Gary Jackson, ’74, TKE, knows remarkable success can begin without great fanfare. Jackson is co-founder, president and CEO of Suntel Services, Inc., a Michigan-based company that customizes communication systems for businesses across the state. In the fall of 1986, however, Suntel consisted of what Jackson describes as, “Two men in a small office with desks, a copier and half a secretary.” The other man was Jackson’s brother, Donald Jackson, and the office was the cradle of a company that now does business with over 1,000 companies and employs 83 people in five offices across southeastern Michigan.
What began as an in-family entrepreneurial venture expanded rapidly; after five years, Suntel Services was the fourth fastest-growing, privately held business in Michigan. In the same year, Inc. magazine voted it the 58th fastest-growing, privately held business in the country. Jackson and his partners kept pace with changing technology by expanding their services from used-part resale to the engineering, installation and maintenance of secure phone systems, local area networks and wireless designs. After two decades, Suntel Services has installed over 5,000 communication systems and earned the right to represent major manufacturers Mitel, Juniper Networks, Cisco Systems, Microsoft Corporation and Nortel Networks Corporation.
Jackson credits much of this success to lessons he learned in college and the big-business world. After graduating from Hillsdale with a BLS in Economics and Business Administration, Jackson spent six years working for information giant IBM and another six for telephone manufacturer ROLM Corporation. He feels his experience at these large companies amounted to earning a “master’s [degree] in sales and marketing.” The big-business strategies he learned at IBM and the entrepreneurial edge he sharpened at ROLM helped make his own business successful.
Likewise, Jackson says his Hillsdale education laid a foundation of learning he appreciated only after going hands-on in a small business. He explains: “The years you spend in college teach you to understand concepts you don’t understand as much when you’re learning as when you go out in the real world and apply them. You build a database.” Jackson remembers Professor of Accounting Norm Campbell as a particular friend and advisor who took an interest in preparing him for success after Hillsdale.
Now Jackson enjoys his executive role at Suntel Services because he stays closely involved with all sides of the company, dividing his energies between employees and clients. A successful business, according to Jackson, puts people before profitability: “Success for us is making sure our customers are satisfied. Those are the people that keep our business operating. If you look underneath that, success is having a good place for people to work, having a positive environment for directing and, at the end of the day, making money because that is what it takes to survive.”
Although Suntel Services has done more than survive over the last 20 years, Jackson believes it is now harder to run a small business in Michigan than when he began. But Jackson hopes to “Make changes with a small voice.” He and his brother, Don, participate actively in political campaigns and encourage employees to be aware of important legislation. Jackson explains: “They [employees] need to understand what the impact is on all of them and that they can make a difference. It’s not just myself and my brother, it’s 83 people here that these decisions affect.”
Ultimately, Jackson believes that the same independent spirit underlying grassroots politics and small-business entrepreneurship also characterizes his alma mater: “To work and think as an independent person is a cornerstone of Hillsdale that I respect. You set your goals and you execute them and you don’t look for aid from other people.”
Jackson lives in Bloomfield Hills, with his wife, Karon, and their two children—Elyse and Matthew.
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