How MSP Networks Unlimited and its Community Moved Past Old Scars to Flourish in Colorado
Most Americans are familiar with the stories of the Great Depression, when almost overnight, the economic framework that supported entire communities collapsed. For residents of the Western Slope of Colorado, those stories are much closer to home.
On what would come to be known as Black Sunday in 1982, Exxon, which had come into the region with promises to build an oil shale operation that would create an 8-million-barrel-per-day industry by 2010, decided to close operations literally over the course of a weekend, and destroy countless lives in the process.
On Friday, the thousands of workers that had poured into the Western Slope from regions suffering under the weight of a deep recession were happily employed building churches, schools, housing and local businesses. On Sunday, May 2, spooked by the declining price of oil, Exxon closed its Colorado shale operations and doomed the entire region to an economic depression that still reverberated decades later.
More than 2,300 Exxon employees lost their jobs, but the eventual fallout would affect more than six times that number. Long-established businesses shut their doors. People’s homes were foreclosed on. Some bank executives closed up shop because too many people demanded their money. Others, unable to see a way out, committed suicide.
By the end of the summer, 5,000 people had fled the valley, and over the next few years, 15,000 would leave Colorado altogether. That kind of economic disaster is something that takes many years to recover from — not just economically, but emotionally. To a managed service provider trying to eke out a living on the Western Slope, the echoes of that time still impact business today.
“People here have been in a state of sameness ever since Black Sunday,” says Mark Swain, president of Networks Unlimited, an MSP based in Grand Junction, Colorado. “They will use old equipment until it dies completely. They want to save up the money for large purchases instead of getting a loan or payment plan.”
Like many MSPs, Networks Unlimited was initially a hardware-based retailer, riding out the waves of good sales months and bad ones. Its staff was small, and everyone had to wear multiple hats. Making the transition from break-fix to managed services wasn’t much of an option in a region still heavily dependent on the oil industry and scarred by events of the recent past.
But the Western Slope has worked hard to diversify industries in recent years, boosted by the natural beauty of the area that brings snow-bound tourists in winter and hiking and biking enthusiasts in the summer — some of whom decide to stay. The region has diversified by investing in technology, aviation, outdoor recreation, agriculture and health care. As more industry poured into the Western Slope, it gave local business owners more confidence in their own economic stability and the prospects of future prosperity. Big oil is still big business in the region, but the community has diversified enough that local businesses like Networks Unlimited won’t go down with any one industry ship, should it happen to fail.
“As the industries in town started to diversify, we were able to start working toward the managed-service model, which allowed us to stabilize monthly income and plan for expansion in areas of engineering, help desk and managed services,” Swain tells me. “Industries that have moved to town or been able to grow in our community are now able to put more money toward technology [that] can stabilize their monthly expenses.”
Today, Networks Unlimited is the largest IT provider on the Western Slope of Colorado. It’s active in the Ingram Micro Trust X Alliance and dedicates itself to bringing new technology solutions to bear for its customers so they don’t have to go outside the area for their IT needs.
“Our community is finally coming out of a depressive state, and we’ve seen massive growth in the addition of services and hardware,” Swain says.
More than many communities, personal relationships are essential to getting new business on the Western Slope, where a deep skepticism of promises from newcomers prevents many MSPs from fulfilling their “trusted adviser” role. Networks Unlimited focuses on the SMB market, with the bulk of its clients coming in at 50 or fewer employees. Its service area is smaller than most, and that personal connection is critical when trying to convince customers it can help them grow their companies.
Last year, Networks Unlimited began to increase the size of the clients it works with, a trajectory that mirrors that of the Western Slope itself. Thirty-six years after Black Sunday, the region has lost much of the skittishness that kept businesses small for so long. As far as geographies go, Networks Unlimited has chosen a good one to grow in. If it lives by the lessons it’s learned in the past, this part of Colorado with a history of deep betrayal can grow into one that invests in a future of hope and optimism.