Interview with Hank Zbierski, Chief Catalyst and Co-Founder
The Best Kept Secret in the Industry
Set on the idyllic banks of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, one of the very best locations in the United States for satellite transmission, the Isotropic earth station is the best kept secret of the satellite industry. Established 29 years ago, this quiet workhorse has been built up by the Zbierski family and is blazing a trail with regard to its capabilities, its offerings, its exceptional customer service and attitude towards its employees. In this interview, Hank Zbierski, Chief Catalyst and Co-Founder, Isotropic, takes us through the company’s heritage, the company’s philosophy and plans for expansion.
What’s the story behind the creation of Isotropic, Hank?
We started back in 1991, in the commodities trading business when we identified the need to get a lot of financial trading information to a lot of people at the same time. The demand was primarily for point-to-multipoint communications. The traders needed to access all their information immediately. We did something really unique (remember that this was the days before the Internet), which was to broadcast live audio from the trading pits of the Chicago markets at the Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. At this time, it was all communicated through hand signals so we would interpret the hand signals and send that audio by multicast over satellite so that people at the remote sites would get the bid and the ask before the trade ever took place. It was an extreme insight into the markets, and we delivered all over the US, South America and Europe right from the start. We co-located at a Chicago Radio Station and built a satellite antenna to do this, it became a huge market serving the large investment banks and many of the larger trading firms.
We eventually transitioned into two-way and VSAT and we used to build our own hardware but eventually got to a point where we didn’t have the volume to buy up the chips. So, in 1999 we partnered with iDirect because we were both building the same thing – but they were doing it better.
Have you always been at the same site?
Initially we started at the Chicago Board of Trade, at the datacenter. We then co-located at an AM radio transmitter on the south side of Chicago where we put up a 3.7 m antenna and a 2.4 m antenna. Then in 1997 in Wisconsin, we found a former RCA teleport, one of the first built in the US. It was shut down so we salvaged it and re-built it and we now have 9 large aperture antennas from 9.5m down to 6.1m and we still have our first 3.7 m antenna. After 28 years, going on 29, we still have our first customer and we still have our first employee.
Does that tie into your vision and philosophy of the company? Can you tell me a little bit more about how you see the company and what’s driven it across the years?
We like to do things right and create value for our customers. I was fortunate to have a great mentor when I started in business and that was Rene Anselmo, the founder of the world’s first privately owned global satellite network (PanAmSat). He told me something that was very important. He said: “Hank, when my customers make money, I make money.” We endeavor to truly demonstrate value for our clients. To us, this is not a commercial relationship. Our clients are under our guidance, our care and protection.
A lot of people don’t know satellite that well, especially so in the early days. It scared people. So, it’s a long process of education. The need to educate the client is getting greater and greater. First, we had to introduce SCPC and then TDMA, and now you have adaptive TDMA and contention ratios. Some of these people look at you like their head’s going to explode! We try to bring it down to simple terms.
We are constantly educating our clients because the progression of the technology is unbelievable.
Can you tell me more about the services you deliver and the markets you are engaged in?
We are very careful and methodical in terms of what we do. We study the business and market trends and we’ve learned that we don’t want to be in just one market. That’s a recipe for failure. We serve 20 different markets. No one market or customer makes up more than 7 percent of our total revenue. We are very diverse. When oil and gas tanked, we barely felt it. We do everything from aero to utilities and everything in between. The thing that is important and the thing that challenges us is to become an expert in each of those markets so that we can help our clients. We drill down very deep with our clients to understand their business. Sometimes they don’t like it. They think we’re too nosey! But I love it when I hear our clients say: “Now I know why I do business with you”.
We believe that if you can’t make the commitment to the client, you don’t serve the client. We’re a fast-moving company and we are in a hi-tech business but we are still pretty old fashioned about how we do business, and we are proud of it.
Isotropic is a family-run company and very proud of it as well, as you say. What are the main benefits of a family-run company to your customers and also to your employees as well?
It’s very unique. What I love about being a family business is that I can think of something in the shower and we can put it into play that afternoon. There’s no politics, and we are very open about everything. We laugh a lot. We cry a lot. We yell a lot! It’s those family dynamics that make it work for us. As I said earlier, we still have our first employee and he’s something between a brother and a wife! It’s a strange relationship that is very enjoyable and works for all of us. Our son is involved, our daughter is involved. It creates a very good degree of confidence, continuity and comfort.
That must ultimately rub off on your customers as well. They must get that secure feeling that comes from yourselves.
We hope it does – and we believe it does. When we’ve had so many of our clients for so long, we have been there all the way through – when their children were born and when they graduated college. It’s wonderful. Plus, we have a lot of people who are extremely capable. Even our worst day in the office is better than some people’s best.
How many colleagues work at Isotropic in total?
30, and we are growing.
Can you tell me about the facility that you have on Lake Geneva and the technology that you employ there. What are the benefits of its location?
It’s one of the original teleports built in the US back in the 1970s. Originally, there were 11 locations around the United States that were ideal for uplinking to satellite and for TT&C. Two of them were located on Lake Geneva. They’re not even a mile apart. Western Union built a facility here and then RCA followed them. The facility was shuttered back in 1989 and donated to a local girl’s college which sold it off to a number of different entities. It’s been everything from a carpenter’s workshop to a print shop. I knew it was sitting in the dark for many years and I stopped in one day and looked into the history of it, and I found out how important it was for broadcasting.
As I explained, we were located on the south side of Chicago. There were radio buyouts going on and I was worried that if the network would sell that radio station, we wouldn’t have any place to broadcast from. I approached the owners of the facility and we were fortunate enough to purchase it.
Our facility lies in a valley, with a high water table and it is a very clean RF environment. When we moved that first antenna from the south side of Chicago up to Lake Geneva, we picked up 3dB which was twice the signal strength and we were broadcasting with less power and a much cleaner signal. We actually do business with some of our competitors and they have approached me and explain that we have a common customer, we are operating the same system on the same spacecraft and same size antenna but that our signal is so much more robust than theirs. When they ask me what our secret is I say “location, location, location”. It works for us. It is a clean environment which allows us to do things that other people can’t.
What’s your assessment of the current state of the satellite industry in terms of trends and how is it affecting your business? How do you see it evolving in the future?
We ignore outside forces, but we are very attuned to what’s going on. Satellite is so important. Our saying is ‘everyone needs a VSAT’. There are a lot of people that have entered the business that really don’t belong in it. They see profit opportunities and put up a small antenna, call themselves a teleport and start providing services. A lot haven’t done very well and there’s been a lot of consolidation because they want it for a quick dollar. We are in it for the long haul. We have a mission and we’re growing every year.
There’s a lot of consolidation going on but that’s because there are people that don’t belong in the business. We believe we do, and we will be here for a long time. We build for that and we will continue building for it.
With that in mind can you tell us about your plans for expansion and company growth?
We own our facility on Lake Geneva. We have 9 antennas, 21 acres and a beautiful building. We have a personal interest in a facility in Europe and we have just ordered three new hubs from ST Engineering iDirect. We will be co-located in other facilities to allow global coverage from one location with a global Network Management System, so we will control everything from Lake Geneva. We will cover North and South America, Europe and Africa and the Middle East out of our European facility in Poland and will also co-locate in a facility for Asia Pacific coverage.
With this expansion are you looking to enter into any new markets and serve any new applications?
There are so many new applications.
The IoT has opened up so much and we are still getting our arms around that. We want to make sure we go in the right direction. We are going to expand some current markets we’re in right now. Some are not being served correctly. For example, people are very concerned about their financial transactions and want to know about them immediately. That’s a market that could definitely use our services. The utility market is one that hasn’t been served properly. There is tremendous expansion in that market and a lot of research that goes on around the world in very remote locations. They need VSAT for that. Then there’s enterprise and 5G. In terms of 5G, we have a saying in the family: ‘there will never be enough bandwidth’. 5G convergence with satellite, or VSAT is just incredible. If you think about what’s happening with 5G and where satellite fits in, it’s the oldest IP protocol – it’s multicast. People want to stream like crazy and these mobile carriers cannot tie up the entire backbone with all this streamed content. However, if you can multicast via satellite and deliver it to every cache server across a continent, just think about what that saves that mobile carrier and how it enhances their service.
We are also going to be in the aero market, where people are also going to want to stream. There is still a lot to learn. In terms of transport, increasing amounts of people will use autonomous transportation in the future, and they are going to want to be able to stream. The multicast ability of satellite is going to help make that happen.
You have a new marketing campaign that focuses on ‘Unrivaled Certainty’. Can you tell me a little more about that?
In its simplest form, we mean that what we do works. Communications are so important. The most important thing we do, the true differentiator, is unrivaled certainty. When you purchase a product and service from us, it works. If it doesn’t work, we do what it takes to make it work, immediately. It doesn’t get any better than that. Our clients know that, when they do business with us, they don’t have to worry about a thing.
Tell us about the corporate jet and how you use it?
We are very aero-oriented, and we own our own corporate aircraft.
Six years ago, we had the Joplin tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, which took out almost the whole town. We had a client down there that had to deploy quickly. It was an insurance company and they had to go out there and carry out mobile claims processing. Their VSAT wasn’t working and we knew it wasn’t us and wasn’t them, but it appeared to be caused by interference on the spacecraft. From the time our client called to the time we arrived on site was 2 hours. We took all the equipment we needed. We found the source of the interference which was another disaster recovery agency’s VSAT which had a rogue transmitter. We fixed the problem – immediately. Again, that’s why our clients do business with us.
A few months later, another very large company asked us to build a vehicle for them. They wanted a VSAT on board and when we finished, we asked them where they heard about us and why had they done business with us. The gentleman said that if you have a customer that has a problem and you are there, in your own aircraft in two hours and you fix it, you have a customer for life. We are there to deliver this certainty.
We flew out to a very large oil and gas company that was experiencing problems. All of a sudden, there were C-level executives coming out to see us. They wanted to meet us because they appreciated the fact that we were on the spot so quickly having flown down to resolve the problem. It’s a great feeling and a wonderful way to do business.
How do you see Isotropic looking in 5 years’ time?
I believe that our growth will be exponential but we’re still going to be the same people. We will still be the same company. That will not change us. If anything, the additional revenue will allow us to do it better yet.