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THE VICTORIA TIMES COLONIST

The owner of one of Canada’s fastest-growing network-equipment suppliers doesn’t wear a suit to work.

He doesn’t have squash games at the club or work out of a glass tower in Toronto.

Paul Chandler’s office is in a converted barn once home to turkeys and horses, and his view covers a tranquil valley dotted with trout ponds three kilometres off the pavement up a rocky road in the Sooke Hills. His commute is all of a few hundred paces — most days with a friendly chocolate lab named Finnigan — and his idea of stress relief is to hit the back 40 with a chainsaw to buck up firewood.

Chandler runs Charter Telecom and a growing list of regional offices across Canada from the family farm on the Metchosin-Sooke border.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He’s been able to raise a family of four boys on the same land where he grew up, employ local people at Charter’s farm headquarters and build the upstart network-infrastructure provider in a measured way to ensure its success.

Charter competes with several companies in the ever-growing market of planning and installing communications hardware. But where competitors like Bell and Telus are often big and unbending, Charter is finding a niche in being “nimble and quick.”

It sets up Internet, wireless, phone and security systems just about anywhere in the country — from a complete communications suite at the new Vancouver Island Convention Centre in Nanaimo to an ambitious project that brought private, dial-up Internet to every city, town and hamlet in Canada’s Arctic.

Charter is a preferred customer with major hardware suppliers Nortel Networks, Juniper Networks and MRV, which means it pays the same price for equipment as the big guys.

The difference, said Chandler, is Charter’s ability to plan and install systems unique to their customers’ needs at a competitive cost and on time. Those attributes have allowed the company to win a steady stable of contracts with private businesses, governments, Crown Corporations and regional service providers and support and expand that customer base with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton — and a push this year into Ontario.

Charter was listed 69th last year on Business in Vancouver’s list of fastest-growing companies in B.C., and will certainly move higher in the rankings in 2009.

Last month, Charter landed a multi-million-dollar deal in Ontario with Blink Communications, a subsidiary of Oakville Hydro, to upgrade its networks. Another big deal for a regional service provider Ontera in North Bay, Ont., is being announced later this month, which means Chandler will add a Toronto office that will boost Charter’s staff to more than 30. The strategy bodes well in an economy eroded by recession.
Chandler co-founded the company in 1997 with Stuart Jensen, but bought his partner out and is now the sole shareholder. He does not reveal revenues, but said a target to grow Charter by five per cent in 2009 has already been achieved after the first quarter.

He added the company is debt-free and operates strictly on cash. In fact, Chandler, 48, started the company with $40,000 on a credit card in April 1997 and had it paid off by the following August. It has been operating on a positive ledger ever since.

“There are challenging times ahead in our industry and lots of similar companies are having some struggles,” Chandler said in a recent interview from his 47-acre Metchosin farm. “But it’s separating the wheat from the chaff … and Charter is showing its strong fundamentals.
“We’re well-financed, well-managed and we have great people. And in a tough economy we are not only able to survive, but thrive.”

Chandler said staff are encouraged to participate in all areas of the company, including major decisions on how to configure systems. He has had a turnover rate of just seven staff in 12 years.

“People are respected and empowered to make decisions … we run this like a family,” he said.

Charter’s ultimate test as a company came in 2003 when it teamed up with NorthwesTel — a Bell division — to bring Internet access to all 72 communities across Canada’s Arctic, including Grise Fiord, population 148, the northern-most settlement on the continent, about 1,500 kilometres from the North Pole.

It was an incredible logistical feat, not only designing and then packing up all the hardware and spare parts, but getting it to the hamlets and towns. “There’s no Radio Shack around the corner up there, so if you forget a cable, well …,” said Chandler with a smile.

Technicians fanned across the tundra and ice north of 60 using planes and helicopters in a “hub-and-spoke” distribution system.

Chandler said if a box of equipment was on the tarmac with a crate of dog food, it was the dog food that got the green light.

Charter staff often stayed with families in the hamlets or in small Quonset hotels. One evening, a Canadian Ranger appeared in his hotel — which was odd, considering Chandler hadn’t heard an aircraft or snowmobile. They’re the soldiers that trek across the Arctic for weeks at a time to assert Canadian sovereignty.

“It makes you realize just how big our country is when you’re up there,” said Chandler, adding it was gratifying to bring Canada’s most-isolated citizens a little closer together via the Internet.

“We asked one resident in Grise Fiord what he liked best about having the Internet in his home and he just smiled and said he was going to get a 52-inch plasma TV and was enjoying the fact that [electronics retailer] Future Shop guaranteed free shipping anywhere in Canada.”

Chandler said the project “said a lot about the abilities of our company.”

The 48-year-old says he has no plans for an exit strategy, despite Charter reaching a decent size, holding solid contracts and pulling in good profits. It’s still very much a “family thing.”
“I’ve been asked a few times if my company is for sale,” said Chandler. “But every year it grows and it’s worth more. I’ve never seen a company sold to a big organization where it’s maintained its heart and soul. And right now, that’s what we’re most proud of. We do great projects and every one of our staff is involved in how we do them. That’s our success and I want to keep that going.”
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