Strong Building Blocks

The channel is littered with memories of companies that didn’t make it through even one of those ordeals, but Barrister Global Services Network endures -- an SMB diamond in the Louisiana rough. Based in Hammond, La., and privately owned, Barrister Global Services Network is the oldest and largest woman-owned computer services company in the country and claimed 40 percent growth in top-line revenue from 2009 to 2010. CEO Debra Bowers, recognized in 2010 as one of CRN’s top Women of the Channel, sees no big secret in what has helped the company prosper. As a pure services solution provider, she said, “We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’re better than most people at this.”

Barrister Global Services Network was founded in 1972 in Buffalo, N.Y., and for much of its earlier decades focused on software development for the legal industry. In the mid-1990s, the company sold off its software development assets to focus strictly on maintenance and hardware repair.

The Bowers family entered the story in July 2002, when Barrister Global Services Network acquired Advantage Innovation, a Harahan, La.-based solution provider that Bowers’ oldest son, John Bowers III, had founded in 1998. John was retained as an executive and became based in Buffalo, while Debra stayed in New Orleans and continued to operate the Harahan office.

Around the same time, however, Barrister Global Services Network’s business fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. The company lost $318,000 for its fiscal quarter ended June 30, 2003, compared to year-earlier quarterly profits of $115,000. It was delisted in August 2003 from the American Stock Exchange (now the NYSE Amex Equities) for failing to maintain a minimum share price.

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In September 2003, John became president of Barrister Global Services Network. After some long discussions with her son, Debra said, they decided it was worth it to revive Barrister Global Services Network -- as a New Orleans company.

“John said, ‘Mom, do you have an interest in buying this thing?’” she recalled. “When you start a company from scratch, you have to be very entrepreneurial, and very focused on how you spend money and how you operate. We had a small-business mind-set, and what we walked into was a much bigger small business than what we were in.”

In November 2003, the Bowers family acquired a 50.5 percent stake in the company and confirmed that its headquarters would move from Buffalo to Elwood, La., another New Orleans suburb.

“Hating those Buffalo winters, we said, ‘Let’s bring it home,’ ” Bowers recalled.

Things were looking up, and Debra Bowers became CEO. A year after Barrister Global Services Network was finally settled into its new home, Hurricane Katrina arrived.

“We’re from Louisiana. I’ve lived here for all of my life. I had never evacuated from a hurricane before Katrina, so thank God I did leave,” Bowers said. She and her management team fled to a satellite office in Austin, Texas. She was back in Louisiana, however, not four days later. In the aftermath, Bowers recalled, Barrister Global Services Network’s only goal was to connect with all of its current customers and ensure it would do whatever it could to meet SLA terms and keep things moving.

“We only lost one customer through the whole thing,” she said. “Our people were patient. And that’s a lot to ask for a company that has maintenance contracts covering their equipment. I truly don’t know how we did it. Tragedies can happen anywhere, no matter how insulated you might think you are. You either be a little smart and work through it, or you don’t. No customer should be ignored. We know we did the right things.”

Before long, the headquarters moved about 60 miles north of New Orleans to Hammond, La. It’s there where Barrister Global Services Network sits today, with 200 employees, an 80,000-square-foot facility and, according to Bowers, no red ink.

Today, the firm is focused on building a public-sector business, with sales lieutenants that spend time in the Beltway and $6 million in federal contract opportunities on-boarded and serviced. In addition, its focus on services and legacy as a printer repair company helped it make the leap into full-fledged managed print services much faster than many of its competitors.

“We’ve built it three times now,” Bowers said, referring to the original Harahan business, the move from Buffalo, and the rebirth in Hammond. “We’re going strong and we’re doing well.”