Expanding into a third century

In its 125 year existence, Ahearn & Sopher Inc. has installed everything from telephone and telegraph lines to RFID systems.

This month the industrial automation systems integrator is preparing to break ground on an 8,000 square-foot addition to its Toronto headquarters, expanding the space by one-third to bring it into its third century of business.

“We need to expand our label production facility because our business is growing,” explains company president John Paul, “and we need to do the same thing with our automation business.”

A & S, which Paul says has annual revenues of about $20 million a year, has carved out a niche in the industrial world, assembling bar code and wireless labelling systems as well as manufacturing custom automation equipment and warehouse management systems for small and medium businesses.

From A to Z
Its partners are a Who’s Who of the labelling industry — companies from Accu-Sort to Zebra. Some of its solutions are re-sold by other VARs.

The biggest chunk of its revenues come from product identification and data collection systems such as scanners. It even spins out its own labels on which customers can print bar codes and other identifying marks.

But its fastest growth is assembling devices such as automated vision systems, to assure manufacturing quality control.

To protect its position the company specializes in orders under $1 million.

As a result, it has grown to have branches in Montreal, Ottawa, Waterloo, Calgary, Vancouver and Detroit.

The company’s long trail to this position, however, was less than straightforward.

A & S began as a telephone and telegraph line installation firm in 1881 which branched out into communications, heat, light and power systems.

In 1962, it was bought by Industrial Wire and Cable, hoping it could take advantage of A & S’s link to Siemens and licence the German company’s technology. When that proved wrong, it sold A & S to Industrial Wire & Cable president Doug Zimmerman and Paul’s father, Joseph.

At the time the firm focused mainly on reselling process data collection systems. As they became computerized it moved ito minicomputers in the 1970s, becoming a systems integrator of high performance peripherals such as high capacity disk, tape and printing systems.

Meanwhile in 1973, 21-year-old John Paul, who had been studying computer science at York University, joined the firm.

Over the next 15 years he did virtually everything from working in the warehouse to becoming vice-president of sales. In 1988 he succeeded his father as president.

Too diversified
For a time in the 1980s, A & S manufactured its own daisy wheel word processor, the Multiwriter, which led A & S into software development.

The printing systems business brought it into non-impact raster printing and graphics, then to CAD, mapping and other imaging systems and even a sign business.

But all this diversification was nearly the company’s biggest mistake, Paul says now, as it was pulled in different directions. “I should have chosen one horse or another earlier than I did,” he said, “because you can’t be successful pursuing two widely divergent businesses.”

About seven years ago he sold the graphics division. “But had we taken the resources (that) went into that business and invested it in the automatic identification business we would be much further ahead than we are.”

“It’s a good job and I enjoy it,” he reflects on his job at the top, “but it’s not as exciting as being out there with the customers all the time.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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