Changing with the Times

Changing with the Times

Larry O'Connor
June 2008

This year is marked by bittersweet milestones for high-tech firm Comtronics. While the company celebrates 50 years of business, it also mourns the passing of its founder, Phil Campau Sr., who died at home in his sleep on May 2nd.

Phil started Comtronics in his basement in 1958 and fostered the fledging company through the various stages of its evolution in the telecommunications-electronic security industry specializing in cellular phones, burglar alarms and video surveillance system installations. Although his 45 year-old son, John Campau, serves as president and chief executive officer, Phil remained actively involved, serving as chairman to the day he died at age 71.

Family and employees remember Phil as a man who enjoyed computers, cutting edge technology and for being a ‘tech’ at heart. He was also a master of many trades and a devoted family man with a strong faith. “My dad was a devout Catholic and he always said that before he died, he wanted to go to Rome. So for his 70th birthday, we visited St. Peter’s Basilica,” said John. “When we returned, he told everyone it was the trip of a lifetime. Little did we know that he would die 10 months later.”

And while Phil is no longer able to watch his company grow and develop, his legacy of hard work and innovation lives on. With over 100 employees and 12 store locations, Comtronics recently landed $7 million in new alarm contracts and continues to process over 2,000 cell phone activations and upgrades every month.

And to think it was a couple of bungling burglars who helped unleash the security division of the business behemoth. From its inception, Comtronics’ name was synonymous with the sale and maintenance of two-way radio systems. Then one night in 1970, the alarm at the company’s store on Airport Road alerted Phil, who was at his home, that something was afoul at the store.

Photo Courtesy of John Campau
John Campau attends the Wendy's Charity Golf Classic with his mother and father, Artemia Campau and the late Phil Campau, Sr.

Four days before Phil passed away, he recalled the incident and shared memories in an interview with Jackson Magazine, “When the alarm sounded, I went busting down there to see what was going on,” he said, “When they saw someone pulling up with the car lights on, they ran off. That helped foil the robbery.”

Though the alarm did its duty, the family patriarch realized he couldn’t be home all the time to monitor it. “That incident was like a wake-up call,” said Phil, “I realized I wasn’t the only one being broken into–there’s a business idea here.”

But how could a small business with limited resources handle around-the-clock surveillance for a large customer base? Phil’s solution was a tribute to his ingenuity—he struck up a deal with another business perfectly suited for the task—Horne-Vinson Ambulance Company. “I told George Vinson, ‘Hey, let’s get a deal going,’” said Phil, who brokered an arrangement where ambulance dispatchers would monitor his alarms in exchange for him repairing the rescue company’s radios.

Photo by Jackson Magazine
John, seated with his parents and business partners, left to right, Anne Walker White, Geri Walker, Jim Walker, Phil Campau, Sr., and Artemia Campau

Another example of his business acumen occurred in 1974 when Phil bought five brand new, yellow ‘New York City-style’ taxi cabs and launched the Checker Cab Company. The venture helped underwrite his fledging 24-hour alarm monitoring business. He sold the Checker Cab Company five years later just as Jackson Transportation Authority began to cut into the cab business.

“As always, dad’s timing was perfect,” said John.

Through such strategic partnerships, key acquisitions and shrewd investments, Comtronics has continued to prosper. Indeed the business, which began as a two-way radio communication company for police and fire, has evolved into a diversified multi-million dollar, multi-state operation.

John Campau joined Comtronics in 1986, one year after graduating from the University of Michigan as a business major. The former Lumen Christi All-State football player immediately planned to grow the security alarm business, which soared from 300 alarm customers to 8,000 today. In 1994, he was named company president, a position he continued to hold after a merger with Walker Capital Corp. in January 1999.

“Dad and I worked together and played together all the time. We were best friends,” said John, adding that working side-by-side with his father for 22 years has been the highlight of his career.

John was named Jackson County Small Business Person of the Year in 2001 by the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce. He also received the Jackson Citizen Patriot ‘Citizen of the Year’ award in 2006 for his tireless efforts to save the John George Home, a residential facility for disadvantaged elderly gentlemen, from closing.

As Comtronics expanded, it needed increasingly larger facilities to house its equipment and staff. In the spring of 1989, Comtronics purchased their current headquarters building, located in downtown Jackson at One Comtronics Place. After making renovation and additions, it opened its doors in May of 1990.

Shortly afterwards, it obtained Underwriters Laboratory certification, which is the gold standard for alarm companies that monitor alarms 24/7. “We realized we have a world-class facility and decided that certification would be the perfect complement,” said Phil, adding that a small percentage of security firms obtain UL certification, which is given to companies that pass rigorous inspections for compliance to their regulations.

At Comtronics’ headquarters, workers monitor a bank of video screens in an area fortified by bulletproof glass and security doors. To enter, people have to pass through video surveillance cameras, electronic card readers and a biometric fingerprint detector.

Photo Courtesy of John Campau
Phil Campau, Sr., Comtronics founder and his son, John Campau, president and chief executive officer of the company.

Through such innovation, Comtronics landed high-profile alarm contracts with financial institutions like Flagstar Bank and Citizens Republic Corp. In fact, the Jackson firm recently inked a $5 million deal to remain Citizen’s exclusive alarm and surveillance system provider in four states. Comtronics is busy installing alarms for Flagstar Bank in Atlanta, Georgia, where the bank began expanding three years ago.

With the banks alone, the company services over 5,000 surveillance cameras in the field. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “We sell, install, monitor and service alarms and video surveillance systems in nine states,” said John, who is following in his father’s footsteps by continuing to expand and diversify the business.

While the electronic security division comprises 70 percent of Comtronics’ business, telecommunications accounts for the rest. As the two-way radio business began to wane, Comtronics latched onto the emerging cellular phone industry in June of 1999 and became an authorized Nextel franchise, earning Diamond Dealer status with 400 new activations per month within the first year. Since Alltel was added in 2003, Comtronics routinely vies for being Alltel’s largest dealer in Michigan.

Reprinted with permission from Jackson Magazine
Copyright June 2008

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