Businesses in virtually every sector — education, health care, government — are in need of computers, a fact that Peter Helander has known for more than two decades.
Since taking the helm as president of Heartland Business Systems in 1992, Helander has overseen the Little Chute-based company’s rapid growth. The company grew into Heartland Technology Group, which is composed of three subsidiaries: Heartland Business Systems, Heartland Label Printers and Avastone Technologies.
In 2000 and again in 2004, the company added 10,000 square feet to the Little Chute location. It added another 16,375 square feet in 2007. In 2012, Heartland completed the connection of a second building, resulting in a 99,050-square-foot office and manufacturing space. Heartland is five times larger than it was a decade ago.
The company placed ninth in the country in 2012 for job creation in the business products and services vertical, and ranked 3,001 on The Inc. Magazine 5000 List in 2013. In 2012, Heartland also was the No. 1 job creator in Wisconsin in the vertical, according to Inc. Magazine’s Hire Power awards.
Helander’s leadership in the company’s growth explosion is among the reasons Post-Crescent Media selected him as CEO/Executive of the Year.
Helander, who remains one of Heartland’s top salesmen, said his leadership strategy focuses on encouraging employees and nurturing their emotional intelligence.
“We can have the best plans laid out with the greatest vision, but if we can’t get all the team members pulling in the same direction, I don’t think Heartland and Avastone would have been as successful,” he said. “And that’s the inward-looking questions like, ‘What do team members need from me?’ ‘What are their perspectives?’ And that’s not something they teach in school.”
Helander guided Heartland through the evolution of technology in the workplace from the 1990s, when computers were mainly a back-office tool used to run accounting systems or drive labeling systems, he said. From there, the Internet pushed consumers to build their own product lines and establish an online presence. Since 2008, there has been another transition to employees integrating personal devices like smartphones and tablets into their workday.
“The division between operational devices within organizations and strategic has blurred, making employees and team members way more productive, which has spawned new innovation,” Helander said. “So we went from the back office to static Web pages to mobility and business intelligence, and Heartland and Avastone have evolved through that transition.”
Heartland Business Systems, an IT integration firm, consults with businesses to develop hosting services, network security solutions and cloud-based applications. Over the past three years, the firm has hired 258 new employees, more than doubling its size to 486 and landing it on international lists of top business technology innovators, including the CRN Tech Elite 250, CRN’s Solution Provider 500 and the Fast Growth 100.
In 2013, the firm was named Cisco’s State, Local and Education Partner of the Year for the second straight year after a 30 percent increase in Cisco sales in the public sector space.
The key to Heartland’s success is its employees, said Helander, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus and Green Bay native.
“Many of our customers have relationships with specific engineers, programmers and business analysts, and those partnerships continue on forever,” he said. “For example, Appvion — we’ve had a strong partnership with them on the label side for 20 years. I think the No. 1 reason customers stay with us is the relationship we generate with them, because with that relationship comes innovation.”
Heartland is constantly encouraging entrepreneurship, which means new services and product offerings originate from employees, rather than coming down the chain as orders, Helander said. Not only can that lead to better business, but it can also do good for the community, he said.
For example, the Fond du Lac School District needed Internet access for 100 newly purchased iPads as part of its goal of a one-to-one computer-to-student ratio. Heartland Business Systems worked with the district to find a vendor and evaluated each building to determine the most effective placement for wireless access points.
“Our postsecondary initiatives here are to deliver technologies to make students read better, write better, do math better,” Helander said. “That’s taking technology and using it in a way that brings greater good to our community.”
Such partnerships are a big part of what drives Heartland to create new solutions and innovate, Helander said. With offices in Little Chute, Madison, Eau Claire, Pewaukee, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Iowa, and Lisle, Ill., Heartland works with organizations across the Midwest to recreate their business, and companies in northeastern Wisconsin are especially open to new ideas, he said.
“They look at innovation as a way to drive their bottom line,” he said. “They’re constantly looking for new ways to recreate their business, not because the old way was bad, but because of the evolution of the marketplace and their specific verticals.”