Feeney Wireless is one of the fastest-growing companies in the booming wireless mobile and “machine-to-machine” market.
BY LINDA BAKER
// Photo by Christopher Barth
Bob Ralston is the original engineer turned entrepreneur. A former engineering supervisor at Emerald People’s Utility District in Eugene, Ralston in 1998 developed one of Oregon’s first cellular mobile data applications used for electronic service order dispatch. That project inspired him in 2000 to found Feeney Wireless, a company that helps public and private sector clients connect their computer networks to all sorts of remote and mobile devices, including utility meters, vehicles, industrial machinery and automated kiosks.
Today Feeney is one of the fastest-growing companies in the booming wireless mobile and “machine-to-machine” market. Some analysts predict that by the year 2020, there will be upwards of 10 million to 50 million interconnected mobile devices, Ralston says. He adds that Feeney maintains a leadership role in the rapidly evolving industry by providing customers with a “complete end-to-end solution,” designing and assembling products such as routers and modems on the company’s new, expanded campus in Southwest Eugene, while also managing equipment and networks for individual customers.
The decision to integrate engineering, marketing and technical support didn’t exactly come naturally, says Ralston. “I built the company based on an engineering foundation,” he says. “But to be successful in any business, I really had to learn how to be a sales company, because that’s the heart and soul of the company, and that took a lot of work.”
Feeney Wireless got its start catering to the utility industry with wireless data applications, but early on in the company’s history, Ralston realized he needed to grab larger customers and expand products and services in order to sustain and grow the business. “Once customers had been serviced, we had to find more work,” he says. The solution was to leverage Feeney’s connections with municipalities, investor-owned utilities and co-ops into contracts with other public agencies, including law enforcement, fire and emergency.
As the customer base expanded, Feeney also began to transition from an engineering company into an engineering, sales and support company, Ralston says. That shift led to a stronger relationship with cellular carriers, “since the technology we were using evolved out of their wireless networks,” Ralston says. In turn, carriers provided Feeney access to “a whole new class of customer,” retailers and enterprise businesses starting to think about how to tie their equipment to mobile networks.
// Photos by Christopher Barth
Meeting that demand, in 2007 Feeney helped revolutionize the taxi industry by developing routers connecting cabs in New York City to the Internet via cellular telephone networks; the system was one of the first to enable taxis to use full-service credit-card processing, digital media and advertising. Feeney’s technology also helped move the kiosk industry into the 21st century, providing real-time access to inventory and maintenance issues. The company is also deeply involved in the oil and gas industry, providing monitoring and sensing technology for meters and data collection.
Twelve years after Ralston started Feeney in a cramped 650-square-foot office space, the company is a leader in the world of machine-to-machine products, offering engineering and design capabilities, as well as a suite of customer services that include managing cellular rate plans and technical support. The company, which employs 70 people and recently relocated to the new 36,000-square-foot campus environment, grossed $16.3 million in 2011 and is on track to grow 60% this year, Ralston says. For the second year in a row, Inc. ranked Feeney as one of the fastest-growing 5,000 private companies in the country. Connected World magazine also listed Feeney as one of the top 100 companies in providing machine-to-machine services.
Of course, much of that success has to do with being in the right industry at the right time. “Obviously, no single entity can supply service to that many devices,” says Ralston, referring to the staggering number of wireless applications and devices expected to be connected over the next decade. “It will need a collection of companies.” Ralston says many of his corporate clients are household names, and that a steady stream of national and international customers makes their way through the Eugene airport en route to Feeney Wireless.
That kind of activity is validation for a tech guy who decided more than a decade ago it was time to view wireless technology through an entrepreneurial lens. “The engineering part continues to drive me today.” But, says Ralston, “I have surrounded myself with very smart and dedicated staff members who are competent in sales and helped me grow the business organization. The future is very bright.”