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Finding high-tech solutions

April 13, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

From a mazelike office on Western Maryland Parkway, NETCONN Solutions is helping to fix the Pentagon's computer system.

It's considered disaster recovery: Restoring computers that were damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. NETCONN is part of a large team of companies that received a $258 million contract to do the work.

NETCONN also is in the midst of a Department of Homeland Security computer project, helping 22 agencies consolidate into 14.

These are good times for NETCONN, where revenue is growing an average of about 80 percent a year.

The company work force is growing at roughly the same rate. NETCONN has spilled over from one office into a satellite office and is building a new, larger headquarters.

"We've got serious momentum. We really do," said Randy Brenize, a company founder and vice president.

It's a type of business - high-tech - that the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission wants to see more of in the county, EDC Executive Director Timothy Troxell said.

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"They fit right into one of the target markets the EDC has been trying to grow ..." he said. "They're on sort of the leading edge of something that we're going to be seeing more of."

One other company came to mind as Troxell was asked for current examples: Americom Government Services, or AGS.

From an office at the Technical Innovation Center at Hagerstown Community College, the company's local branch markets satellites to U.S. government agencies.

David Fields, the senior director for technical operations, said clients include the State Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and branches of the military.

Fields said it also is a boom time for AGS.

"We're growing like crazy," he said.

NETCONN and AGS also share an "outside the Beltway" approach.

Although their offices are in Washington County, much of their business is in Washington, D.C.

Fields said he wanted a more "rural setting" when he opened Integrated Systems Design, or ISD, here in 1999.

In a 2001 interview, Fields described ISD as "primarily an engineering company," designing communications systems with satellites and fiber-optic cable, then setting them up in places such as Mexico, Turkey and Nigeria.

ISD was acquired by Verestar Government Services in 2001.

This past December, the company became part of AGS, a wholly owned American subsidiary under the broad umbrella of a worldwide company based in Luxembourg. As part of an American division, AGS can do work for the U.S. government.

ISD started with one employee. Now, as AGS's Hagerstown branch, it has 15.

Fields said AGS's space at the Technical Innovation Center, just under 10,000 square feet, no longer is enough. He's "actively looking" for a building of about 25,000 to 30,000 square feet in the Hagerstown area.

Brenize can empathize, although NETCONN is about to solve its space crunch.

The company is building a $2 million, 25,000-square-foot headquarters on Western Maryland Parkway, facing Interstate 81.

Currently, NETCONN has about 10,000 square feet between its headquarters and the Pennsylvania Avenue satellite office.

Brenize said NETCONN started in 1997. Fort Ritchie was about to close. Some employees who left early went off on their own, then banded together.

He said the company's roots are in the late 1980s, when the founders, as civilians, worked for the U.S. Army's Information Systems Engineering Command-Continental United States, or ISEC-CONUS.

Brenize said ISEC helped the Army "bring the workload back" after a trend of contracting work out.

In the 1990s, the Defense Information Systems Agency-Western Hemisphere was consolidating systems and mainframes for all branches of the military, he said.

Brenize said he, Will Crampton and Linda Frakes started NETCONN out of their homes in 1997.

The following year, the company signed its first contract. Two more former Fort Ritchie colleagues - John McCune and Bryan Rader - joined.

The company opened a 3,000-square-foot office on West Franklin Street, but moved into a bigger space, on Western Maryland Parkway, after two years, Brenize said.

NETCONN now has about 130 employees. Some work directly with customers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Alabama.

Brenize said NETCONN carefully has kept itself a small business, to receive grants and incentives.

Last year, revenue was $18.6 million, up from $10.5 million the previous year.

The company plans to cross the threshold and become "big."

"We (will) cross it fast and furiously, not just tiptoe," Brenize said.

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