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Well-laid plans propel Universal Solutions to success

RIDGELAND — While other telecommunications firms were making headlines for acquisitions, sales volume, layoffs and closures, Universal Solutions was quietly plodding along.

So it might have been surprising when, earlier this month, Inc. magazine revealed that Ridgeland-based Universal Solutions was the 20th fastest-growing private company in America. The 2001 Inc. 500 list was based on the company’s 6,832% increase of sales from 1996 to 2000.

Microsoft, Domino’s Pizza and Oracle have made the same list, which has often been an early indicator of future accomplishments on a worldwide scale.

“The 2001 Inc. 500 list continues a 20-year tradition of acknowledging the success of America’s fastest-growing private companies,” said George Gendron, editor-in-chief of Inc.

Robert Y. “Bob” Scott, CEO of Universal Solutions, said, “We have been successful because of our local partners and associates. Several of us provided a financial structure and a strategic plan, but the success has been because of their efforts.”

Universal Solutions, which has about 160 employees, offers services in convergence via Avaya Enterprise Class IP Solutions, local telephone, long distance, messaging technology, maintenance and LAN/WAN technology and telephone products. Its clients include Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana national guards, the Federal Reserve Bank and the Department of Defense.

“We might be a well-kept secret,” Scott said. “As a telecommunication systems integration business, we’re focused on the infrastructure business, so people who are not in the market for buying communications products don’t really know about us. We’re not a high-profile company. We’re literally in the closet either doing wiring work or putting switching equipment in or supporting other businesses as we address their needs.”

Since Inc. gathered data for its list, Universal Solutions company has opened another four locations.

“We have 20 locations now and we plan to add 20 more over the next couple of years, mainly in the Southeast,” Scott said. “We’ve followed BellSouth’s footprint very closely, even though we do business in Texas, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md., We’ve broken up teams in different markets to make them small enough to respond to what a customer requires, but large enough to provide a high quality service.”

Last year, Universal Solutions reported $16.5 million in revenues and the company is on track to top $25 million this year. Projections for 2004 are $100 million.

“But that’s not the ultimate goal of our company,” he said. “The ultimate goal of our company is to have a vibrant, profitable business that can support its customers. But we’ll only do it if it makes sense. If we need to pull back because of the economic situation, we will.”

The seed for Universal Solutions was planted long before it was established. Scott and Jackson native Steve Williams served together in the Mississippi National Guard and became good friends when their Jackson unit was activated during Desert Storm.

In the 1980s, Scott had worked with John Wilson of Atlanta, when they were both vice presidents at Lucent Technology. Scott managed Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana; Wilson managed Tennessee, Georgia and Washington, D.C.

After Desert Storm, Scott served as a vice president for AT&T, focusing on call centers and PBXs in Brussels from 1992 to 1995. He was vice president of Boston Technology in London, selling central office- based voice-messaging systems from 1995 to 1998.

During that time, most major manufacturers had shifted from the direct sale of products to using indirect channel partners similar to the Cisco model.

“John and I knew in 1995, when Lucent spun off from AT&T, that there was no way a publicly-traded company with its costs was going to keep a large direct channel, or direct employees, supporting customers across the nation in every single market,” Scott said. “John and I knew the customers in those markets. We knew there was a huge number of employees out there that wanted to do something different, own a portion of a company and not have to move every three years or so to keep up with their careers. We knew it was a super time to get into the business.”

In 1996, Scott and Williams founded Universal Solutions, with Williams running the company from the Ridgeland office. Wilson and former WorldCom/SkyTel exec Jerry Mayo became partners.

“Avaya, which spun off from Lucent, reduced their direct channel and focused on their Fortune 100 customers,” Scott said. “Then they used their channel partners more often for other customers. Once we partnered with them and provided good quality installation service, customers looked to us to support the machine for the typical length of installation for a PBX, roughly five to seven years.”

Scott eventually began working from the company’s Charleston, S.C. office. Within five years, the company added 16 locally owned and operated limited liability companies (LLCs) and satellite offices in 14 southeastern states.

“Our biggest challenge was to make sure we didn’t grow at the expense of our customers,” Scott said. “Many times, companies that grow way too fast lose focus on what they’re all about – servicing customers – and begin making missteps. We had to pace our growth and make it proportionate to our ability to serve. We’ve been able to do it, but I always reign back a little bit to make sure we don’t overstep our headlights.”

Universal Solution’s core focus has been Tier 2 MSAs, such as Lake Charles, La., or Memphis, instead of larger markets, such as Atlanta or Dallas.

“Before we go into a market, the first thing we look for is a local partner,” he said. “If we find the right partner, we can make any market work, assuming there is enough business to support an office. We’ve had some tough times, but we’ve never closed a market. Our local partners, who have a significant ownership interest in the company, have done a superb job.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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