Michael LeBlanc of CCi Voice: “Give back”

Give back. We have been working closely with non-profit customers for years, providing favorable pricing and donating to their causes. Lately, we have been increasing the pace significantly. One example is the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, for which we just agreed to provide free phone service estimated to save them over 10,000 dollars annually. We also […]

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Give back. We have been working closely with non-profit customers for years, providing favorable pricing and donating to their causes. Lately, we have been increasing the pace significantly. One example is the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, for which we just agreed to provide free phone service estimated to save them over 10,000 dollars annually. We also work with organizations like to find ways our staff can give back by volunteering. Employees want to make a difference in their communities, and their employers should make it easier for them to do so.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael LeBlanc.

Michael LeBlanc is President and CEO of CCi Voice in Redding, Conn. CCi Voice, formerly LeBlanc Communications Group Inc., is a leading provider of telephone and computer network equipment, software and services in Southern New England, New York and New Jersey. For over four decades, CCi Voice has been the go-to company for thousands of businesses, schools and nonprofits that need to install, maintain or upgrade their critical communications infrastructure, voice and computer cabling, as well as security and video surveillance.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I still feel like a child (I often act like one, according to my wife). Growing up, we moved around — Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and New Hampshire. My dad was an eager technical sales guy and district manager in the paper-chemical industry, and promotions often came with moves. I didn’t like having to start over making friends, but it did help me appreciate the importance of accepting change. That, and watching my dad’s entrepreneurial skills have helped me immensely in my own businesses and being a CEO. Having a heavy Massachusetts accent and moving to Michigan (where budding broadcasters go to learn to speak proper American English) was quite an awakening, as was a move down to North Carolina shortly thereafter. I was not only a “Yankee”, but a “damn Yankee” (a Northerner who doesn’t just visit but comes to stay)! This helped me appreciate that we have very different cultures in the U.S., and you must adapt to succeed. Change is a good thing and sitting still too long is boring.

Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A client once told me, “Problems don’t go away on their own; they only get bigger!” I learned to deal with things in the here and now: Fix the problem, correct the behavior, immediately do a course correction of the ship, before things get worse. It’s paid off, and whenever we don’t do this, the results speak for themselves.

Another “life lesson” well-learned as a business owner is to build a business where people need you regularly, and pay you regularly. Residual, monthly cash flow is the key to success.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The comment about “getting the right people on the bus” from James Collins’ book “Good to Great”: “First Who … Then What. We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats — and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage ‘People are your most important asset’ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

The other one was “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber (and “E-Myth Revisited”): “E-Myth \ ‘e-, ‘mith\ n 1: the entrepreneurial myth: the myth that most people who start small businesses are entrepreneurs 2: the fatal assumption that an individual who understands the technical work of a business can successfully run a business that does that technical work.”

So many people start a small business because they love what they do, but then they learn they need to do accounting, marketing, payroll, and learn regulatory requirements, and on and on. Find a way early on to outsource whatever you don’t like or that doesn’t come naturally to you. Then enjoy the work.

My biggest takeaway from those books? Stop trying to manage everything myself! The best thing I have done is to surround myself with passionate, motivated and smart people with great ideas, and then get the heck out of their way. Now I can work on my business day-to-day, and not just be working in my business.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I started as both an accountant and a computer jockey, very early in the PC industry. Working for the likes of Deloitte, Merrill Lynch and Oracle, I also had computer clients nights and weekends. My typical day was 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. In 1993, I jumped ship and started my own company (LeBlanc Communications Group). We did IT support and installed/supported phone systems. But when the first network-based phone system arrived in 1998, we found our true passion: Voice-over-IP (VoIP), although it wasn’t called that yet.

The major change happened five years ago. For decades, we had been putting phone systems in closets and then relying on various local and national carriers to keep the service running properly (which they seldom did). Our IT-networking smarts, combined with an affinity for Internet-connected phone systems merged into us becoming our own phone company. Since 2015, we have had clusters of servers at geographically diverse data centers to offer phone service to our customers. This is almost the only way to get phone service today, and it is called Hosted VoIP (Voice-over-IP). When a customer needs a change, we do it on a web-portal in minutes, not hours or days. And, no longer is a power or Internet failure at the customer’s building an issue. Our servers send calls anywhere the customers need.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

Prior to Covid-19, we would have around 100 support calls a day. In March 2020, that spiked to 300+ and our nimble team took action behind the scenes helping customers go remote. Every one of our cloud-hosted phone service customers was able to work from home seamlessly, on laptops or mobile phones, or by bringing the desk phone home. In June, it happened all over again — moving customers back to offices. We were prepared. The happiness we heard in the voices of our long-time customers made us feel like heroes.

Oh, and during all of this, we were also gearing up for a significant acquisition to expand our footprint in the region!

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

In late 2019 I received a call from a broker to sell a telecom company on Long Island. I wasn’t looking for an acquisition, but next thing I knew I was in negotiations to buy Tele-Verse Communications, a company founded in 1980 that was slightly larger than we were. They key was they had 750+ phone system customers, almost all of whom (except one) had a closet-based phone system. We struck a deal. We were ready to close around March 1, and then Covid-19 happened.

This is where “getting the right people on the bus” comes in. I had a buddy and former client on Long Island I always admired, John Doyle. When I decided the deal was real, he was my first call. I told him, “If you’re not in, I won’t buy this company.” I was thinking of him as my bus driver! We took over Tele-Verse Communications on July 1, 2020. When the dust settled, I had 15 terrific and dedicated new employees/partners on my team, ready to rock-and-roll, as we navigated the landscape and helped clients transition to the “new normal” work/life.

How are things going with this new initiative?

The Long Island office is gaining good traction. It takes time to turn an aircraft carrier, as they say, but every customer that has heard our pitch is on board. It’s only timing at play now. Fast-forward two years and I predict more than half of these customers will be on our cloud service, with all of their closet headaches behind them. We have hired four more people since the acquisition, with others to come.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is where it gets real. Aside from my dad, the other major force in my life is my wife of 23 years, Lisa. As an ADHD-entrepreneur (I just discovered that’s “a thing”), I need a bit of grounding from time to time. Lisa worked with me for three years while we were engaged, up until our first child was born in 1999. I had to hire two people to replace her! I am so grateful for that time together. She has been a full-time mom to our four (now almost fully adult) children, and has more than excelled. But more than that, she has been my business coach.

Where I can get overwhelmed managing sales opportunities and HR and big financial decisions, she brings a level head to the table. Just imagine the decision to buy a company, for a large sum of money (partially borrowed), during Covid! Yes, those were many extended conversations, and I’m so happy we did it “our” way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

The drive and resiliency we’ve seen from our team is just amazing. And the way our new employees (from the acquisition) rose to the occasion — they were starving for this technology and it just warms my heart to see them blossom under new leadership with new tools and new abilities.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

Golf, exercise, downtime.

I read the news a little too much, and I’ve been frustrated at our country’s less than perfect handling of things. However, I’m always an optimist so I don’t think this has been as stressful for me as for many. That being said, golf has been a wonderful way to escape, get some exercise and enjoy family. I use my treadmill most days, and Netflix is a godsend. But, have you discovered TikTok yet? Wow! What a time suck! And by the way, it’s not only for kids. This may be my newest obsession, just to escape a bit. The creativity of people blows my mind. If you haven’t used it, download the app and just start watching for free.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Build a business that earns residual (monthly) revenue.

In the early years selling phone systems, we told customers they didn’t need to pay ongoing warranty and maintenance. We sold plenty of systems that way. Then the economic shocks of Y2K and “Dot.Bomb” happened around the year 2000. Suddenly, businesses were not buying anything we sold or paying for support. This was one of our most difficult times, especially because we had just staffed up for growth. We had to lay off half of our staff and retool to become more residual-revenue focused. It worked. Two years later, every phone system we sold had a five-year warranty and maintenance contract attached, paid monthly or annually. We also staffed up again and were able to deliver for customers, while in exchange they were helping us pay our monthly bills.

2) Establish banking relationships early, when you don’t need the money.

Find the best local bank and befriend a good commercial banker. Go to networking meetings with her; take him out for breakfast regularly. Refer them to your other business friends (in other words, add value and get them deals). Share your successes and your funding needs. Get a credit line in place, and also some equipment or other borrowing. Then, when you hit a financial bump, the cushion will be there.

3) Hire people smarter and more experienced than you.

A good guess since we started is that we’re at a 3-for-1 success rate of hires vs. people who stayed. Often, we hired for specific types of experience instead of personality. Now, in our later years, we have long-lasting employees — those golden few who are priceless. What changed? We learned to seek entrepreneurial self-starters with drive and passion. We also give them the freedom to soar.

4) Pick solid, reputable and long-lasting suppliers.

We like to say we’re successful based on the “horse we ride in on.” The product or service we have chosen to sell has made all the difference, from customer satisfaction to ease of support, and more. Our favorite supplier for more than 11 years is a company called Sangoma. When a customer asks us for a new phone system feature, we pass the request to Sangoma and, surprise … it often only takes them 6–12 months to add this feature to the system. Maybe it’s because we have been 2nd in North America with them three times! When any business focuses on one or two key suppliers, it will pay great dividends.

5) Give back.

We have been working closely with non-profit customers for years, providing favorable pricing and donating to their causes. Lately, we have been increasing the pace significantly. One example is the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, for which we just agreed to provide free phone service estimated to save them over 10,000 dollars annually. We also work with organizations like to find ways our staff can give back by volunteering. Employees want to make a difference in their communities, and their employers should make it easier for them to do so.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Our company (and I personally) have been preaching the gospel of telecommuting, or working from home, since 2005 when we started offering this to our staff. Many of our staff do it full-time. My mind is still blown at how Covid-19 made working from home commonplace overnight. I never could have fathomed the entire world could learn the benefits and ease of telecommuting so quickly. This used to be our unique hiring advantage — but now everyone is doing it!

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I have such deep respect and admiration for Elon Musk. The massive changes he has brought about in green technologies, like solar and fully electric cars are immeasurable. If I could swap shoes with him for an hour or a day (or just have lunch), that would be my wish. I’ve been driving a Model S for almost five years and just got a Model 3 for our CTO as a perk. Did you know the only reason Tesla wants me to come in for service annually is to change the 2.00 dollars watch battery in my key fob? What if all cars were this way — no pollution (especially if you have solar panels at home for charging), fewer petroleum fluids, etc.? I hope Elon lives a long, successful and happy life. Just imagine if he does, where we will be in 30–40 years (besides Mars, of course).

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