If the old brick house blaring classic rock in downtown Waterloo doesn’t tell you FoxNet Solutions is a different kind of IT operation, then maybe the bar inside, fitted with a pair of draft taps, will.

Either way, Bill Fox and his seven-member team have managed to defy most IT-guy stereotypes as they’ve steadily built towards $15 million in annual revenue, which they hope to see this year.

That means working hard to meet the ever-evolving needs of a list of mid- to large-sized clients that include software giant OpenText and satellite systems leader COM DEV, but also playing hard to infuse the FoxNet team and its customer relationships with some fun.

I bellied up to the FoxNet bar recently, where Bill pulled us a couple of cold ones as we talked about his long career in IT, industry trends and the importance of mixing pleasure with business.

Q – Tell me about your IT career.

A – I started in the mid-to-late 80s with Hewlett Packard and I worked there for probably five or six years, from this area. I’ve lived in this area since 1985, and I’m originally from Caledonia, Ontario.

I went to the University of Western Ontario, but I don’t have any sort of technical background; I have an economics background.

I also did accounting-type stuff but I chose not to go into that field.

Eventually I was at HP, and then I went on to Oracle, and through the years of experience there – I was there another five or six years – I met up with a guy who had a business that’s similar to this kind of business, and he and I went into partnership.

I opened up what was basically a southwestern Ontario affiliate of what he was doing in Toronto. The company was called Arqana.

With Oracle, I was always living here; I was basically a southwestern Ontario representative of both HP and Oracle. I was in sales.

So, Arqana was purchased by Telus around 2001, I guess. Two of the key people who are here with me at FoxNet, I actually hired them into Arqana.

We were purchased by Telus and it was right after the Y2K crash. All the IT companies were struggling; there wasn’t a lot of business to be had and the market was soft.

Telus basically started to retract the offices, and one of the ones was here, so I approached these two key individuals who were with me and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we just start it up on our own?’

So we actually took the office back from Telus and went back out to the customers who knew us, and it’s been 10 years now.

We stayed in that office, on King Street in Waterloo, for a while and we then moved here. We purchased this building and redid the whole thing for what we wanted to do about six years ago.

Q – What made you choose this location?

A – We like being in Uptown Waterloo, for starters. The rent was getting crazy, and it was getting to the point where we didn’t have enough space, so we felt, ‘Maybe we should try to buy something, and something kind of different for IT.’

We don’t have inventory or anything; all we have is people. We have a training centre in here, as well as our boardroom and entertainment centre.

Q – I was going to say, before I even came inside, I thought, ‘Wow, this is not what the average person would probably expect of an IT business.’ It’s a really cool old house and you come in and there are beer taps, and there’s rock blaring from the radio.

A – That’s sort of one of our signatures as an IT company.

We have a lot of events. We actually do an annual golf event for KidsAbility; we’ve raised almost $70,000 for them over the last few years.

Our events tend to be injected with lots of fun; we just had our Kim Mitchell 10th anniversary party; we always have a St. Paddy’s Day party. We do a lot of that kind of stuff with our customers and our vendor partners.

Going back to the genesis of what we were selling, we were strictly a Hewlett Packard partner when we began. Given our background, we knew a lot of the Hewlett Packard customers, so we became specialists in delivering the infrastructure for customers who had rather complex business needs, and business applications like SAP which I’m sure you’ve heard of.

That was our only focus for the first few years, but as the market changed, we adapted our product family to reflect that, and we started going into the virtualization market, where virtualized software called VMware is one of the leaders.

Q – Simply put, what is virtualization?

A – It’s basically taking several hundred physical servers, pieces of hardware, and virtualizing them using software to what is probably at least a 10-to-one ratio. So, it’s a good, green type of initiative because it saves so much power and air conditioning and all that kind of stuff, but it also reduces the footprint of your IT.

We’ve done several of those big projects.

Q – How does software replace a bunch of servers?

A – Basically it has the ability to act as a server, so we could put virtual servers onto one physical machine, but each one of these virtual servers does exactly what a physical server would do in the past. So, it acts and behaves just like a regular server, except the software allows it to run its application in combination with other virtual servers on one physical piece of hardware.

Storage is also a very large aspect of what we do. We’re talking in terms of hundreds of terabytes of storage with most of our companies.

Q – So most of the hardware resides with your clients, and you’re showing them how to use it to their best advantage?

A – There are myriad solutions that a customer could require, and what we do is architect it. They say, ‘We’re trying to solve this problem,’ and we have a number of different solutions that might fit that. Our job is to come to the table with the right solution that’s the most economical and fits their environment.

Q – Where are most of your customers?

A – Ontario. We have quite a few in this area, but we have customers as far away as Sarnia, downtown Toronto, Hamilton and London. K-W and Cambridge is a good area for us in terms of us for our customer base.

Q – How big is your biggest customer?

A – ArcelorMittal, which is formerly Dofasco, has been a big customer of ours for a number of years, and there are thousands of employees there.

The University of Western Ontario is a big customer of ours.

OpenText is a very big customer of ours, but in terms of employees, they wouldn’t have tens of thousands, but they’re also the largest software company in Canada.

So those are three notables.

We also do business with FedEx Canada, which is a large entity.

Our focus really is not the small business market; it’s more mid-sized and upwards.

COM DEV is a very big customer of ours, actually. They’re not that big a company, but they are all knowledge workers, and anybody that has a number of knowledge workers and engineers, there’s a lot of sophistication they need.

Q – Respond to this statement: “IT is boring and not at all sexy.”

A – Of course, we are the plumbers of the tech world; that’s why we don’t get the glamour and the press that others would get. Maybe we don’t have plumber’s butt and all that stuff, but it is just not the sexy stuff, and we’re not the creators of our own technology. We are basically in a systems-integrator, solution-provider kind of role.

Q – But?

A – But it’s very interesting work. We’re solving business problems, and without it all the sexy business applications don’t run properly, unless that superhighway underneath it is also performing properly.

In a lot of cases, they’re the most hated people in a company. We are not, in that sense, because we are just providing it; we’re not doing the day-to-day maintenance on it, and we’re not the ones you have to come and ask for this and that and the other thing.

Our customers are the IT guys.

Q – Getting back to COM DEV, you’ve worked with some really big clients with some unique demands. Tell me how unique COM DEV’s problem was and how you solved it.

A – They have to keep their information for a long, long period of time, because they have components of satellites up in the sky for, maybe, 20 years at times.

So, that information, as you can imagine, has a lot of data in it, and that needs to be archived and be able to be accessible, and you don’t want to leave it on your primary, expensive storage solutions.

The idea is to take that information and have it automatically – say, after two years – archive into a cheaper way of storing it that you can still access if there is a need to access it.

There’s a number of different ways you could have sliced it, and the way we approached it seemed like the best way, and I think it will be the best way.

Q – Twenty years in IT is like 150 normal years. How do you ensure that, 20 years down the road, that information is still going to be there?

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About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.