Issue: March/April 2010
NEO Success: Flight Plans
Stellar Cable Systems started to really take off when owner Rick Briggs learned to fly.
Rick Briggs, president and owner of Stellar Private Cable Systems
» It is more effective to use a rifle than a shotgun in advertising.
» There is generally less initial competition with niche markets, and it
is much easier to identify and reach decision-makers.
» From a business survival and growth standpoint, I’d rather be a larger
fish in a small pond than a tiny fish lost in the ocean.
» If your staff is on board and happy, they’ll make your customers
» Stick with it. If you have to spend another couple hours in the office
to get it done, then do it. Perseverance is what makes you successful.
» We always recommend what’s in the best interest of our customers.
Sometimes that hurts a little bit if there’s no financial gain involved.
But if we don’t, in the long term it will cost us.
Rick Briggs loved that his cable TV company was growing, but oh, how he hated the drive. When Briggs began shifting his business from satellite receivers to private cable service for long-term care facilities 15 years ago, Stellar Cable Systems started close to home. Then the company began to stretch out to Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
That was about the extent of Stellar’s reach and the far end of Briggs’ patience. “We kind of grew out geographically to where we could drive to,” says the 53-year-old owner. “I got tired driving from Indianapolis one day, and I saw an airplane overhead and said, ‘Man, I want to be home.’
“So the next day I started taking flying lessons,” he recalls. Five months later Briggs had a pilot’s license.
He also recruited his flight instructor as a sales rep, and for the past 12 years Gary Hedrick has been Stellar’s top seller, commuting by small plane from his Twinsburg home to clients along the East Coast.
Hedrick and Briggs aren’t the only Stellar employees who fly, though. Company-paid pilot lessons are one of the perks that has some Stellar employees staying at the company into their 70s and 80s. Today there are five pilots on staff whose primary jobs are in installation, engineering or sales, Briggs says.
“A lot of retirement communities are in rural areas,” Briggs says. “It might take eight hours to drive to Blacksburg, Va., but we can be there in an hour and a half in our plane.”
Flying has helped Stellar, also known as SeniorTV, put its products in more than 700 long-term care facilities — many off the main interstates — in 41 states, Briggs says.
After studying advertising at Kent State University, Briggs was working in that field when a client turned him on to the relatively new satellite television business. By 1983 Briggs was selling residential satellite dishes. Commercial customers soon followed. Then Briggs found a niche for his business.
“At the time there were companies that worked in hospitals, and there were large franchise cable companies,” he says. “The nursing home market was really underserved.”
Stellar buys programming directly from the networks and assembles a lineup suitable for seniors that is heavy on TCM and Hallmark, holds the MTV and adds a channel that allows bedridden residents to catch local church services and facility bingo games. In the process, the company cuts the typical bill to between $4 and $10 a month.
Stellar also sells monthly high-speed Internet service for $5.95, and facilities can charge residents how they see fit, which serves as an inducement to choose Stellar over its competitors.
John O’Neill, who offers Stellar’s products to residents at several assisted living facilities he owns in Cleveland’s West Side suburbs, says Briggs’ company offers flexibility, personal service and long-term savings that large cable providers don’t.
Briggs expects Stellar to vault 2009’s 18 percent growth this year. The company is introducing on-screen messaging systems, customized on-screen channel guides and a line of institutional-grade televisions developed through a partnership with LG.
The company now employs 25 at its Akron headquarters. It also has eight salespeople scattered throughout the country and works with about 50 service subcontractors stationed in various regions. The far-flung work force has helped Akron employees log less airtime in recent years. But Briggs still uses his fleet regularly.
“You’re not contingent on anyone else’s schedule, you can do it at the spur of the moment, and you can do it economically,” he says. “It’s similar to running my own company.”
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