What’s in a name? For this year’s winner of SDM’s Systems Integrator of the Year award, everything. Founded in 1999 as primarily a locksmith company, today Unlimited Technology Inc. fully lives up to its name, with as close to “unlimited” opportunity, technology and services as any security integrator can offer.
Originally founded as Unlimited Lock in 1999, the company quickly started working in the security integration space. In 2013, UT pivoted and began the process of transforming the company into a technology solutions company — including network monitoring, managed services and cybersecurity. A past winner of this award in 2014, company President John Palumbo says they have come a long way since their previous win.
2021 Systems Integrator of the Year: At a Glance
Unlimited Technology Inc.,
Chester Springs, Pa.
2021 Revenue: $75 million (est.)
2021 SDM Top Systems Integrator Report Ranking: No. 7
“We continue to evolve as a culture,” he says. “We are better, not only for shareholders, but also for our customers and teammates. A quick example, when COVID-19 came along, most of our team was always in the office. We were able to instantly switch to virtual without missing a beat. We didn’t lay anyone off; we didn’t furlough anyone.”
This alone is an impressive feat, given the challenges the pandemic presented security integrators. But beyond merely surviving the pandemic, Unlimited grew, both in workforce and in profits. Prior to COVID-19 the company had 149 employees. Today, they are at 175 and counting. While revenues dipped slightly in 2020, particularly in the New York construction market, the company still hit its sales target of $68 million in 2020 and profits were nearly identical to 2019 numbers. The company has nearly reached its goal of “$100 million in ’21,” a motto they came up with in 2019, pre-pandemic, and is anticipating a 27 percent increase in revenues in 2022 due to the popularity of their technology offerings as well as a healthy backlog of projects that were put on hold in 2020.
Unlimited Technology is headquartered in Chester Springs, Pa., and operates 13 offices in the U.S. as well as doing business in more than 42 countries around the globe. They describe themselves as an “end-to-end” provider, capable of taking a customer from the building phase all the way through to managed services and everything in between.
“It’s something that sets us apart from our competitors; we can do more non-traditional projects like AV, cyber, etc.,” says Jim DeStefano, senior vice president. “I don’t see many [security integrators] diversifying like we are. Our programs differentiate us. We are definitely not just a card reader and camera company.”
Unlimited Technology is ranked No. 7 on SDM’s 2021 Top Systems Integrators Report, up from No. 9 the previous year. It is a company clearly on the move and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a “security” integrator. For all those reasons and more, they have earned the title of this year’s SDM Systems Integrator of the Year.
Doing Business in Pandemic
As the COVID-19 crisis closes in on its third year in 2022, Unlimited Technology has learned some valuable lessons about not only keeping business going but growing and thriving during a global pandemic.
One thing that helped Unlimited Technology weather the crisis was its diversity of offerings and geography. “COVID was obviously and still is a challenge for all of us,” says Jim DeStefano. The biggest challenge initially was how to keep people working and employed when customer’s sites were shutting down. “Companies like us learned to adapt,” he says. “Because we diversified our business, we had a healthy model. We can handle antenna systems, low-voltage projects or building facilities. More of our customers were able to have that one hand to shake for any portion of their project. That was very positive.”
During COVID-19 the company’s fusion center was particularly vital to being able to continue to service customers, says Emma Ubiera. “Being able to identify and resolve issues remotely was key when so many of our clients did not have personnel on-site.”
UT was and is committed to following CDC guidelines as well as the lead of their customers. When vaccines became available the company strongly encouraged their existing employees to get vaccinated, giving them paid time off for the visit and for recovery time from any side effects. If CDC recommends masks, they follow suit. And if a customer wants something even more stringent, such as double masking, they will do that.
New hires are required to be vaccinated, says John Palumbo, and more than 80 percent of existing employees also chose to get the vaccine, although not required. The policy hasn’t slowed down hiring, though. “Prior to COVID we had 149 employees; now we are at 175,” Palumbo reports.
“Our customer and employee safety is always right up front,” says Charlie Von Stetten. “Everything else doesn’t matter. If a customer is requiring it, we are going to abide by it. If CDC is recommending it, we will do that. We don’t want to lose anyone.”
To keep its own employees working safely from home (or in office if required) UT invested over $35,000 in additional hardware to support associate’s needs.
“Overall if I were to rate us on how we handled COVID-19 on a scale of one to 10, I really do think we are a 10,” Von Stetten says. “I don’t think it could have been done any better in a bad situation.”
Transparency & Opportunity
Unlimited Technology was not founded as a family-owned company, but its employees still frequently describe the culture as a family atmosphere. This was easy to achieve when the company was small. But approaching 200 employees spread out over the country, that can be hard to maintain.
“What makes Unlimited Technology different is that the organization truly cares about each of their employees,” says Emma Ubiera, global fusion center manager. “To work for a company that is always looking out for your best interests really makes all the difference. I have seen with companies like ours when they grow, they lose sight of what really matters, and that is customer and staff satisfaction. … Our management team never forgets where they started and how far they have come and the fact that our clients and team members made our success possible.”
This attitude was demonstrated in the company’s COVID-19 response, which saw not a single employee laid off or furloughed.
UT is also unusually transparent in terms of what company management chooses to share with employees. This was a deliberate decision on Palumbo’s part.
Every month UT holds an all-hands sales and operations, or SOP (pronounced “soap”) meeting. “I have been part of companies where there was little to no communication,” Palumbo says. “One of the things we weren’t doing a great job of in the early days is communication. I would hear someone make a comment that wasn’t accurate and I would ask, ‘How did you hear that?’ It was around-the-water-cooler talk, which happens.”
To prevent such misinformation, Palumbo began having the sales and operations meetings two years ago, because past experience had shown him that sometimes those two departments can be at odds. It wasn’t long before they added technicians and IT followed by admin and finance. When COVID-19 started, however, a new way of doing things opened it up to everyone in the company.
“In a Microsoft Teams environment I could share my screen, and it just evolved,” Palumbo says. Now the meetings are open to the whole company and provide information on a variety of topics.
Charlie Von Stetten, senior program manager, adds, “We really do have a lot of transparency with our employees. When you work for one of the big multi-national integrators you don’t really know what is going on, what their numbers are or the nitty gritty of the business. We share that information with our entire team. We share our booking numbers, our revenue numbers, our forecasting. … We show them and tell them what it takes to get their paycheck every week.”
Chief Technology Officer Ted Rechner, who joined the company 10 years ago, says UT is the most transparent organization he has ever worked in. “Unlimited is truly an open communication environment where motivated individuals who want to learn and improve upon their skills can thrive. The chain of command up and down is always respected, but all employees have access to all levels of management. I used to work for a manager where I had to submit a PowerPoint presentation just to get a meeting with him. Unlimited is the exact opposite of that.”
The SOP meetings also give each of the company’s seven “Centers of Excellence” a chance to communicate company-wide. This concept was also born out of a desire to bring different departments and processes together, DeStefano explains. “It is really a way for the company to grow. All the departments need to be brought together to maintain policies and procedures.”
Building a Business Opportunity
When most people leave a job and go to look for a new one, they focus on new opportunities and try to get hired somewhere else — or they start up their own business.
When most people leave a job and go to look for a new one, they focus on new opportunities and try to get hired somewhere else — or they start up their own business. John Palumbo and David Fernandez took a different tack in 2010 when they set out to invest in an integration company and make it their own.
Palumbo retired from his previous security integration company in 2009 and began the search for the next opportunity. “When we were doing our search, David and I were going to either build something from scratch and start with a truck and a single employee, which sounds so difficult.” Or they could look at other integrators and offer equity in the business.
So Palumbo and Fernandez put up the money to invest in the company and became minority partners with board seats and ownership. “Over the years we have increased that percentage and market share within the business,” Palumbo explains.
“I had the opportunity with John Palumbo to buy into Unlimited Technology and it has been a great ride to where we are now, one of the trailblazers and leaders in the space,” Fernandez recalls of the decision. “We wanted to do things differently and look at it from a different perspective and make positive changes. I love seeing the company’s development over the years and where we can still go in the future. There is so much opportunity in this space and this company that individuals looking to make a move are constantly seeking us to become associates.”
Palumbo adds, “Why I settled on Unlimited versus other integrators is they had two partners at that time who wanted to eventually retire. … It was near a blank slate. They only had 20 people and four clients at that time. They treated them like gold, but they were all based out of Chester Springs, Pa. We wanted to expand that to a global footprint. We started out by building a similar facility out of New York. We utilized the infrastructure of Unlimited and the people and grew the business using that same philosophy.”
Today Unlimited has more than 1,000 clients, has grown from $2 million to $18 million in service revenue and employs 175 people in 15 zip codes and 74 countries, Palumbo proudly reports.
The seven COE teams — sales, installation, service, IT, engineering, safety and administration — are made up of anyone in the company who wants to join, and they do not have to be a part of that department. In fact, the company encourages employees to get involved in other parts of the workflow.
“Let’s say you are a technician and you get drawings from engineering; that is a perfect opportunity for technicians to say the drawings we get aren’t specific enough. We need this type of drawing instead,” DeStefano explains. “They can have an impact on how we work across the organization.”
The COE teams also give employees considering their future career path a chance to explore where they might want to go next. “That is a good way from a company perspective for employees to learn what the other groups do,” DeStefano explains. “If they have an interest in engineering, for example, they can get on the COE and see what it is all about.”
David Fernandez, senior vice president of innovation, adds, “For me, working at Unlimited not only as a partner but as an employee was very different than other organizations in our space in a pretty significant way. What we have always put forth is everyone leaves their ego at the door. There is really a lot to learn from everyone. What that does is offer numerous career paths. The innovative offerings alone have opened up so many more career paths to the list. There is a lot of excitement in the company. There is none of the ‘That’s not my job’ attitude. Instead what you see is, ‘How can I help you’ so we can all win.”
The company strongly believes in cultivating employees for skills rather than specific knowledge, often finding talent in less obvious places. For example, Von Stetten says construction project managers in companies that build bridges or buildings have the skills to manage a project in high pressure situations. Whereas for technicians UT might look to the IT world. “They make great field techs because they have often been stuck at a desk for years and are excited to get out in the field,” he explains.
“I don’t see many [security integrators] diversifying like we are. Our programs differentiate us. We are definitely not just a card reader and camera company.”
— Jim DeStefano
DeStefano also has noted this different hiring approach. “During my first month with the company I had the occasion to meet with someone that one of our employees thought would be a good fit for our company. During the interview the candidate asked me what role they were interviewing for and I told them that I really didn’t have one open but wanted to see if they would be a good fit and if so, I would open a request and bring them on board. Three weeks later they started and have been a great fit ever since. There have been a few of those types of hires, moves and decisions which, when it’s for the future of the company and makes sense, we make the call — no bureaucracy, just can-do attitude.”
Once employees are on board, UT is big on promoting within and helping guide them in a career path. Since the company has a wide variety of technologies and projects, this also gives employees nearly “unlimited” options, Palumbo says. “We are constantly moving people up in business and giving them opportunities to shine while bringing in new people and training them. The opportunities we have are because we continue to evolve past cards and cameras to be a technology company.”
Unlimited’s technology-based offerings are vast: the company represents 40 cyber platforms alone. From building data centers from scratch, to AV and network health monitoring as an Exero dealer, and, of course card readers and camera installations, UT takes a global approach to technology.
The company’s Innovation division incorporates its most cutting-edge offerings, and is headed up by Fernandez. “From the beginning, we have never settled that we are only a traditional security systems integrator; instead, we have constantly looked beyond the industry’s curve where you can’t see the path and pushed the boundaries of what a security system integrator can become. This simple concept of leveraging creative invention to respond to a critical challenge grew into our Innovation Department. Innovation alone did not make us an end-to-end technology solutions provider; however, it is a significant piece we added to the overall success and implementation of our solutions. We don’t believe many companies like ours can take a project from the start to a solid and successful finish. Our process includes application engineering, design engineering, CAD drafting, BIM/Revit capabilities, project management, IT engineers, cabling, installation, service, network and asset health monitoring, cyber, managed services, and integration. This process is not only for security but for all our low voltage disciplines from Tel/Data, converged networks, audio visual, distributed antenna systems, fire, civil work, and other technologies, to name just a few.”
The Innovation Department consists of the company’s cloud-based Exero business intelligence and network health monitoring; both managed and cybersecurity services; and its latest offering, the Enterprise Security Program Review (ESPR), which launched in January 2021.
Developed by David Lathrop, vice president utility strategic business, ESPR measures the current and desired future state of an organization’s infrastructure holistically against the National Industry Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity controls, with the goal of getting them to an installation and operation state that is required to be successful in today’s rapidly changing cyber security landscape. A long-term successful cybersecurity defense platform is always the goal.
“ESPR is about realizing our customer’s current needs for maintaining healthy network and security monitoring platforms,” Lathrop explains. “Machine-on-machine attacks are happening every day and in every vertical. The current cybersecurity models in use at 90 percent of our customers’ sites only look at one piece of a complex infrastructure. ESPR provides the 100 percent visibility needed to be successful in the cybersecurity defense space.”
The need for deploying services like Exero became apparent from observing industry practices around cybersecurity and network monitoring, Rechner says. “Cybersecurity controls came to the physical security industry a bit late. When I got to the company in 2011 the same things were still manually reported long after the issue occurred and then coming into our service department. This was happening over and over: this camera is down, a UPS is beeping, etc. I asked, ‘Don’t we have monitoring platforms for these devices?’” The answer to that was no.
“Then we thought, why doesn’t our industry give the same respect to a security device that it would give to an ERP system or a payroll system? A major objective of implementing the Exero service was to bring the IoT and security devices into an ecosystem of monitoring and proactive remediation that would all be visible from one dashboard, providing 100 percent visibility to all assets on our customer's network. … It was obvious we had to do something different. We couldn’t live the same reactive-based issues over and over again.”
The Management Team
Senior Vice President Innovation
Senior Vice President
Chief Financial Officer
Chief Technology Officer
Charles Von Stetten
Senior Program Manager
Vice President, Utility Strategic Business Unit
Vice President/General Manager, New York
Vice President/General Manager, Pa. Region
Director of HR
Global Fusion Center Manager
Director Sales and Marketing
Unlimited Technology became the first Exero dealer. Exero has provided Unlimited Technology a recurring revenue model that has helped to provide job security throughout the pandemic as well as providing proactive end-point monitoring to Unlimited Technology’s customers and allowing the customer visibility to what is happening on their network from home as well as the office.
With its wide range of offerings that stretch beyond just security, Unlimited now sells more network gear than cards and cameras, Palumbo says.
But more networking means more cyber-vulnerability. Unlimited provides cybersecurity services both internally and as a service to customers. This includes a cyber platform and employee awareness package, vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, security consulting and compliance testing, and incident response.
“I believe our cyber process is more proactive than typical,” Rechner says. He is charged with keeping abreast of cyber threats, which is a 24/7 responsibility. He has a routine he follows:
“All cyber professionals have their list of five or so feeds they go to in the morning when they wake up. I will turn on the coffee maker, start looking at these feeds and get my cup of coffee 20 minutes later. You have to stay ahead of it. What we have learned is we have to keep an eye on what happens in Asia overnight because it is coming our direction.” He also relies on a team of full-time cyber experts on staff.
Hiring cyber talent can be tricky, he adds. “This is a ‘do your homework’ type of subject and there is no textbook way of doing this. You have to really be into and enjoy the subject or you will burn out very quickly. We have a thirst for this.”
All this technology requires some intensive training, and the company budgets $45,000 per year for various programs. Palumbo anticipates that budget will need to increase soon. UT employees hold a total of 73 different types of professional, industry and product certifications; their 170-plus employees hold more than 500 certifications.
There is also a lot of on-the-job training, both informal and formal — particularly on cybersecurity, training is never-ending. “Every month employees need to take a five-minute cyber-awareness video training, with a test,” Palumbo explains. “We used to have a lot of threats that would come in looking like they were from a client’s finance team. They looked authentic. Now we trained our people so much on not opening attachments they know to pick up the phone to the client and ask, ‘Did you send this?’” The company also does a safety minute for every meeting that is more than five people. This could be about anything from ladder safety or cyber awareness, Palumbo adds.
Despite a slight dip in 2020, profits in 2020 remained the same as in 2019, and company President John Palumbo is confident the company is on track to meet or exceed 2021 and 2022 projections.
One Hand to Shake
Many integrators use the term “one throat to choke” when it comes to being the single provider, but UT prefers a more positive analogy.
“We do everything within a project,” Fernandez says. “They are looking for one hand to shake and do it all. Our end-to-end technology solutions mean we can really address our client’s needs from the very beginning stage to the end with any solution at any capacity.”
With such a large variety of offerings, Unlimited Technology has to make an extra effort to ensure their customers are informed of all they can do for them. This is an ongoing challenge, but one they are getting better at communicating.
“I really think there are a lot of companies who look at their integrator as solely a security [provider],” DeStefano says. “As we educate our customers, we are seeing that change and they are starting to want us to do more.”
In some cases the sales process is even reversed, Fernandez says. “We are now seeing some customers contacting us for only managed services, cyber and monitoring solutions we offer. We are then offering physical security solutions to these new customers and building solid relationships as time progresses.”
Despite the success, there is much more education needed, Palumbo acknowledges. What’s more, not every client wants everything. “We have some clients who, when we tell them we do all these other things, they say, ‘John, you do security really well. Stop talking about AV and network infrastructure.’ I won’t give you everything,” Palumbo says. “Then I have others that say, “Thank you for doing all these subsystems!’”
While managed services, Exero network monitoring and cyber made up just over 10 percent of their 2020 revenue, the goal is substantially grow these RMR services. To get to that next level, the company plans to grow its marketing substantially in the coming year. “When it comes to marketing, we haven’t done a very good job of it,” Palumbo says. “I’ll be the first to say it. We see one of our next phases of growth to really get stronger in our marketing campaign and let customers know if you only want us doing security, that is great. But if you want us to do everything, we can do that.”
One such marketing push will feature three of the company’s channel partners, IronNet AI Security, PSB Exero and Direct Defense Assessment Service, on a significant go-to-market campaign around the ESPR offering. This plan will include podcasts, webinars, training, advertising and conference presentations, and will be aimed at 130 critical infrastructure customers.
The customer-facing part of Unlimited Technology is embodied in its fusion center, an idea formed five years ago and opened two years ago with the goal of better supporting all customers equally, 24/7/365.
“We began working on the concept of the fusion center after seeing some of the issues having localized service centers posed for other organizations,” says Ubiera, who now manages the center. “Our clients should receive the same level of service regardless of their location. Even though I am in New York City, I am responsible for the level of service our clients receive across the globe.
“The fusion center integrates technology, services, people and data in real-time. The technology we use allows us to support our clients through a proactive model that tells that there is a potential issue before it becomes a critical problem and proactively plan for the remediation. Our remote service desk associates are on standby for immediate technical and field support, should it be required.”
In the case of a field visit, or when a service call comes into the fusion center, the customer immediately receives an acknowledgement of the request and a communication of the technician who will be out to repair the issue. The communication includes a picture and short bio of the technician followed by a resolution and closeout communication.
In addition, the fusion center puts out a “Daily 9:05” report, which is a snapshot of all open service issues. The entire management team receives and reviews the daily report to ensure tickets are resolved in a timely manner.
Why 9:05 exactly? “This is the time we figured most people would be reviewing their email,” Ubiera says. “After all, who wants to read and respond to work emails at 3:00 a.m.!”
From sales and design to implementation and service, communication is key with customers, UT believes. One of the best ways to make sure that happens is to think like the customer.
“What we do differently is we do take off our UT hat and put on our customer hat,” Von Stetten explains. “What are my expectations as a customer? The higher expectation comes from them, so let’s look at it from that lens. That has been a major factor in our success. We will complete a project outside of scope or budget if it makes the customer successful. That is what it means to us to be a trusted advisor.”
From Locksmith to MSSP
What does it take to grow from a locksmith to a full-on managed service provider?
“It wasn’t easy to go from locksmith to integrator,” says John Palumbo. The transition took time utilizing proprietary systems, which were what was in place when Palumbo first came to the company. “When I joined 10 years ago, they were still using proprietary systems. One of the things we brought in were the off-the-shelf products with certifications and the knowledge-base to install them.”
Today the company offers a wide variety of managed services from patch management, anti-virus detection and response (EDR), mobile device management, virtual CIO services, a host of cybersecurity services and the Exero cloud-based business intelligence service and asset management system.
David Fernandez predicts more and more security integrators will get on board with the MSSP trend in the near future.
“I think that today’s systems integrators within the security industry are quickly heading in the direction of becoming Managed Security Service Providers (MSSP) or having this within their offering, hence why we made this pivot a few years ago,” Fernandez says. “The MSSP is laser-focused on the security of your network, responsible for preventing, detecting, and responding to all threats before they wreak havoc on your data. As we all know, a breach can ruin a customer’s trust and a company’s reputation very quickly.”
What is next for Unlimited Technology? Near-term company goals include expanding on the $100 million in 2021, as well as expansion of physical locations. “We see a lot of clients looking for Unlimited’s advice, services, and support in new geographies and new markets,” Palumbo says. “We are planning to invest in growth to serve our clients wherever they need us, with the same local branch network approach that is the backbone of our business.”
At the moment he is focused on the coming year and getting through the $54 million backlog in projects that were delayed by COVID-19. He is optimistic for the coming year, however, and says the company has taken a cautious approach to predicting what is to come. “Even barring having more mass shutdowns across the globe, the path we are on right now I see that growth. I am very bullish we will hit our numbers for next year.”
On a broader industry-wide level, DeStefano sees both challenges and some positive trends happening in the security integrator community today. “The integrator community is going to have to move beyond the card reader and camera and offer more solutions and technologies,” he says. “There is more vulnerability due to cyber activity and systems that need to be protected. But there are a lot of good things happening. I think the SIA security industry cyber certification (SICC) will become more mainstream and required for integrators on a lot of projects. We have two of the first SICC certified technicians with that program.”
DeStefano also points to the increasing awareness of diversification in the industry as another positive trend. “This industry has traditionally been male-dominated. I’m happy to see all the diversification. Listen to all your people. Listen to everyone you have because they all have ideas and they all see things differently.” Unlimited is proud of their diversified team.
Managed services is another area where the security integrator community is starting to ramp up, Fernandez says. “If I were going to offer advice to any integrator I would suggest looking into managed service offerings. That will be the biggest trend in the industry. We will start to see companies either partnering with MSSP providers or starting their own offerings.”
To that end, Unlimited Technology is also actively planning on taking its managed and cyber services to the next level, both internally and externally.
“There is no benefit to working behind closed doors,” Fernandez says. “We are not the enemy. As large as this industry seems, it is really a very small industry. We want to partner with other systems integrators. They can reach out to us and we can work with them to provide these RMR services.”
Rechner is excited to see where services like Exero go next. “Where I see it going is in the incorporation of other sources of data. … The health monitoring that comes with Exero is just the beginning. That is the most basic feature. What we are really about is business intelligence and what is going on in a customer’s building, because the data in the access control system is gold. It hasn’t been mined but it can help make better decisions and keep employees safer and happier. There is a lot of value that is rarely analyzed. That is the gap we are trying to bridge.”