Who knew a 14-employee federal contractor tucked in a modest green building on Central Avenue is by one prominent measure the fastest-growing business in Florida and, in fact, most of the nation?
From tiny revenues of just over $100,000 in 2007, Crystal Clear Technologies racked up nearly $16.5 million in 2010. That leap — accomplished in the teeth of one of our worst recessions — translates to a dazzling three-year growth rate of 16,048 percent. That five-figure number earned this young government services business the rank of No. 5 on Inc. magazine's annual list of the fastest-growing companies in the country.
In all, eight Tampa Bay area businesses made this year's Inc. 500 list.
I caught up with Crystal Culbertson, the 36-year-old CEO of Crystal Clear Technologies, late last week. She was attending the LandWarNet conference at the Tampa Convention Center, where companies of all types exhibit their technology in hopes of doing business with the U.S. Army.
"We're here mixing and mingling with our partners from past projects and those of future projects," Culbertson says. "It's all about staying ahead of the curve and understanding where the government is headed with technology."
This is Culbertson country. Her dedicated staff call her "tenacious." And they credit her encyclopedic understanding of the intricate federal procurement and contracting rules for setting the firm apart from the competition. She acquired those skills as a young woman working at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, where she graduated from high school.
"That job gave me insight into how the government buys," she said.
That's given Crystal Clear Technologies an edge. Other companies trying to sell their technology to the military often hire the St. Petersburg company just to navigate the federal and military contract maze.
Crystal Clear Technologies has ample business with the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense. Now it wants to do more with the Army. To help, the firm is building an advisory board of retired military officers that includes retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Tom Hobbins.
At the Tampa show, the exhibit space of Culbertson's company is flanked by the firm's motto: Serving Those Who Serve. The CEO cites that phrase frequently as a companywide motivation to do things well and right the first time.
Her reaction to her firm's ranking so high on the Inc. 500? "I do not feel we are on top of the mountain yet," she says. "We're at a peak where we can take a deep breath, then strap on the gear and head on up to the top."
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The rise of Crystal Clear Technologies came swiftly. After leaving her procurement work at Tyndall AFB, Culbertson worked for tech firms that sold to the military. In 2001, she started a consulting firm in Orlando. By 2007, Crystal Clear Technologies had three employees and was expanding its role as a military contractor of IT services.
When the firm moved to its Central Avenue location, the plan was to stay five years. Within 14 months, the firm was forced to hunt for bigger space. Now it expects to move to a St. Petersburg facility with 18,000 square feet near Tropicana Field by January.
So what exactly does Crystal Clear Technologies do?
The company's vice president of operations, Jeremy Martin, a military veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, offers a recent example. The company won a contract to upgrade the communications technology and a network operations center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, based in Washington, D.C. The task involved extensive recabling and physically rebuilding the guts of the base's network operations center. What proved so challenging is that Bolling supplies critical communications links to both the nearby Pentagon and Joint Base Andrews, so there could be no downtime during the overhaul.
The point, Martin says, is the company, which often partners with other suppliers, is building a reputation for delivering projects ahead of schedule and, hopefully, exceeding the military's expectations. Word-of-mouth recommendations are big in the close-knit military.
How does a small company so focused on selling to the military handle a 16,000-percent growth rate? Culbertson said she's delighted to rank No. 5 on the Inc. 500 but admits she has not given it much thought. Last year, the firm ranked 549th and did not even qualify for the Inc. 500.
It's almost a cliche, but many young companies that grow so fast often stumble. Enter John Lescarbeau, 47, armed with years of managing at high-growth tech companies, including Wang Laboratories in Massachusetts. He was hired as general manager last year to bring some business discipline and, frankly, a bit of gray hair, to the firm. He started by restructuring the firm into more distinct lines of business.
Lescarbeau admits he was a "moron" when he first joined because the federal procurement business, awash in acronyms, took time to grasp.
"I've been impressed amid the bedlam that we can step back, monthly and quarterly, and ask, 'Where are we with our strategy?' " he said. "That has helped us keep focus and a grasp on our growth."
Joe Culbertson, 33, company president and Crystal's husband, says the company has come a long way in a short time. Early on, the firm raised money to cover its costs by borrowing against property Joe Culbertson owns. Now the young firm claims a good credit relationship with Wells Fargo.
Still, Joe Culbertson admits such extreme growth can be unnerving. "I have a lot of sleepless nights," he says.
With the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Crystal Culbertson says this is crunch time. This is when the bulk of government deals get done by contractors. Come October, the firm figures out how to pull off all the deals it has been awarded.
What about Washington's latest obsession with cutting our federal debt? Will government and military spending cuts hurt Crystal Clear Technologies?
"Budget cuts will hit us a bit harder in 2012. It's a scary time for all DoD (Department of Defense) contractors," Crystal Culbertson admits. "At the same time, some companies that are much larger have not seen any orders in six months, and we have been writing them steadily."
What's the goal ahead for the firm that bears her name?
"I challenge myself all the time," she says. "Is it a number? The number of employees? Or the sale of the company?
"We are having so much fun that I do not let one goal dictate where we will all end up. The sky is the limit and our focus is to remain strong."
Sounds like a very fast-track business that's just starting its engines.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.