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Bob Van Buskirk

Wilson Electronics

by Eric Peterson on November 17, 2014, 08:45 am MST

www.wilsonelectronics.com

St. George, Utah

Founded: 1992

Privately owned (acquired by Sorenson Capital in 2013)

Employees: 250 (215 in Utah)

President and CEO Bob Van Buskirk is leading the manufacturer of cell-signal boosters to dynamic growth and eying huge overseas markets.

Jim Wilson had been involved in everything from satellite TV to CB radios in his career before starting Wilson Electronics in 1992.

The company narrowed its focus to cell-phone boosters in 1999, and sales took off. Wilson won the Utah Manufacturers Association's Manufacturer of the Year award for 2014.

"We've had some pretty explosive growth," says Van Buskirk. "Since this company was founded, we've had a compounded annual growth rate of 20 percent. For the past four years, it's been 30 percent."

The reason? "We have the right products for the right market," he explains. "We like to say we boost connections for people in life and work."

He tells a joke that rings true. "In the old days, you ran inside to answer the phone. Now you run outside to answer it."

About one out of every three cellular customers has a connectivity issue, Van Buskirk says. "80 percent of cell signals are received inside of something” -- and everything from a truck to a brick wall weaken the signal. "It can weaken by as much as 50 times. We can often make up all of that difference."

"Whether they're in an East Texas oilfield or a cement canyon in New York City or a long commute in San Francisco, people are having problems with connectivity," he adds. "Building more cell towers isn't the answer."

It follows that Wilson's market spans offices, residential properties, and the energy industry. "The shale boom has been very good for us," says Van Buskirk. "They don't rely on land mobile radio -- cellular is cheaper and easier to deploy."

      (Read about other Utah manufacturers here.)

The company's boosters are carrier- and standard-agnostic -- they can run on 2G or 4G phones from any provider -- and a single one can have as many as 50 users at once. MSRP for the company's Wilson and zBoost boosters range from $89 to $900; the average product is about $250.

Van Buskirk says Wilson was "instrumental" helping the Federal Communications Commission craft a standard for cellular boosters in 2013, ensuring amplifiers were invisible and didn't interfere. "There's a lot of IP and a lot of innovation that's been developed here," he says.

Since Sorenson acquired Wilson in 2013, there's been an emphasis on Lean processes and efficiency, and it's paid off to the tune of a 50 percent increase in output. The increased scale has transformed the manufacturing operation, touts Van Buskirk. "We've been able to reduce our cycle times and improve our yields and maintain our quality."

One key was streamlining the testing process -- it's about 25 percent faster -- and another was adding 10,000 square feet to the facility in late 2013, nearly doubling the production space.

Demographic trends are in Wilson's favor. About half of Americans under 30 don't have land lines, says Van Buskirk, "and they never will. And that number is growing."

Challenges: Market headwinds in 2014. "We had bad weather, we has government shutdowns, and the FCC got overwhelmed," says Van Buskirk. The silver lining? Wilson is still on pace for 30 percent growth for the year, with more to come. "We are looking at an acceleration of growth in 2015," he says.

Van Buskirk also says Wilson wants to up the profile for cellular boosters in 2015.  While the company's brand is strong within the category, the category itself is plagued by "very low" awareness. In response, Wilson has a branding and marketing campaign in the works that's designed to boost the entire category.

Opportunities: Exports. Currently, Wilson's market is 98 percent U.S. and Canada, with a combined 350 million cellular subscribers. "Worldwide, there's 6 billion cellular subscribers," says Van Buskirk, citing a total of 750 million customers for just the largest provider in China.

The company is moving into Asia, with a strategy of establishing a "beachhead" in Malaysia (45 million subscribers) before moving into Indonesia (150 million subscribers). The biggest markets -- China and India -- are longer term goals. "There's a lot of cars and a lot of apartments -- and coverage isn't as good as it is here," Van Buskirk says of the potential in India.

The first shipments to Malaysia went out in October 2014. Next up: Latin America, via Mexico and Chile, then Brazil.

Needs: Managerial and executive talent. "Those people are in short supply in southern Utah," says Van Buskirk. Wilson recruits from the Salt Lake area as well as Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho, and has satellite offices in Dallas, Denver, and California.

He says he'd also like to see a manufacturing boom in southern Utah. "We welcome it. We want to more of a manufacturing base here so we all benefit." He cites low taxes, an affordable cost of living, and an enviable lifestyle as three factors that make St. George an attractive location.

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