Daring Decisions, Remarkable Results
Transcendent leadership philosophy drives evolution of Communication Company of South Bend, Inc.
A decade has gone by since the official end of the Great Recession, but the financial crisis is still fresh in the minds of many business leaders, including Daniel Schmidtendorff, President and CEO of Communication Company of South Bend, Inc., an audio visual, life safety, security and communication systems firm headquartered in South Bend, Indiana.
Established in 1976 by Vern McCain and Tibor Folding, the company started out providing products and installation/maintenance services to clients in the K-12 market, partnering on projects with Rauland, a division of AMETEK, Inc., which designs and delivers critical communications, workflow and safety solutions worldwide. Next, it branched into the fire alarm industry as a value-added partner of Cerberus Pyrotronics, now known as Siemens, a global supplier focusing on the areas of electrification, automation and digitalization. Today, Communication Company of South Bend specializes in designing, installing and servicing low-voltage life safety, security, audio visual and communication systems in various markets, including health care, education, government, commercial and entertainment.
When Schmidtendorff and his business partner at the time, Barry Schleiger, purchased the company in December 2006, they were determined to cultivate future growth by expanding the firm’s dominance in health care and other markets, as well as enhance operations and procedures.
But little did they know that a national economic collapse was just around the corner.
Great Recession…an Opportunity for Growth?
When the recession struck in 2007, Schmidtendorff—a perpetual optimist—felt that a knee-jerk reaction to the situation would be counterintuitive.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is a media thing, a political thing—it’s probably being amplified into a bigger deal than it really is,’” he says. Despite his resolve to operate the business in normal form, the country’s situation worsened. Plummeting housing prices devastated Wall Street and the banking industry, resulting in volatile market shifts that impacted his company most significantly in 2009. “Before work one day, a news anchor announced that unemployment rates and foreclosures were at an all-time high, and interest rates were declining quickly. I said to myself, ‘This is horrible…this is really coming to fruition, and here I am in denial that this is actually happening,’ ” Schmidtendorff says.
During his 30-minute drive to the office that morning, he contemplated how he would address his staff’s concerns about the economic turbulence. Once at his desk, he drafted a motivating email assuring his team there would be no layoffs because the company simply “would not participate” in the recession.
“To overcome challenges spurred by the economic downturn, we developed a strategy regarding who we would do business with, which projects we would take on, and which vendors we would partner with. Our plan also focused on deepening relationships with our targeted customers and vendors,” Schmidtendorff says. “This resulted in us taking on more long-term work, even if the profits were less lucrative than other jobs.”
The strategy proved effective, keeping the company aloft during a time when more than 200,000 other small businesses were forced to close shop. “Our margins got a little slimmer, but we made it without sacrificing people or losing money. In fact, we actually grew our staff and client base because we used this ‘opportunity’ to cut inefficiencies in our processes,” he says.
He attributes the staff’s united efforts as key to rising above this time of adversity. “Our team came together to make sure the company didn’t fall apart,” Schmidtendorff says. “It’s a time in our company’s history that makes me really proud.”
Schmidtendorff’s conscious choice to reject the status quo was also crucial in fueling this victory. This transcendent perspective is reminiscent of a quote made by famed American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” From this standpoint, one could surmise the company leader’s willpower affected the positive outcome.
Maximizing Training, Efficiency
The company’s staff has more than tripled under the new ownership, from 14 in 2006 to around 60 today. These engineers, installation and service techs, estimators, sales specialists, office personnel and others are given many opportunities to develop their professional abilities and product knowledge. These opportunities include professional development courses, conferences, trade shows and internal sales training.
“We also focus on making sure our staff has the highest level of credentials to perform work, from certifications in their respective disciplines to factory certifications that provide guidance on proper system installation,” Schmidtendorff says. The company cross-trains in many areas, feeling a broad understanding of product design and function makes the team more capable.
Schmidtendorff admits it takes tremendous effort to coordinate external and internal training programs. But he feels strongly that capable employees are more efficient—which helps to maximize profits and keep clients happy.
He adds, “You’ve heard the old adage that some people shy away from employee development because they think, ‘If you train them, they’ll leave.’ But I have an opposite perception: ‘If we train them, they’ll stay.’” He believes they’ll stay because they’re more comfortable in their roles, and because they can estimate jobs more efficiently while providing customers with the best possible value. “If employees are more proficient from a services standpoint, we can get systems commissioned quicker—saving clients time and money—and take on more projects.”
Another point of efficiency is the company’s transition to electronic, paperless systems. “Practically everything we do now in the field and in the office is computerized and automated, which enables us to pass along our cost savings to customers,” Schmidtendorff says.
Creating ‘Wow’ Experiences for Customers
Every company aspires to provide high-quality services or products. Communication Company of South Bend takes this objective even further by striving “to be the best at what we do in our industry, while serving customers and creating the ‘WOW’ in every experience,” Schmidtendorff says.
“Our mission is to be a trusted advisor that offers superior experiences when providing life safety, security and communication systems for critical environments,” he shares. “This starts with understanding and enhancing the ‘why’ behind what you do. Our life safety systems, for example, save lives and protect people’s properties and their assets. Our nurse call systems assure medical personnel are alerted to health care emergencies at the push of a button. We’re passionate about the intrinsic good behind providing such systems—and customizing them to meet clients’ needs more effectively.”
Philanthropy and Building Relationships
The leadership at Communication Company of South Bend is attuned to building relationships with both employees and clients, and even finds creative ways to do both simultaneously. For example, the company sponsors its annual Christmas party at clients’ facilities, where staff and their families can get a firsthand look at the systems and products the firm has installed. Seeing these completed jobs makes the work even more meaningful, says Schmidtendorff. He adds that renting clients’ venues is also a great way of showing appreciation and celebrating partnerships.
“Last December, we held our Christmas party at a former historic library in Mishawaka, Indiana, that was converted into a special events hall with a restaurant below it. We designed and installed all the fire protection and security systems in that building. On top of renting the space, we brought in an outside company, Magnovo Training Group, to facilitate a Build-A-Bike® team building exercise—a complete surprise for the staff,” Schmidtendorff says. “After a fun icebreaker activity, we divided into small groups to participate in mini games as we competed for parts to build the bicycles. Afterward, we personally distributed the bikes to children from the Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Schmidtendorff received cards, texts and emails from staff commenting on how memorable the experience was. This single event accomplished many important goals, including celebrating a client partnership, building camaraderie among the staff, and selflessly giving to others in the community.
“These types of activities are just part of who we are as a company,” he says. “Helping the community through donations, volunteering or random acts of kindness brings us together and reflects our progressive sense of serving others’ needs—whether it’s through installing a state-of-the-art fire alarm system or building a preschooler’s bicycle.”
Communication Company of South Bend is continuing to grow its operations and has no intention of slowing down. One example of expansion is its recent acquisition of Midwest Quality Fire, a Michigan-based fire extinguisher company. “We are extremely excited about this new partnership as it expands our product offerings and complements our current direction in the fire alarm industry,” Schmidtendorff says.
He adds that this year his company became Siemens’ new fire alarm systems integrator for Columbus, Ohio, and surrounding territories in the state. Schmidtendorff is already working on plans for a new Ohio branch office.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Throughout his career at Communication Company of South Bend, Schmidtendorff has surrounded himself with people who have inspired him, and organizations that have sharpened his professional understandings. Individuals who top this list include McCain and Folding, the company founders who provided mentorship after he joined the firm. There’s also Schleiger, a wise, intelligent advisor whom Schmidtendorff depended on greatly when the pair ran the business together between 2006 and 2017.
Another esteemed person is David “Dave” Askew, a friend and colleague who worked with Schmidtendorff at a previous firm, then recruited him to work at Communication Company of South Bend. Askew still works at the company part time and serves as a mentor to others on the team.
Cooper Christensen, an employee who joined the company in November 2004, was instrumental in helping him expand the firm’s footprint in the health care market. He’s now the company’s Health Care Systems Consultant.
“I continue to surround myself with successful people and great mentors who offer a diversity of perspectives,” Schmidtendorff says. “I am blessed also to have great relationships in our same industry with individuals who offer guidance in strategic business decisions—people like Raymond “Ray” Bailey, President and CEO of Lone Star Communications, Inc. and Kevin Bauer, President of Evco Sound & Electronics, Inc.”
Since 2007, Schmidtendorff has maintained membership with Vistage, a global company coaching CEOs, business owners and key executives across 20 countries, and this year he joined the board of directors at the National Systems Contractors Association, a group committed to advancing the commercial electronic systems industry.
As Schmidtendorff continues his journey to keep the company progressive and customer-oriented, the husband and father of two also relies on his passion and strong work ethic to achieve his goals.
Was it luck or fate that brought Schmidtendorff to Communication Company of South Bend? Given his dedication to his team and his passion for providing customers with unforgettably positive experiences, he’s proven another of Emerson’s visionary theories: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”