You might think that problems wouldn’t sneak up on a company called Stealth Computer Corp., but eight years ago a serious one did.
The Woodbridge, Ont., firm is one of the nation’s specialized system builders, assembling ruggedized PCs, flat panel monitors, keyboards and pointing devices found everywhere from factory floors to private yachts.
But in late December 1998 a company that had bought some $500,000 worth of fault-tolerant equipment for a European telco wasn’t paying its bills.
Stealth president and CEO Ed Boutilier remembers it as a scary moment for the small company he began on a shoestring 16 years ago next month.
At that time he was working for a company that made microprocessor-based distributed control systems for manufacturing industries, travelling across North America integrating its hardware with oil and gas or brewing company machinery.
Then, a seeming catastrophe – one morning the struggling company’s doors were locked.
“I saw it as an opportunity,” he recalls. “It was quite exciting because I knew at some time I would do my own thing, and this was an opportunity to do it now.”
It was 1990, when the IBM PC and dozens of clones were beginning to be adapted to factory floor work. But they weren’t tough enough to withstand hot, greasy or damp conditions.
Boutilier thought there was a market to build and sell PCs to withstand hostile environments.
It helped that he was a bachelor, for he didn’t have a lot of savings. Working from his apartment he began what was initially called the Nexxus Group, hired a few colleagues and went looking for work.
“We really got our foot in the door by servicing other companies’ computers and doing systems integration,” he says. But they were also looking for a customer. They found one in General Motors, which wanted a rugged computing system for a St. Catherines, Ont., foundary. Boutilier won the contract and made his first product. It was black. The first Gulf War had started. So it was dubbed The Stealth Rack.
From there the company began building rugged PCs for racks, control panels or behind outdoor signs. Over the years it has expanded into portable PCs.One of its most popular lines, the Little PC, has been wedged into racing cars, wheelchairs and private planes.
Customers range from NASA to Kraft Foods to Canada’s defence department.
“It’s been slow growth,” says Boutilier, who has been cautious about spending. The company has no debt, has revenues of about $10 million a year and is completely self-financed.
But looking back he does have some second thoughts. “Even though we’ve had great success and great fun, there’s been opportunity to grow the company, and we might have been even more successful taking more chances.”
Roughly half of his sales goes through VARs, while the rest comes from sales to original equipment manufacturers.
Success, he says, comes from staying close to customers.
With some 50 per cent of sales coming from Canada and 40 per cent from the U.S., his business plan calls for international expansion.
There have been potential buyers, which taught him a lesson about valuations when a California company made an offer.
“Myself being a bit naïve, I think I might have disclosed more than I should have,” he says, for the firm decided to open an office here and compete. Several years later after “mediocre” sales it made another offer, but it became a distraction so Boutilier said no.
As for that financing trouble, there was a non-stealthy solution.
“I was able to track down the president at home on Christmas and made a plea to him to get paid.” It worked.