For over a decade, Direct Line has been a market leader in providing systems integration services, including the design / build and material planning of data centers, and most recently managed services (i.e. break/fix, installation, decommission, inventory management and troubleshooting).
The company has worked with some of the biggest data centric clients in the world, including Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn, but for John Friesen, President and CEO at Direct Line, the most valuable asset at the company’s disposal are its people and a culture instilled from top to bottom that the customer comes above anything else.
“Customer service is my first priority, profitability second,” he says.
Friesen comes from a background of working in customer service and customer facing roles. It is this experience that he feels allows him and the Executive Vice President of the company, Ignacio Del Rio, to be the market leaders in the data center design and construction space.
“Our team recognizes that if you aren’t out there trying to provide solutions and you’re just doing the minimal of what’s expected, then you’re creating problems. Go above and beyond and you become part of the solution,” he says.
Friesen remains fully active within the company’s day to day operations, often heading out into the field with project managers and customers. While recognising that he himself is not a mission critical element, Friesen does so to show both his people and the customer how much he values the role they play.
“The more active I am, the more people can see how much I care about this,” he says.
“Our guys have to care about what they do, like what they do and care about the customer. Without that, the company fails.”
This notion of strong customer service and going above and beyond what is expected is a vision shared by Del Rio, who sees employees adapting to something he candidly calls the “Direct Line way”.
This way of working is a simple philosophy, ensuring that Direct Line is giving the customers what they want and not what the business thinks the customers need. Direct Line possesses a mentality that accepts responsibility and takes complete ownership of its services to the end user, for better or for worse.
“As a company, there is no “it’s not us” mentality. It’s about taking ownership of the good and the bad. How can we first and foremost determine a problem and ultimately solve that problem if we possess that distancing mentality from the outset?” explains Del Rio.
Growing and growing
Since its inception in 1997 as a data solutions provider in the Bay Area, Direct Line has experienced significant growth which has coincided with a technological boom in the data center space. With a focus on quality, construction management, supply chain management and this growing industry has seen Direct Line capitalise on a need for more efficient data cabling infrastructures. By understanding the complexities that come with this environment, Direct Line has hired and trained its 200+ employees to specialise in mission critical data center projects.
“We are witnessing something of extraordinary growth in terms of companies struggling to find enough data center space to meet their bandwidth requirements,” says Del Rio.
This level of complexity surrounding data center construction and management is simplified somewhat as “building the internet”, according to Mike Janes, VP of Business Development and Data Center Design.
The data center industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world and around five years ago, Friesen recognised that the company needed to expand beyond its current nationwide and international footprint.
Direct Line has offices in Fremont, California, Ashburn, Virginia, as well as an international office in Singapore.
“We’re already a nationwide company, with a company in Singapore and a subsidiary in Ireland as there is plenty of market share out there,” says Friesen.
“Sure, we have Silicon Valley, one of the most dynamic places in the country, but I realised that in order to fully grow and achieve what we want to achieve we needed to develop a nationwide footprint which in turn has now become an international footprint.” He says.
The challenge in people
Direct Line has grown from its somewhat humble beginnings. Del Rio and Freisen became partners in the business in 2007 at a point where the company had only three employees out in the field. Fast forward to today and Direct Line has close to 250 field technicians, engineers and project managers working across a wide number of clients, each with that customer centric mentality that both Friesen and Del Rio instil.
But as much as Del Rio, Friesen and Janes see the people as the key to the success to the business. All recognise the challenge that the company faces in accessing labor and trained labor. The data center industry is a huge industry, but one that is still growing and at a pace that makes finding the right people who are trained to the best possible standard more and more difficult.
This challenge extends to the technology and processes required to design build and manage a data center.
“Everything we did three years ago is now obsolete,” says Janes. “The challenge is trying to remain current with the skillset required, the changing technology processes and staying abreast of what the industry is doing.”
This technology boom is largely driven by the speed of data servers, with companies trying to push more and more bandwidth through those servers which requires new equipment and new processes.
Down to every fiber
One particular trend across the data center industry has been the move to fiber. Direct Line is at a key advantage point in that the company has experts in fiber and the utilisation of the technology, something Janes believes is fundamental to being successful in the data center industry.
“You need to be an expert in fiber in order to build data centers in 2017,” he says.
To mitigate the challenge of finding quality personnel and staying on top of this fluid industry, Direct Line currently has two training facilities, in the East Coast and West Coast areas. Not only do these facilities better equip employees with the knowledge necessary to deliver the best possible service, but to also better foster the relationships with manufacturers.
“The manufacturers offer training, in which they will bring in professionals to train our employees on the latest technology and products that will enable the business to be more efficient,” says Janes.
Direct Line prides itself on establishing deep relationships with these manufacturers in order to better serve the end user. The way the company achieves this is by answering one simple question.
“It’s about understanding what manufacturers are looking at, what they are looking for in a working relationship, and how is that influencing the direction of the industry,” says Del Rio.
This need to better understand the industry does not start and end with the field operators and technicians; Del Rio and Friesen and the top-level management all make great strides in staying ‘in the know’.
“We need to understand the footprints of all the equipment in the industry because if you don’t, through seminars and conferences, you immediately lose step of what the key influences and influencers on the industry are,” says Del Rio.
Both Friesen and Del Rio are extremely proud of the customer service and the attention to detail and professionalism that the company provides, but in order to retain the high-level clients and attract new customers to the business they cannot rest on their laurels.
“We are incredibly fortunate to work with the customers that we have, and every single day we earn that right. We work for it, and we earn it,” says Friesen.
For Direct Line, the key partners are the data center companies and the manufacturers that the company has worked with and established over the years. Key partnerships that the company fosters and partners who are willing to “drop ship” for Direct Line.
“Working together with the shared expertise allows us to meet deadlines and provide more custom solutions for end users,” says Janes.
“If those three elements [Direct Line, manufacturers and data center companies] can go to an end user, tell them we can work on this collaboratively and meet their specific requirements, we will succeed,”
Strong, successful partnerships are not established overnight. Nor are they formed through happenstance.
To the future
The goal of Direct Line is to be recognised as a market leader and the level of service it delivers to be second to none. Friesen believes that Direct Line is already there, almost.
“Often people will ask me who is our competition,” says Friesen.
“I don’t want to be so arrogant as to say that no one does what we do, but what I can say through conversations with clients and customers is that there is no one out there that does it to the incredible quality that we do.”
If that is the case, then where can Direct Line go from here? Friesen recognises that there is always a better way of doing something. Direct Line has already experienced tremendous growth and success, but Friesen believes in asking “how can we do it better?”
One aspiration is for the company to establish a stronger international footprint outside of its operations currently in the US. This is a vision shared by both Friesen and Del Rio and the two agree that in order to get there the company must continue to deliver the customer centric service that has already been recognised from global clients, including the social networking giant Facebook.
“A company like Facebook doesn’t want just anybody touching its data centers, with the complexities involved that could result in significant downtime,” says Del Rio.
“Being proven in the industry is our goal. Clients can be assured that we know data centers and have significant experience from the bottom up.”
For Friesen, though, this can only be achieved by retaining that culture of going above and beyond for the customer to generate true value.
“If everybody across the company cares and shows that to the customer, then that creates an incredible culture,” he says. “If you don’t have somebody who appreciates the value that you can bring, then you’re nothing but a commodity.”