Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the autumn issue of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. To see that magazine and other special publications, go to LeaderTelegram.com/magazines.
Scott Hoffmann saw opportunity in a venture planned by several northwestern Wisconsin phone companies — creating a new communications network to improve speed and reliability for their customers.
With an engineering background and experience working for Wisconsin Bell, he agreed 20 years ago to move from Milwaukee to Eau Claire and take on the opportunity of leading that joint effort.
In 1999, the Wisconsin Independent Network connected 10 communities through a state-of-the-art fiber optic network — a buried loop going as far north as Superior and south to Hager City.
It was a cutting-edge idea, making the transition from old phone lines to technology that could better handle growing use of the Internet and cellphones. But the timing wasn’t great when shortly into WIN’s life, the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s and enthusiasm over the whole tech sector was tamped down.
“Here we were as a new business trying to start up and we barely survived,” said Hoffman, the company’s CEO.
The fledgling WIN cut its workforce down to Hoffmann, who had to handle everything — including late night drives over to Amherst when a piece of equipment broke down.
But while investors were putting greater scrutiny in trendy Internet companies, the growth of cellphones was undeniable and service providers needed a strong network between their towers to carry customers’ calls and text messages.
“What really helped at that time was we were at the right place at the right time because the industry started growing,” Hoffmann said.
Major mobile phone companies turned to WIN in northwestern Wisconsin, giving the company a boost that put it into profitability in 2004 and it’s continued to take off from there. As the company went from a “maintenance mode” during its early lean years into expanding its network to meet rising demand for high-speed internet and cell phone service, WIN’s workforce grew as well.
“Most of the big growth has been in the last 10 years,” Hoffmann said.
A decade ago, WIN had about 20 employees. Three years ago, it had grown to 60. Now its workforce is more than double that, with 132 employees, mostly in Eau Claire, but also some elsewhere in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The company has stayed with the name WIN, but it’s no longer an acronym for Wisconsin Independent Network since it has grown beyond this state’s borders. It now is in more than 250 cities, spread across most of Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
In addition to the sought-after fiber-optic network, the company also provides cable TV for 23 phone companies and internet service and backup data storage for business customers. For companies too small to have their own tech support department or looking to outsource theirs, WIN also has workers to meet those needs.
“We’re thinking of ourselves not just as a fiber network business, but as an IT company,” Hoffmann said.
Growing into Eau Claire
For much of its 20 years, WIN had largely flown under the radar.
Up to 2004, the company had a small building on Eau Claire’s west side near Menards.
But as its fortunes improved, the company moved into Building 2 of Banbury Place — a sprawling business complex in Eau Claire created by the renovation of the former Uniroyal tire factory. The company grew inside of Banbury, taking up more space inside the nondescript brick building along Wisconsin Street.
Hoffman recalls driving by Globe University three years ago and remarking to his wife how it would be a great site for WIN’s offices. But she pointed out to him that the private college was still in business and holding classes there, making a sale unlikely.
About a year ago though, his wife pointed out an article about Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business shuttering campuses. Hoffman seized the opportunity and called up the university’s owners to negotiate to buy the building from them and a “for sale” sign never even went up.
In June, WIN’s staff moved into their new home on Bullis Farm Road — prominently seen from Interstate 94 on Eau Claire’s south side.
WIN operations manager Matt Amenson remarked at how well the new building is at blocking outside sound.
Inside the second floor area where he works, he can see traffic zooming by on the interstate, but none of that noise bleeds inside the room, which just has the noise of employees on the phone or typing on their keyboards.
He recalled the old headquarters in Banbury Place did have the benefit of downtown walking trails, but the offices themselves had fewer windows and the noise of trains passing on the nearby tracks. Though employees no longer work there, WIN does still have its data center and equipment storage in the downtown building.
Amenson hit his 10th anniversary with the company in August. He said he’s stayed with WIN because of the good team there and the variety in his job.
“As folks have joined us they have stayed with us,” Hoffmann said.
And many of WIN’s employees were educated in the Chippewa Valley. There are some UW-Stout and UW-Eau Claire grads at WIN, Hoffmann said, but more than 40 got their education at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
“We have a lot of our graduates placed there from our IT network specialist program,” said Brian Goodman, an instructor with CVTC’s network specialist program.
The technical college’s ties with WIN includes internships that many times turn into the promise of full-time work for students before they even get their diplomas.
And WIN is among several employers who advise CVTC on how to keep its content and curriculum current with the needs of the IT industry.
“We have some employers in this area that have been very, very good partners for us,” Goodman said.
In addition to WIN, other area businesses that hire CVTC’s IT grads include veterinary software provider IDEXX, device management software company Jamf, Eau Claire-headquartered home improvement retailer Menards, plus numerous clinics, hospitals, financial institutions, public schools and CVTC itself.
Fitting into place
The 2007-built Globe University building took four months worth of renovations to become WIN and now has the look of a high-tech company.
Bordering a room on the first floor is a row of TVs mounted high on the walls, showing Internet traffic, cellphone company use of WIN’s network, status of equipment in multiple states and a melodrama on the Hallmark channel. And that latter one isn’t necessarily for entertainment — it’s a way to monitor the signal on a cable TV service that WIN handles for 23 phone companies.
While it is providing cable TV, WIN has seen growth from people eschewing it.
Network traffic has grown 40 percent in the last eight months, which Hoffman attributed in large part to people “cutting the cord” and opting for streaming video services.
“A lot of it is Netflix,” he said while glancing up at a graph on one of the TV monitors.
Other monitors show the status of equipment on the extensive fiber-optic network.
So, what happens if a shovel or piece of construction equipment mistakenly digs into ground and severs one of WIN’s cables?
Equipment automatically detects the problem and reroutes the traffic nearly instantaneously.
“That happens within 50 milliseconds or less,” Hoffmann said.
For much of the workday, employees are busy at their workstations, but there are other spots in the building that WIN makes good use of.
Three classrooms were combined into one for a big meeting room with a panoramic view of the landscape around I-94. More than 80 employees will gather there for weekly meetings, Hoffmann said, plus another 50 videoconferencing in from Wisconsin and Iowa.
Globe’s former commons area is now a spacious break room for WIN employees with tables for eating lunch, plus tables to play ping-pong, foosball and shuffleboard.
And some classrooms have been kept as they were so they can be used for employee training sessions.
Not all of the 23,000 square feet of the two-story building is occupied by WIN staff yet, which gives the company room to grow.
The old veterinary science and health care lab areas currently are storage with stacks of surplus padded burgundy chairs from the former university. WIN donated most of the equipment to the Eau Claire
County Humane Association and the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic.
Even before its logo went up on the prominent building seen by many traveling on the interstate, WIN has been getting more involved in the community, Hoffmann said.
WIN has helped out with The Community Table, the Buckshot Run, Junior Achievement, the Eau Claire Children’s Museum, Big Brothers Big Sisters, area chambers of commerce and other community organizations.
WIN also donates internet service to the Lismore and Oxbow hotels and will be in the Pablo Center at the Confluence as well.
But WIN also provides service to other large buildings and companies that aren’t disclosed due to the privacy it keeps for those clients.
That means there’s a chance you’ve tapped into free Wi-Fi at a large building in the Midwest and gotten service through WIN, but didn’t even know it.
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