It’s “Something” Personal
Columbia Pacific Telesystems brings human touch, experience to high-tech telecommunications world
There is a downhome, comforting feeling when it comes to contacting the offices of Columbia Pacific Telesystems in San Diego.
Part of this is the fact that no matter when you call during business hours, a live person answers the phone. A larger part, however, is who typically picks up that phone. That person is 76-year-old owner, CEO and President Karen Herreros, who is also the company’s lead dispatcher.
Since joining her husband, George R. Herreros, in the family business in 1986, Karen has been the first person to arrive in the office every day. By 7:30 a.m. she is answering phones and making sure the technicians are set up to hit the road running for their customers.
“It’s something I like doing, and it’s needed,” Herreros says. “You have to have a reason to get up in the morning, right? To me, our customers are more like family. They appreciate knowing that when they call, they will get a live person picking up on the other end and we will work with them to solve the problems. The last thing you want if your lines are down at a business is to get a voicemail and your customers can’t reach you. Sometimes, it’s just a little old lady on the other end, and that’s just as important to us.”
A True Family Business
Columbia Pacific Telesystems was formed in 1984 by the late George Herreros—almost by accident. He and Karen were at a San Diego Padres baseball game with a friend who knew he had recently retired from Pacific Bell Telephone Company (Pacific Bell). That’s when the friend casually asked him for advice on finding phones and a reliable system for his business.
“He said he could do it for him,” Karen says. “Then, another friend asked and pretty soon he was getting referrals. “We had both been working for Pacific Bell for years, but George had just retired because he hated cold weather and didn’t want to move to San Francisco for a position they had offered him. The next thing you know, he’s hiring our daughter (Kelly) and the son of a family friend (Mike Villarino) and turning our house into the office.”
Three upstairs bedrooms in the family home were converted into offices, and the garage was turned into a warehouse for equipment. The kitchen table, once used for family meals, was now the resting place for the fax machine.
“That lasted about two years,” Karen says, laughing. “I made sure I got my house back, and we have always found office space within 10 minutes from our house. I never want to be too far away from the business.”
Columbia Pacific Telesystems has been in its current location since 2016 and now has six employees. At its peak, it had more than 20 employees. Karen says the family has opted to downsize—not only because of changes in the industry, but also because it wants to maintain strong relationships with customers.
“Every customer is like family to my mom,” says Kelly Villarino, the company’s first employee and office manager. “There are customers who she sends birthday cards to on their birthdays. She knows their family and life history and is a friend to everyone she meets or talks to. She goes above and beyond to make sure our customers and vendors realize they are a part of the family.”
Karen, Kelly and Mike (who is now Kelly’s husband and the lead technician), have more than 74 years of combined experience with the company.
“Since we all have different positions, it helps to reduce tension and conflict,” Kelly says. “It helps to all come together to solve problems. Since my mom and I are close, it has helped us in the day-to-day operations. We pretty much think the same way and solve problems the same way. You have to be very compatible to work together for 34 years, and for the most part, we have not had any issues. The only downside has been it is very hard to schedule family events or vacations.”
Evolving with the Times
Columbia Pacific Telesystems has evolved with the times. When it was founded in 1984, customers in the San Diego area basically had one choice to get an analog dial tone using a landline: Pacific Bell.
Today, challenges arise from AT&T, Cox, TPx Communications (formerly TelePacific) and other telecommunication behemoths. According to Karen, landlines, for many customers, are going the way of newspapers, CDs, cassette tapes and phone booths.
“Someday it may all be wireless,” she says without pause. “But there is still a place for landlines. Restaurants need them, for example, and if there is ever an emergency, such as an earthquake or tornado, towers go down. You need that extra measure of reliability.”
Today, among the services and systems Columbia Pacific Telesystems offers are Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), fiber-optic cabling, voice and data cabling, local long-distance phone bill analysis, IP phone systems, cloud-based (hosted) phone systems, hybrid IP phone systems (digital and analog) and call accounting/call recording software. The company has partnerships with some of the top VoIP providers in the country to easily upgrade SIP and IP systems.
“So much has changed since 1984, and this industry has gotten tough,” Karen says, “but we started with the idea of offering personal service and that has stuck with us today. Our list of services has expanded, and with Mike, we have the best technician in the industry. He keeps on top of everything.”
One of Columbia Pacific Telesystems’ longtime customers is Billy Anderson, information technology director for the Cohn Restaurant Group based in San Diego.
The family-owned group operates 27 restaurants, including The Plantation House, which is world-famous and located on the Kapalua Golf Course on the Island of Maui in Hawaii.
“Columbia manages all of our cabling projects and phone systems,” Billy says. “If I need something done, I go with them. We basically finish each other’s sentences when we’re working together. That’s how well we know each other. I’ve worked with other companies, and honestly, it always seems to be more difficult. There are a lot of unknowns when engineering a system, and you need someone who knows the business and knows what we need and don’t need. That basically sums up the value of Columbia Pacific Telesystems to me.”
Billy likes the company’s personal touch. He says if a new product comes out, the staff will give an honest evaluation of how it fits in with their existing systems.
“For restaurants, when it comes to phones, they have to work so guests can make reservations,” he explains. “The voice part is simple: The phone system just needs to handle heavy traffic because it is in constant use and is the lifeline to our guests.” Columbia offers a wide array of products, but they won’t sell us one that’s not been rigorously tested. I like the price, service and support, and it is always ‘yes’ or ‘let’s find a way,’ which is simply refreshing.”
This is why, 35 years after the company was founded, Columbia Pacific Telesystems employees take the time to answer each call with warmth and attentiveness. They know the individual needs of each customer—and sincerely want to address them.