Spotlight-Strong Connections-November 2011
Bird Island, a few hours west of the Twin Cities on Highway 212, is home to about 1,200 people—a population that now includes the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Minnesota small-businesspeople of the year for 2011.
Those winners are siblings Brian Sheehan, Kevin Sheehan, and Susan Peterson, whose 32-year-old company, Rural Computer Consultants (RCC), provides back-office software services to more than 300 mutual insurance companies and 1,400 fuel distribution firms worldwide. The SBA award recognizes a company’s growth, financial strength, innovation, and contributions to its community.
Liz Struve, director of the Southwest Small Business Development Center at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, said in nominating the company for the SBA award that “RCC is an ideal business model demonstrating what can be accomplished by a small business in outstate Minnesota. RCC offers great opportunity and optimism for rural populations, by offering and bringing technologies to anywhere in the world.”
Though a small city amidst acres of corn and soybeans, Bird Island has proven to be a particularly suitable perch from which to take flight. The entrepreneurial family has carved out two distinctive niches and are making the most of them. The Sheehans’ father founded a Bird Island propane supply company, which Kevin and Brian’s brother Mike took over in the 1970s. Mike asked Kevin, a Control Data programmer, to develop a software package that could manage the business’s routing, billing, scheduling, and other back-office processes. As Kevin wryly notes, “his brother was available for free.”
In 1979, Kevin and Brian founded Rural Computer Consultants, selling Apple computers and multi-user business machines to businesses and farmers in the Bird Island area. In a few years, they decided to focus on software development for fuel distributors.
Then their young company acquired another Bird Island software firm, this one developing technology for about 25 Minnesota mutual insurance firms. “They were going to fold if we didn’t acquire it,” Brian Sheehan recalls. Rural Computer Consultants rewrote the software and began to market it more widely.
As Sheehan explains, most mutual insurance companies were founded during the latter part of the 19th century by Midwestern and Great Plains farmers and businesspeople who couldn’t get insurance for fire (their biggest fear) from Eastern insurance companies, which thought them too big a risk. Though the industry isn’t disappearing, “there will be no more mutual insurance companies started as far as I can imagine,” Brian Sheehan notes. To survive, Rural Computer Consultants had to corner the mutual insurance market among software suppliers.
It almost has. In the past 24 years, the company has acquired six mutualinsurance software firms. Of the nearly 90 mutual insurers in Minnesota, Rural Computer Consultants has approximately 80 as clients, and more than 200 other insurers in other states.
Where Rural Computer Consultants does see continued growth is in its original market: fuel distribution. “Fuel is international,” Kevin Sheehan notes. Thanks to third-party partners and the Internet, fuel suppliers not only in North America but also Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia are using the company’s back-office software.
Kevin Sheehan says that finding suitable information technology talent has gotten easier the last few years: “As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to offer good salaries.” Many employees have moved into the area; Rural Computer Consultants also carpools in staffers from Hutchinson and Willmar. The company now employs 46, up from 43 in 2010.
Connectivity is another draw for luring IT staff to Bird Island. The company’s owners were part of a group of area businesspeople who pushed for fiber optic lines and other digital infrastructure. “We made it clear that we needed highspeed Internet as a town and a region,” Kevin Sheehan says.
Ruth Ann Karty, a consultant with the Small Business Development Center who has done work for Rural Computer Consultants since 2009, says that the company “has created a product that is user friendly, and they’ve created a business environment that entices great employees.
“The Sheehans also care about the well being of their community,” Karty adds. “They buy everything they can locally. [And] they helped build out the high-speed Internet system and shared it with the city of Bird Island.”
Citing his hometown’s Midwestern work ethic and the local economic development entity’s support, Brian Sheehan says that his company has “a very good template for a business in a rural community.”