Jeff StoebnerThe definition of a family business is that “everyone is always there,” according to Jeff Stoebner. Which is why he jokes that he has been working for AVI Systems before child labor laws could protect him. His father, Joe Stoebner, founded the business in 1974, and it wasn’t long afterward that Jeff began his career with the company in the accounting department—licking envelopes when invoices were going out.
To say Jeff worked his way from the ground up is putting it mildly, but the business that Joe built and expanded through careful acquisition was a natural fit for his son. By high school, the younger Stoebner was skipping school to run sound at conferences. His interest in technology inspired him to hit the books harder when he earned his electronics and business administration degrees, all the while working in the Technical Services department at college and spending summers digging ditches in East Texas, installing fiber.
If Jeff thought he might pursue a career in telecommunications elsewhere, he was mistaken. AVI Systems pulled him back in when the company landed a $15 million job installing fiber in every county of Iowa in 1993. He graduated on a Friday and the following Monday he was living in motels, eating in bowling alleys and building a public utility network from county to county. “That is what built this industry,” Jeff says. “The state of Iowa was the first to have a consistently built distance learning setup in every county.”
He worked his way through installation and sales, climbing to the top 10 percent of the sales force within five years and staying there until he was named president of the company in 2009. “Everyone should be a sales person in life at one point,” he says. “Everyone should have to ask for money from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you. It’s very humbling.”
To the Stoebners, a family business isn’t just about getting the kids to load the soda machines. From its inception, AVI Systems was on track to become an employee-owned business, which it is today, with an ESOP program that “transfers the wealth from the few to the many,” Jeff said. “I’m really lucky. A lot of people before me at AVI worked really hard and built a foundation that has made my job easy.”
AVI Systems now has 17 offices with global reach and support. That’s pretty impressive, but growth, Jeff points out, is too often confused with increase. “Increase is just getting bigger and getting more of the same. Growth is what you do to prepare for increase.”
Leading an employee-owned business means that Jeff divides his attention equally between customers and the company. “We have 465 shareholders, and most of them are banking on the money they have in AVI’s ESOP. One way the ESOP increases value is through growth, so growth is not an option. It’s an obligation. The only limitation to AVI’s growth is AVI itself. It’s our responsibility to build the infrastructure to be able to handle it.”
Kirsten Nelson is editor at large at SCN.
See all 2014 SCN Hall of Fame inductees here.