Riding the CableWare Around the Globe by Eric Wright
Entrepreneurs understand that unless you know your clients’ problems, unless you identify their pain, you can’t provide viable, desirable solutions. Sherman G. Miller, president of Multicom Inc., a company he started in his garage and now reaches around the world, has been discovering and resolving his customers’ pain points and delivering innovative solutions since 1982.
From the Orange County Convention Center and the Gaylord Palms Hotel/Convention Center in Orlando to the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Multicom’s products and expertise help make these venues the world- class destinations that they are. Winner of the President’s ‘E’ Award for outstanding contributions to the country’s export expansion program, Multicom is a designer and supplier of over 13,000 products from 270 manufacturers. This enables them to facilitate everything from TV and Internet for hotel rooms, schools, college dorms and residential developments, to the traffic control systems that regulate your commute to work. Multicom strives not only to develop and deliver the latest technology, but their products are designed to accommodate the constant evolution of new technology.
Catching the Cable Wave
Miller started his career working with some of the large communications companies, including GE and GTE-Sylvania, before becoming a consultant. Miller recalled his consulting phase chuckling, “I was working 24/7 when I had business, and when I didn’t I was toiling 24/7 to get more business.” While working on early satellite communication ground systems, he saw an opportunity to supply equipment that would receive and distribute satellite signals for MDUs (Multiple Dwelling Units), such as apartments, condominiums and dormitories.
As the industry progressed at a quantum rate, Multicom grew with it. “In the early days, we built equipment for PCOs (Private Cable Operators),” Miller said. When most of us think of cable or satellite TV companies, we think of Bright House Networks, Comcast or DirecTV. These are called MSOs (Multiple System Operators), who utilize access along public roads or right-of-ways, necessitating a franchise agreement from county or city municipalities… but there is another market. PCOs don’t utilize public right-of-ways; they are based in a building or a cluster of buildings so no franchise is needed, and there are literally thousands of PCOs nationwide.
Initially, Multicom built and supplied the electronic components PCOs needed, and for a time served as a PCO operator as well. It then began outsourcing the manufacturing of the products they engineered and specified, thus becoming a system designer and product distributor, but moving out of the operations business.
Miller pointed out, “Though we left the operational side of the business, that experience gave us invaluable information and understanding of the needs and frustrations that operators have. We have a philosophy in Multicom that started in the early days, ‘Don’t undersell, don’t oversell.’ Out of the many products and cost ranges we have, give the customer exactly what they need to achieve what they are looking for. Our salespeople are more than just salespeople; they are application engineers, adapting our products to meet the clients’ needs.”
Describing his move into the global market, Miller said: “About 12 years ago I said to myself, ‘Self, why don’t we export some of this stuff?’ But I knew nothing about the export market; I also knew it was something I could learn.”
After researching organizations that provided niche information, he kept mining the area until he found the sources that built his confidence to launch beyond the borders of the U.S. One of those organizations was the SBCA (Small Business Council of America), which had a program at UCF titled, “Learning Exporting.” It was a 10-12 week program that met every Saturday morning, and Miller admits, “I had to force myself to get up every Saturday to go.” But that was his introduction. “As I got to know these various organizations that were designed to help potential exporters, I wound up joining some of them on their boards so I could help others aspiring to do what I had learned. I owe a lot to this community and how they helped me get started; I want to give that back.
“Most manufacturers or service providers think expanding internationally is so hard and so overwhelming, they simply give up. And it isn’t easy, but if I can do it, others can as well. Also, there has to be a commitment from the top down to take the time and the investment to become an exporter. It isn’t that much different than expanding within the U.S.; you aren’t really doing anything differently – adding new products or services – you are simply enlarging your market. What is more, some of the places we ship to out of the country are much closer than California or Arizona.”
“Tools like the Internet can greatly accelerate export expansion, but there are certain fundamentals you have to understand,” Miller explained. “First, you have to decide where you want to export to and determine what your [unfair] competitive advantage is. Why does buying this product or service from you make more sense than buying from a national supplier? Secondly, do you know the infrastructure of the country? What is their political and economic situation? This information is out there; you just have to research. Third, you have to get people who can bridge the language and culture barriers.
“But if I could digress for a moment, one thing this area [Metro Orlando] needs is a central place a businessperson could go, where all these import and export resources are consolidated. Where you could go and say, ‘I want to export or I think I am ready to export, what are the steps I need to take? Where do I go to get the specific information I need?’ I actually have a list of 15-20 export organizations, but I’m probably overlooking several.
“Today, 30 percent of our business at Multicom is exporting. During the downturn in the domestic market, that made a huge difference for us. It is a process we began 13 years ago. We heard Florida was the export hub for South America. We knew that there was a market for our products, so that is what we targeted. As they changed and modernized, we were able to grow with the market.