Sunday, June 17, 2001

New owner decides smaller is better

Entrepreneur returns to the business that taught him about quality, service

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

        Chris Kelly found a way to satisfy his entrepreneurial drive at a business where he felt comfortable and had roots.

        While an undergraduate at Xavier University, Mr. Kelly came to work for Ascus Micro Inc., a Forest Park retailer of computers and software. He enjoyed working for owners Duane and Marlene Forste, and during four years he became knowledgeable about the industry.

[photo] Chris Kelly (left) helps Phil Said of Springfield Township in selecting a monitor.
(Dick Swaim photos)
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        But, wanting to start his own business, Mr. Kelly left after graduation and in 1998 developed Home Computer On Call, a consulting business. After six months he sold his company and went to work for a couple of large computer enterprises.

        It was an eye-opening experience. Mr. Kelly chafed when the company or his fellow sales representatives didn't show the same dedication to service that he had learned from the Forstes. Coming to work in the morning didn't hold a thrill.

        “Working for bigger companies, for me personally, wasn't nearly as rewarding,” he said. “I had more basis for comparison than some of the others.”

        So he approached the Ascus Micro owners about selling the business to him.

        Mr. Kelly bought the business in early April. The Forstes continue to staff Ascus, but they are free of the day-to-day demands of small-business ownership, can take vacations, and can begin planning for retirement.

[photo] Mr. Kelly assists Frank Messman (left) of Dayton, Ky., and Charles Dietz of Fort Thomas, two customers who run a consulting business.
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        Mr. Kelly is happy. He purchased a business he knew well from people he trusts. While his vision includes some expansions of product and service, he plans to build squarely on the foundation established by Mr. and Mrs. Forste.

        “I wanted to buy this business because of the relationships that they had built up over the years,” he said. “It's been a plus to have been here before; I'm getting reacquainted with customers.”

        When the Forstes established their computer shop in 1983, they thought they'd make a living by renting time on workstations to people who needed to use then-current software such as Multiplan, Multimate, WordPerfect and Lotus. After all, individual ownership of computers was much less widespread in the early 1980s and software was costly.

        “To their surprise, the Forstes found that their customers were more interested in Ascus Micro as a reseller of parts and peripherals,” Mr. Kelly said. “People would call up after seeing their ads and say, "Could I just buy that program from you?'”

        Ascus Micro Inc. has just signed on as a partner with Pinnacle Systems, one of the first producers of digital video equipment. That partnership means Ascus is Pinnacle's first authorized dealer in the region and can demonstrate the equipment in its showroom.
        “This kind of equipment used to be limited to studios or graphic design firms,” Mr. Kelly said. “Now other people can produce video content for their own companies or schools. Home users can add professional touches to their own videos.”
        The digital video equipment requires a computer with a fast processor and considerable memory and storage capacity. Prices are $3,000 to $5,000, including the computer hardware.
        Ascus Micro Inc. is at 680 Northland Blvd. and can be reached at 825-5803 or at
        Ascus repositioned itself as a retailer of computer hardware and software. Today, sales revenue tops $1 million a year. Mr. Kelly said revenues for the first quarter of 2001 are up about 10 percent, despite a general tech slowdown.

        “We have been somewhat insulated from recent fluctuations,” he said. “Our focus is on businesses and schools as well as the home enthusiast. The demand is pretty steady and 80 percent or more of our business is repeat business.”

        While the market is full of superstores that sell computer equipment at attractive prices, Mr. Kelly doesn't really regard those outlets as competition.

        “We don't claim to have the lowest prices,” he said. “What we do is put together a quality product and price it competitively. We're looking for people who want quality”

        and, he adds, people who appreciate a continuity of staff and service.

        By stocking components they think are the best, and asking customers what they need in a computer, the Ascus staff can customize a computer setup that meets those needs. After the system is installed, Ascus continues to provide help.

        “They're getting support from the same people who put together the PC package rather than from an Internet site or a tech-support hot line,” Mr. Kelly said.

        “Probably the primary reason we go there is their service. They've helped us in the middle of the night, and helped us through some serious problems,” said Charlie Dietz of Mobilcomm, a Greenhills provider of equipment for mobile communications. “I've referred my customers to Ascus for computers and they always come back and tell me they're very satisfied with their service.”

        Mr. Dietz was glad to see Mr. Kelly come back to the company, and he thinks the new ownership arrangement will work.

        “I worked closely with Chris on a couple of projects. I think he recognizes the value of the service (the Forstes) provide,” he said.

        Mr. Kelly plans to provide bonuses to Ascus' former owners if the business meets his new sales goals. He hopes that revenues will support the addition of one to two more staff members. And he's looking to expand into digital video, which he sees as the next significant computer-related market.

        Said Mr. Kelly: “I feel energized. This is not just the daily grind.”

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