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Secret To MSP Citon’s Success: Delivering On A ‘Handshake’

‘We always did what we said we were going to do,’ says Citon Computer cofounder and CEO Steven Dastoor. ‘That was the most important thing. We delivered on a handshake.’

When Steven Dastoor started Citon Computer as a systems builder 27 years ago from a basement apartment with his cofounder Sean Dean, he had no idea that those humble beginnings would develop into leading one of the top MSPs in the country.

The fruits of nearly three decades of delivering technology solutions for small and medium sized businesses paid off this week with the acquisition of Duluth, Minn. based Citon by $300 million solution provider powerhouse ACP CreativIT.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Dastoor Tuesday after informing Citon’s 70 employees about the deal. “Sean and I were two college grads turning screws in a basement apartment. We had a lot of passion and we were incredibly driven.”

The first system Citon built, said Dastoor—who became CEO of the company with Dean acting as CFO—was for his wife’s uncle. “We had no money so he paid for the computer up front on a handshake,” Dastoor said.

The two friends had trouble getting that first system to work, but after looking for help from a components distributor that sold them the parts they discovered that the processor was not properly fit into place. “We were guys that made things work,” said Dastoor. “We always did what we said we were going to do. That was the most important thing. We delivered on a handshake.”

Delivering on handshakes with customers has made the company a technology force to be reckoned with in the Midwest, with offices in Duluth, Brainerd and Eden Prairie in Minnesota as well as Eau Claire, Wis. Dastoor and Dean have also built out three sister companies that are also now part of ACP CreativIT: NetTel, a network communications infrastructure and cabling company; TLX Communications, a hosted VoIP provider and NetGuard Security Solutions, a business and home video security solutions company.

Given the technology pitfalls and security breaches facing customers in a fast-moving digital transformation era, customers are looking more than ever before for that “one hand to shake” to deliver an end-to-end secure and well-managed IT environment, said Dastoor. Increasing technology complexity and the ability to better serve customers backed by a bigger company led to the merger with ACP CreativIT, he said.

“Customers have been piecemealing all this technology together,” said Dastoor. “What customers have figured out is that level of fracturing cannot continue. It has become too complex. So the idea of consolidating IT infrastructure with a trusted partner who will shake their hands on a deal and deliver on that deal is what the customer is looking for. It is what the customer demands and what the customer actually needs. They need what we have developed, which is a next-generation managed service provider technology stack that handles security at a level that is required in the world we live in today.”

Citon’s security prowess, in fact, has helped drive 30 percent growth in its managed services sales over the last several years. “We have all the security elements that a modern next-generation MSP needs,” he said. “You have got to have a security toolset and skill set that provides the customer with the security measures they need today. But what they need today is different than what they will need tomorrow or next Tuesday. It has to keep evolving.”

Citon has evolved from a business that was 90 percent hardware in the early days to a business that is now 40 percent services with an eye toward driving that services business to 50 percent of sales. “I’m a big hardware guy. A lot of the born-in-the-cloud kids don’t sell any hardware, but we are passionate about the electrons that make this work,” he said. “We love that piece of the business. I believe the hardware helps the services and the managed services parts of the business.”

Citon’s technology portfolio also includes its own data center and a powerful optical transport network.

Dastoor—who is a member of distributor Ingram Micro’s “Mastermind” peer group and Trust X Alliance elite solution provider network—said the secret behind the breadth and depth of Citon’s technology portfolio is its willingness to “walk through doors” that open into new technology solutions that solve customer business problems.

“If we see an opportunity or an area that would be good for our customers to invest in, that’s what we do,” he said. “In life, doors open, and it‘s up to you to walk through them. I’m grateful that we‘ve been able to walk through enough of them so that things have worked out for us.”

Citon’s transformation into a managed services powerhouse came as a result of “doubling down” on the MSP model and building out the services portfolio, said Dastoor. Also key was aligning that MSP portfolio with a proven sales process. “We set a goal for the entire team,” he said. “We designed a company-wide plan and made it part of every conversation we had.”

The MSP sales charge included quarterly sales kickoffs that focused sharply on making the MSP transformation, said Dastoor, who will now help drive overall managed services growth for all of ACP CreativIT. “It was a 20-mile march [the term coined by ‘Great By Choice’ author and business management expert Jim Collins],” he said. “We just continually communicated the MSP message. That is what really made the difference.”

In a presentation to his employees on the ACP CreativIT deal, Dastoor focused on the big opportunity ahead for the Citon team. “It was about growth—how do we grow in 2022,” he said. “I told them we could grow organically which is really hard to do, grow through acquisitions or look for a partnership. I told them the best path forward for all of us together is to partner and merge with ACP CreativIT.”

ACP CreativIT CEO Scott Dunsire said the acquisition- terms of which were not disclosed- provides additional managed services muscle and customer relationships in the Midwest. “This adds to our already strong foothold in the Midwest with new technical talent with deep expertise securing and managing small and medium sized businesses,” he said. “Ultimately this deal puts us in a position to compete for bigger and better opportunities in the markets that we serve.”

Besides the presentation to employees on the benefits of the merger, Dastoor and his team made over 100 customer calls, more than 50 vendor calls and sent emails to 3,400 companies. “It was great fun talking to customers,” he said. “They were happy for us, and they were excited about what this means for them in the future: the buying power, the relationships, the access to new technologies. That was awesome because we have friendships with these people. It’s not just a business relationship.”

Under the merger, Dastoor and Dean will join ACP CreativIT along with all of the 70 Citon employees with an eye toward adding additional employees at all of Citon’s locations.

“We have amazing people, it is our people that make this company successful,” said Dastoor, who will continue as CEO for Citon and join the board of directors of ACP CreativIT. “Why would you ruin the one thing that makes the company successful? ACP CreativIT has been really respectful of that. It has got to be the right fit. We didn’t want to be in a situation where we had private equity come in and myself and [Dean] would be gone within a year. We have runway left. We want to stay in the business.”

ACP CreativIT’s Camera Corner Connecting Point CEO Rick Chernick, who has known Citon’s founders for 20 years, played a critical role in bringing Citon into the ACP CreativIT fold.

Chernick, who decided to merge with Arlington Computer Products in 2018 to create ACP CreativIT, counseled Dastoor on the benefits of the merger. That was no small matter given Chernick’s decision to merge his Green Bay, Wis.-based family-run business with deep civic, community and philanthropic roots founded by his father 69 years ago.

“We are so similar to [Chernick] and Camera Corner Connecting Point,” said Dastoor. “They are the same as us. They are Midwestern people with Midwestern values taking care of Midwestern customers. They broke the mold with Rick. I have a huge amount of respect for him. I would not have gone through this if not for him. He is a force of nature. He cares so strongly about the people. He understood the elements of our company that were successful. We saw a better future because of him. He is my IT hero.”

Dastoor says he could not be more “excited” about that future given the strength of ACP CreativIT, Camera Corner Connecting Point and Citon. “ACP has been amazing through this whole experience,” he said. “It’s like buying a house. They did everything they could and went out of their way to make sure they were transparent, open and honest and actually made the whole experience enjoyable. They have a process for doing these deals that are win win for everybody. They have figured out how to do a merger and have refined it to a fine art. It’s all about the handshake.”

Dastoor said there has never been a greater need for trusted technology advisors like ACP CreativIT, Camera Corner Connecting Point and Citon. “The dependence on IT is continuing to grow,” he said. “One-man-shop IT departments don’t cut it anymore. They can’t meet the needs of the modern business. Those needs might be compliance, protected information, security, firewalls, servers, end-user devices, there is just too much for one small IT department to handle. Together as a society we are going to have to partner more. IT is primed for that partnership. It’s a big responsibility and it is an honor for us to take care of technology for customers.”

That responsibility harkens back to Citon’s mission statement: “We believe that securely and responsibly leveraging technology enables people and organizaitons to thrive.”

“We believe that mission statement and live it everyday,” said Dastoor. “Being part of ACP CreativIT means we are going to achieve more together and collaborate with people who are just as smart and smarter than us to deliver solutions for our customers.”

The way Dastoor sees it, the ACP CreativIT merger marks the start of another great adventure. “It’s a whole new day,” he said. “My job is clear: I am going to be here working for our customers and our people every single day. This is how we sustain our legacy as a business.”

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