Raising a Barn Built to Last
RFI Enterprises has grown from a mission-town dream at the kitchen table into one of the 50 largest private companies in Silicon Valley in just 40 years. In that time, the company has expanded into eight different companies and consolidated back into one. It has rollercoastered from $14 million in annual revenue down to $7 million and back up to new heights. It has pivoted between providing residential alarms, network infrastructure, alarm monitoring, video surveillance, fire systems, access control and commercial integration.
The key to weathering all these changes lies in the organizational DNA exhibited by the company’s leadership and employees, often referred to as “Riffies.” Cultural strength is a focus for the established group. Employees discuss whether certain activities or mindsets are “raising the barn,” and leadership ties several core values to achieving success through the sense of selfless teamwork embodied by a community barn raising.
Although the attributes present in RFI’s DNA have carried them thus far, the company continues evolving to avoid the common pitfalls of complacency and stubbornness that so often envelop longstanding companies.
“Our big push has been trying to establish, at 40 years, how do we maintain our youthful flexibility and agility that you have when you’re a younger company,” says Dee Ann Harn, CEO and owner of RFI Enterprises.
Harn is keenly aware of the youthful agility the company started with. She was present in the beginning, where she joined her father, mother and brother – the original Riffies – around the family’s kitchen table in San Juan Bautista to help launch what would become the RFI that exists today.
In 1979, Larry Reece – Harn’s father – started the company in his home. According to Harn, he “didn’t have much of a business background,” but Reece wouldn’t let that stop him from making his vision a reality.
“He went to high school, was in the military and then was a technician, much like a lot of peoples’ stories starting out in this industry,” says Harn.
According to RFI’s website, Reece wanted to help people straight out of high school get into the trade and build their own business sense. The company quickly grew, in large part due to the founder’s willingness to get his hands dirty when necessary to finish a project.
Then, in the early years of the company, a job for the Santa Clara County Jail was detrimental to the previously meteoric rise of RFI. Harn says the company was “third tier on” the job and noticed “problems with it from the start.”
“We had grown to be about a 14-million-dollar company at that point, and after the jail was done, we were $7 million and we had lost our bank. We were living on cash flow. My dad said that was when he became a businessman,” says Harn.
“That was something that defined us. It helped us to approach business differently.”
Gathering a Team
RFI was focused on building a strong team from the beginning, and the company’s DNA helped keep them afloat after RFI’s revenue stream turned from a flood into a comparative trickle.
In the early ‘80s, the company likely leaned heavily on the employees who have been there since these early years. People like the current COO and president Brad Wilson, senior vice president Bryan Lund, and general managers Dave Gish and Javier Juraracha – who represent more than 130 years of combined time as Riffies – all contribute to the DNA that makes the company what it is today.
Another key player Harn mentioned was Mac McComb, who joined the company in the early ‘80s and retired around the same time as her father, Reece. She says McComb was “instrumental in the type of work the company got that spread RFI out.”
“He had a lot of vision and could make a lot on the engineering side work. He took us in areas and did things that were just phenomenal as the world was starting to change,” says Harn.
Around the time this group joined the company, networking was becoming more popular, creating more demand for data cabling and satellite receivers. With talented employees and a strong culture making up the DNA of RFI, the company was able to capitalize on this trend and other market changes by pivoting multiple times over the next three decades.
The second pivot came after RFI’s stint in the telecommunications side of the industry, when the company settled more into the integration side and started taking on larger projects involving access control and video surveillance.
Then in the early 2000s, the company began its transition into strictly commercial and fire integrations by focusing more on projects for healthcare, higher education and technology companies, as well as some work for the state of California.
These pivots in the type of work done at RFI paralleled transitions in company leadership. In 1997, then-CEO Reece was in an airplane accident and injured both of his legs and arms, keeping him out of the office for some time.
“That really was something that shifted our company a lot, because the founder/owner was laid up living in my house down in Gileroy,” says Harn. “Everybody had to figure out how to run the company without him here. That was when video conferencing was very new, and we were doing a lot of it from my house.”
Raising the Barn
A few years later, a series of events began that would radically transform RFI. In 2003, Reece entered semi-retirement and moved away from the corporate office. The Portland branch of the company split off so that Harn’s brother, who was running the branch, would not have to travel as much anymore.
After having been gone since 1997 when her father had the airplane accident, Harn rejoined the business as a senior vice president in 2008 and eventually took on the role of CEO and owner in 2011 after her father’s retirement. Along the way, the company had also picked up CFO Michelle Brooks and general manager Tom Hanes.
With many of the same trusted Riffies around, and plenty of fresh talent to boot, RFI stayed strong through these changes to raise the barn once more.
“From that point, we made some decisions as the world has evolved and grown to take the new technology that’s coming and not necessarily be on the forefront – because we didn’t always want to be the first ones to use it – but we wanted to be able to bring to our customers opportunities that have been proven,” says Harn.
The company made yet another transformative choice in 2016, when RFI exited the residential business and the central station business to focus on commercial security and fire. It recently hired Jim Rider as general manager to lead the fire business.
“Stepping out of the residential business and our central station was a pivotal decision in our history … We’ve been growing ever since,” says Harn.
This growth has necessitated a fifth location planned to open in early 2020. With this expansion comes new challenges alongside the ever-present puzzles every business in our industry must solve: unifying teams, retaining talent and embracing new ideas to remain competitive.
RFI has pushed to become more unified between its locations by taking advantage of technologies like IP phones and cloud services. It has also pushed to develop its employees by promoting from within where appropriate and looking outside the company when needed to fill certain positions, according to Harn.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that we’ve turned the corner on: being more accepting to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and not being afraid to do things differently in regards to people, recruiting and how we deal with internal processes. By doing so I think it’s helping us to become more unified,” says Harn.
As the company moves forward, it seems the DNA that was there from the very beginning will continue to influence how RFI evolves. A strong team guided by core values and focused on working well together is what has helped RFI raise a barn that lasts.