What it does: Provides educational products and assistive technology for children and adults with disabilities
Employees: 37 total; 33 in Roseville with four working remotely
Revenues: Nearing $20 million
Solutions: Implement acquisition strategy, develop sales and marketingchannels, expand online presence, increase customer base
Jennifer Thalhuber took a look at the economic landscape three years ago and concluded it was time for her company to make a strategic shift.
AbleNet develops most of its own products. But Thalhuber and her team wanted to broaden this lineup by adding extensions to the company’s existing lines. “In today’s climate, it’s an uphill battle to gain traction with new products,” she says. On the other hand, the company needs additional items to take advantage of market opportunities and keep growing.
Thalhuber’s solution? Strategic acquisitions. These days, she says, AbleNet seeks “suites of products that will be an easy bolt-on to our distribution network so we can manage them effectively through our growing sales channel.”
One of the five product acquisitions that Thalhuber has engineered since putting the acquisition strategy in place is the Keys-U-See line of large-print computer keyboards, which AbleNet purchased from Arizona-based Genesis Worldwide Enterprises in January. Designed for people with vision difficulties, Keys-U-See keyboards are available in multiple languages and keyboard structures.
For both sides, the deal was a win. It helped AbleNet build dominance in this specific market, and Genesis was able to shed a product whose return on investment was diminishing due to the company’s lack of an extensive distribution network.
This is the kind of network AbleNet had been aggressively building even before initiating Thalhuber’s acquisition strategy. Early in her tenure, she began increasing the size of AbleNet’s dealer network around the globe. That network has grown threefold over the past three years; about half of the dealers are outside the United States.
“When I looked at where revenues were coming from, I saw a lot of untapped potential in the international market,” Thalhuber says. “Expanding our dealer network has helped us navigate through this economic uncertainty because we now have a wider reach in various countries.”
Thalhuber also has embarked on a channel expansion strategy by creating an independent sales network—going from zero to more than 60 reps in three years—to build business for AbleNet’s educational products, particularly its curricula programs for schools. What’s more, the company has boosted its online presence and digital marketing.
“We hired a handful of people with rich knowledge in key subjects that complement our communication, marketing, and sales plans,” Thalhuber says. “We have a full-court press on to enhance the ways we can communicate with potential customers, because if they don’t know who we are and what we provide, we can’t be part of the purchasing process.” That interconnection with customers is the linchpin for the company’s sales efforts during the recession, and remains so during this slow recovery.
AbleNet has doubled its revenues in the four years since Thalhuber was appointed CEO, with 30 percent growth in each of the last two years. “They’ve made acquisitions to increase their customer base, made significant strides on line, and have increasingly gone global as well,” observes Ken Whitley, co-owner of North Carolina–based Key Technologies, a vendor in the assistive technology and special needs fields that sells AbleNet products in parts of the U.S. “And that’s all been under her tenure.”
Thalhuber’s approach has been synergistic: The acquisitions have enhanced the reach of AbleNet’s sales and distribution efforts, while the company’s expanded dealer network and growing online presence is building awareness and demand. “Everything that we do gets us a step closer to meeting the needs of people with disabilities cradle to age and helping them reach their human potential,” Thalhuber says. “It’s a lofty goal but one we readily embrace.”