Ideas can be born in an instant

Mike Tobias began his career in the cabling industry 20 years ago when he was looking for a new job. "I was desperate to find a job, and I noticed that when I drove by a local cable company owned by Westinghouse, called Group W Cable, there was always a lot of activity at the company," says Tobias. He went in and interviewed for a position. The company hired him as a contractor to install cable. Within 18 months, Mike moved up the ladder and became the head of quality control.

Jul 1st, 1998

Karen Graziano

Mike Tobias began his career in the cabling industry 20 years ago when he was looking for a new job. "I was desperate to find a job, and I noticed that when I drove by a local cable company owned by Westinghouse, called Group W Cable, there was always a lot of activity at the company," says Tobias. He went in and interviewed for a position. The company hired him as a contractor to install cable. Within 18 months, Mike moved up the ladder and became the head of quality control.

"About 18 years ago, after I installed cable for a while, a friend of mine who was an attorney asked me to install a network by Xerox. He assumed that I could install computer cables," explains Tobias. He installed 45 thin Ethernet coaxial cables and went back to his friend`s office to pick up a check a few days later. "When I saw the check, I literally thought that I was going to pass out," Tobias recalls. "I asked to speak to my friend because I thought that he had made a mistake. My friend told me there was no mistake and that the amount on the check was only half of what Xerox would have charged for the work."

On the way home from his friend`s office, Tobias decided to change careers. "So I went home and told my wife that I was going to start my own computer cabling company," he declares. "My wife was pregnant at the time so it wasn`t a very good time to quit my job and start up a business. My mother-in-law told my wife to run far away because I must be crazy." Tobias`s wife stayed, and the next day he opened Custom Coaxial Connections. "I started the company in my bedroom and drove a little Nissan pickup truck around the area trying to develop some business contacts and contractor opportunities," he recalls. "I would pull up to a building that was being built and find out who was putting in the computer network. Then I would go to that company and offer my services."

Tobias received many job offers. During the company`s second year, 1972, running the business became a very humbling experience for him because he was still working out of his house. In time, his business grew: He hired several installers, and he moved from his home to a larger location. When coaxial- cable use began to decline, he changed the company name to Coastal Computer Connections and worked with ibm and Unisys. He opened his first shop in Mobile, AL, and added two more shops in Montgomery and Birmingham, AL.

Later, Tobias`s brother got involved in the business and set up shops in Panama City, FL, and Tallahassee, FL. After learning that rapid expansion can quickly hurt a company`s profit margin, the brothers consolidated the Alabama offices into one shop in Mobile. It wasn`t until 10 years later--in 1982--that the company was able to buy new trucks and vans for the cabling office. At that point, Tobias felt like he had been successful in his venture. The following year, four competitors arose in the market, showing Mike that he, indeed, had picked the right market.

In 1994, he stepped out of his active role with the cabling- installation company when a cabling emergency occurred at a new client`s site. The state fire marshal was threatening Mike`s new client--a hospital--with a shutdown. The general manager of the hospital called Mike and told him that the fire marshal inspected the hospital and threatened to shut it down in 72 hours if significant repairs were not made. The fire marshal said the fiber-optic backbone had penetrated about a dozen firewalls that weren`t resealed. Apparently, a previous contractor had simply knocked holes in walls that ran into the emergency room and through the clerical department instead of installing a metallic sleeves in the walls. This is unacceptable practice for firewalls because installers are required to restore the integrity of the barrier after breaching it.

The hospital had only three days to bring the violation back into compliance with code. "Removing the fiber from the wall would require a significant amount of time," explains Tobias. "The hospital`s network manager realized that [his staff] could not cut and re-terminate the cable in 72 hours. And he knew that the hospital could not afford the downtime." The hospital`s crisis team was called together to try to determine where patients would be moved when the shutdown occurred. When the team finally reached Tobias to look for a solution, 30 hours had already passed. After talking to the hospital workers, he immediately started to work on a solution.

He cut and threaded a section of conduit, and then he used a band saw to split it down its longitudinal axis. Tobias then fabricated some square washers, made some couplings, and cut slots into the couplings. With 12 hours left to respond to the crisis, Tobias arrived at the hospital with split sleeves for six walls. The fire marshal climbed up a ladder, looked at Tobias`s work, and smiled at the crowd.

"The fire marshal was amazed that we were able to put the sleeves on without removing the cables, and he tapped the sleeves to make sure that they were metallic," explains Tobias. "Then when the hospital saw the bill, they told me that I could have free shots for life. My $4500 solution saved them from shutting down the hospital and losing more than $1 million." Thus, his idea for a new company was born. When Tobias looked at the fire marshal`s face, he was convinced that his product was marketable.

"I knew this type of scenario must have happened before, so it dawned on me to fabricate more of the sleeve system and create my new business," says Tobias. The sleeves are now UL-listed and patented. Tobias teaches his technology in training classes that are accredited for continuing-education units in public safety. He has also developed two versions of the split-sleeve firestopping system for retrofitted and new installations. Quickly his business, Unique Fire Stop Products (Robertsdale, AL), increased from one to four telephone lines.

"Many times," he reports, "people don`t care about firestopping issues because they just close the ceiling and forget that there is a problem, but it is a very important issue that can`t be ignored." Mike is very proud of his business and his firestopping products: "When I talk to people who are worried they`re going to lose their jobs in violation of a firewall code and to people who are distraught about the safety of the buildings they maintain, I can offer them a solution, and that is extremely rewarding."

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