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Tech Boom: Epic Innovator Dan Behm of OST

It’s fitting that Open Systems Technologies (OST) sits inside the former Drueke Toys building on Grand Rapids’ Westside.
Walking in, one feels incredibly welcome. One is tempted to linger at the posh kitchen counter, gazing at the exposed brick and woodwork. Above the fireplace to the left, a monitor broadcasts Santa’s reindeer at the North Pole via http://reindeercam.com. This certainly is not an ordinary office; names of games in tribute to Drueke adorn the various rooms while kitchenettes and club chairs appear peppered about.
 “Here’s my philosophy on company culture and it’s always been this way,” explains the jovial Dan Behm, OST co-founder and CEO. "If it ever fails to be fun then I’m going to change the culture back until it is fun.”
It’s doubtful the 2012 Grant Thornton Leader and Innovator of the Year and 2011 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year will change his approach soon.
“We always put culture before everything else,” Behm continues. If you look at our priorities, first and foremost are our families, second would be our customers, and then if we take care of those two, everything else falls into place.”
After all, this employee-owned company of 112 (and 57 full-time contractors, with small branch offices in Minneapolis and Ann Arbor) is having a chili cook off next week. Likely, the chili cook off will be fun, but not like the chef competition, or the spa day, or the sophisticated paper airplane competition where the winner received a pair of $500 flight tickets, or the $50 competition for the best idea for practical use of the first turbo opticoptor drone. It is to cut the time spent studying gaps in wifi coverage from a few days to a few hours. This is award winning company culture.
Yet it isn’t just fun and games. The third floor bustles with clusters of designers, programmers, and engineers developing a new product. Currently, OST is working on a top secret, visually stimulating dashboard kiosk display for monitoring a building’s temperature and climate control along with energy conservation data in real time. The project, worth close to $500k, will be placed inside a monumental building in New York. Not much else can be said due to its secrecy and its development is inherently high-stressed. It’s easily on par with a past project for Thomson-Reuters which cut the international news agency’s IT development time for projects from six weeks to under four hours, literally saving the company’s competitiveness.
“You fight through development until you get it all to work. There’s so much inherent stress so we do all we can to relieve that stress,” says Behm.
Behm, a Grand Haven native, was one of the first in his family to attend college but he came from a family of entrepreneurs. His father was a painter and his uncles owned a bowling alley, a blueberry farm, and a grocery store. He claims Michigan State University gave him a well-rounded education, but he was unprepared when he landed a position with IBM in 1983. Staying for 10 years, Behm began in purchasing, advancing to senior buyer in a record timeframe, specializing in negotiations. In a progressive move for the time, IBM placed him in manufacturing and engineering for a year. He then returned to Grand Rapids in the role of a systems engineer and then a representative. But he felt restless.
 “I found I really wanted to own my own business. I felt like, ‘why would you leave a job like this?’ This was a company everyone wanted to work for,” says Behm.
Behm left IBM for a sales position with GS Leasing, believing he’d profit more from a commission based pay. The first few years were brutal, but Behm made breakthroughs and tried his hand at several start-ups in the technology field on the side. He failed repeatedly until 1993, when GS Leasing approached him to kick-start a start-up in an area he was unfamiliar. He was tapped to serve ERP systems for accounting firm Crow Horwath. OST was born. 
Today, the $68M company stands as a model company. Focused on three industry verticals -- healthcare, manufacturing, and finance -- Behm discovered OST had several of their best years during the 2009-2010 recession. When one industry was down, another industry was up. On top of these three verticals are four primary components to OST: custom application development, management services, data center, and advisory services. When discussing future plans, Behm points out versatility is key.
“When people talk about 5-year plans, we have them, but we’re incredibly flexible. We know there’ll be new technologies in the next few years that we don’t know yet. You have to love constant change and if you don’t, you don’t want to be in this business.”
Two of OST’s four components are growing fast. One, managing services, proves it's more efficient letting tech firms handle IT from offsite. The other, custom application development, leads us to reindeercam.com, a Startgarden winner created by recent college graduates. OST was approached to develop an iPhone application to allow a Caledonia farm to stream a live feed of Santa’s reindeer 24/7 from mid-November through Christmas. So far this season, it’s proven very popular.
“There’s one kind of meeting I’ll never try to turn down,” says Behm, “and that is a meeting with a young, local entrepreneur with an idea. I remember how hard it is to start out.”
Matt Simpson Siegel is a Michigan-based writer whose work has appeared in print, film, radio, and television. He is also a contributing writer for REVUE Magazine. 

Photographs by Adam Bird
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