speaking engagements. Almost each venture produced new clients, and Grothe was on her way.

For example, she spoke to the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns on choosing the right phone system. Since she doesn't believe in the "hard sell," she didn't mention her company name. But after the talk, five people gave her their business cards, and Hamilton County became one of her first clients.

Writing articles had the same effect. Potential clients would call and say, "I think you have a service we can use."

The service she provided was helping people make sense of all of the changes in the telecommunications industry after the phone companies split in 1984. "I saw everyone confused," Grothe said, and she realized: "I could make a living helping people sort this out."

When she developed her business plan in 1986, she figured she'd work for five years and then no one would be confused anymore. But she was wrong. "Here I am, 19 years later," she said. "Customers are still confused. There are even more choices now than 20 years ago. Technology has changed rapidly. Now we have voice over Internet."

Because of these changes, old clients return. "My clients that I helped almost 20 years ago now say, 'Let's yank this out and put in something new,'" Grothe said.

One client who returned to her after 10 years is Lou Renzi, chief financial officer of Quinco Consulting Center in Columbus, Ind., a community mental health center. They brought her back when they moved into a new building, Renzi said. "She follows up better than most and is quick to respond-she is very service-oriented."

Grothe's technological experience was gathered mostly on the job. She spent 13 years as telecommunications manager for Indianapolis-based Farm Bureau Insurance of Indiana, and then was hired by the Indianapolis-based George S. Olive & Co. accounting firm (which was bought out by Missouri-based BKD in the late 1990s). At Farm Bureau, she managed the phone systems and reviewed the bills. Grothe claims that 98 percent of business phone bills have errors, and part of her job was to spot these mistakes.

She also managed the communications systems for the 125 Farm Bureau branch offices to ensure everyone had the same system. "We cookie-cuttered it and saved money," she said.

At Olive, she was senior telecommunications consultant for the company's tax and audit clients for two years-doing the same thing for that company's Indiana clients that she had done for Farm Bureau.

Wanted more flexibility

The idea of starting her own business took root toward the end of her Farm Bureau days. "I knew I could do it for myself and not someone else," she said. Her motivation was that she wanted to be her own boss, plus she wanted more flexibility while raising her sons. Having her own business allowed her to attend school plays and other activities that can't fit into a 9-to-5 job. Furthermore, she really wanted to help people sort out their communications problems.

Times were different then, so she rented office space. "It was not good to work at home in the mid-'80s. If you worked at home, that was a sign that you weren't successful," said Grothe, 51.

That attitude changed in the '90s with the cell phone. "I didn't have to be tied to a desk anymore," she said. Her first cell phone in 1987 cost $900. "Now they sometimes give them away."

Although she continues to rent office space for the business address, deliveries and the use of a conference room, her office is now at home.

And she is no longer completely on her own-her husband, Mike Grothe, joined her firm in June 2003. Before that, he had his own telecommunication equipment company and sold phone systems. However, to maintain an ethical standard, he never put in bids with her clients. She didn't want to give up her unbiased status as an independent consultant who could look at a situation without having a product to push. "I pick a vendor that suits the client's needs," she said.

Grothe's clients seem to be loyal to her. "When Barb and Mike did the telephone inventory for Wishard Hospital, they even crawled under desks," said Kevin Swing, information-technology services manager at Wishard Health Services. "The amount of information they have provided is overwhelming. We have to be creative with money, and Barb has made a huge financial impact."

Uncommon vocation

Independent consultants such as Grothe aren't too common. She networks with about 300 of them in the United States, she said. They have their own organization, the Society of Telecommunications Consultants, which meets twice a year. About 70 percent of the members are men, so, during the meetings, programs for the spouses were set up, such as an afternoon tea. When her husband traveled to these meetings with her, he did not attend the spouses' tea. "The only tee I want is on a golf course," he said. However, now that he is in the business, he can attend the meetings as an equal.

Well, almost an equal-her office is on the main floor of their home and his is on the lower level. They have a long history together. They were sweethearts at Roncalli High School and married in 1973. Both of their sons at one time worked for their father. One is now an IT recruiter, and the other sells mortgages.

Will the boys ever join the business? This is not impossible-"They understand what we do"-but right now, the boys are happy in their own jobs.

Grothe loves consulting, both meeting new people and figuring out solutions. In the beginning, she had to fight the tendency to want to do it all. "I thought I could do the project, the billing, the sales and the accounts." Within six years, she realized that sometimes you need help. "I now have someone do our books," she said.

Another challenge is maintaining a balance-"keeping the right number of projects going." You need to make sure you always have business, but not too much, she said. "It is a balancing act, like a roller coaster."

Owning your own business presents other balancing challenges. "You have to know what is important in life," Grothe said. For her, work often comes first, although she realizes that family should be first.

She and Mike try to turn off the "shop talk" on Sundays. She also cares for elderly family members. Her "closet" interest-and it is indeed still in the closet-is a collection of 47 Barbie dolls.

As for the future, Grothe said, "I'd like to continue taking care of my clients." Her oft-repeated motto: "If you take good care of the customers, they will take care of you."

Grothe started her business when she realized she could help people make sense of the changes in the telecommunications industry.
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