Internet service provider marks 25 years
Through 25 years of business and major changes in the industry, the one constant in the Vianet business model is its loyalty to its customers and staff.
A family run business — with Will Gasteiger at the helm as president, his wife Kaija Gasteiger as the business manager, and their two sons, Jesse and Luke, as senior executives — Vianet has grown from a modest operation to what it is today, with clients in 35 communities. Vianet's customer base now numbers more than 30,000, and that continues to grow as the company expands its fibre-optic network.
Looking back on a quarter-century in business, Vianet got its start in 1988, before it was even called Vianet. Will, who was a geophysicist working for Texas Gulf in Timmins at that time, said when he first got into the computer business, the Internet wasn't even a well-known technology.
“As a geophysicist, I dealt with tons of data, and I was always involved with computer processing,” he said. “Based in Timmins, I had access to some of the best mining computers around. But, at a certain stage, people decided to go off on their own, and this was a natural progression, because I had always had an interest and had worked with computers. When an opportunity came up to get involved with a computer operation, that's what I did.”
Will, his wife, a business partner and another employee (who is still with him today) set up Viacomputers in Timmins, when IBM and PCs were becoming common household items. Computers were more appreciated then, he said. A typical desktop computer cost between $2,000 and $3,000 and they were kept for five or six years.
Viacomputers also started selling telephones, and when the Internet started to emerge, “we thought we were the perfect people, because we had experience with computers and phones, which is everything you needed at that time to access the Internet through dial-up connections.”
“We had three different branches at that time — computers, telephones and Internet – that was the situation in 1995,” Will said. “That was really just the starting point for Vianet (a name that encompassed all of the services offered by the company).
“The only places that had any Internet availability was universities, and they used text-based Internet. This was also when the first browsers were being established, and there was really only one Internet Service Provider (ISP) available in Northern Ontario.”
This was also when Will's son, Jesse, got involved with Vianet. He was attending Laurentian University, where he was able to keep tabs on the emerging technology.
Vianet opened in February of 1995 in Timmins.
“Some people were asking us to set up shop in Sudbury, too,” he said. “We always had a small operation here, and a month later, we opened up in Sudbury.”
By 1996, Vianet moved strictly to being an Internet provider.
Fast forward to today, and Vianet is fast-becoming more than an ISP. For the past five years, the company has been working diligently in laying fibre-optic cables in many of the communities it services. All told, about 300 kilometres of cable has been installed.
“Bringing the fibre-optic television on line was a big step in Vianet's business plan,” Will said. “It allows us to deliver ultra-fast Internet, cable television and telephone services. At the start, we were focusing solely on business customers, and we had a good penetration in that market. Last November, we launched our home fibre-optic service.”
The feedback has been positive, he said.
Dalron Leasing has been working with Vianet to upgrade the fibre service to many of its commercial buildings, said John Arnold, of Dalron Leasing Ltd.
“Vianet's fibre service allows us to be at the forefront of technology and enables us to provide the connectivity and competitive advantage to our potential tenants. Their prompt and professional customer service is just a phone call away.”
Guy Venne, of Laberge Venne and Partners, said Vianet, in his own opinion, is a role model for Greater Sudbury businesses.
“(It sends a) clear message that if you focus on excellence, innovation, and never lose site of customer service, you will have success.”
“The word is spreading, because we're getting enquiries from all over the place,” said Will. “We haven't in the past been a very high-profile company, although that is changing.
“Over the next 10 years, the entire telecommunications network will be changed over from copper to fibre optic, whether it's us or some other player, but we're in the game and we're doing it right now, and our goal is to do it as quick as possible.”
And, while the industry continues to advance by leaps and bounds, it's Vianet's approach to its employees that allows it to keep competitive, Will said. As a small company, Vianet's employees are treated differently than if they worked in a large company.
“Our employees are more of an integral part of the operation; they have a lot of freedom, and I think that's why our employees stick with us.”
Vianet employs about 100 people at any given time, with staffed offices as far west as Fort Frances, and stretching east to Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, North Bay, Huntsville, Pembroke and Peterborough, he said.
“Right now, we are a little more than 100 employees, and the number tends to hover around there,” he said. “We've been getting involved in a lot more projects, so we've been hiring more sales staff.
“Now that we've reached a certain size, and there are so many different people with the talent who can do different things, I think we're probably moving at the fastest pace in all directions than we ever have.”
That bodes well for Vianet's future, he said.
“There are a lot of good people in the company with a lot of drive and ambition, and I'm confident they will keep the company going. I think we've built a good foundation for staying competitive. In a world of industry giants like Bell and Rogers, we are still able to compete on every level. That's the position we are in today.”