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Tale of the tape drive

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — When Chuck Tilleman was laid off from his job at Storage Technology Corp. in April 1992, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he did have a good idea.

“I was too old to get a good job, and I was too young to retire,” said Tilleman, founder of Pinetree Peripherals.

Even while still working for StorageTek, Tilleman had realized there might be a market for a company that did repair work on what the company called its “legacy” products.

“The company in general wasn’t interested” in fixing these products, Tilleman said. “They didn’t want to spend any money on it. They wanted you to buy a new box.”

But not everyone, especially not smaller businesses, was interested in all new equipment every five years. It’s there that Tilleman saw his niche.

“We try to stay away from their strategic products,” he said. “We stay two or three levels behind; that’s where we work.”

Headquartered in two adjacent 6,000-square-foot buildings on South Sherman Street, Pinetree has carved out a healthy market for itself. The company has sales offices in Gloucestershire, England, and Frankfurt, Germany, and an additional repair facility in Melbourne, Fla. Products have been repaired for and sold to customers in nearly 40 countries — everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam. Just this week, the company shipped to Spain for the first time.

Pinetree also recently acquired the rights to the legacy products of M4 Data Inc., a subsidiary of Quantum Corp. This means the company is now getting into the repair and refurbishment of Digital Linear Tape machines.

“Our customer base is 1,300 deep, but about 400 or 500 are active every year,” Tilleman said, adding that 86 percent of his company’s revenue comes from his top 26 percent of customers.

Currently at 14 employees, the company was at a high of 22 in the mid-’90s. The high point in revenue — hit during that same period — was $2.5 million, but Tilleman said he believes the company will surpass that this year.

Pinetree’s longevity has helped winnow the competition.

“At one point in time, there were about 15 or 18 of us, but at this point I think we’re down to three of us,” Tilleman said. “The rest have either been bought out or shut down.”

Old tape drives, countless circuit boards and machinery of all types are scattered about the shop at Pinetree. But this is no graveyard. There’s gold in those refrigerator-sized tape drives.

Pinetree repairs and rebuilds parts and whole machines of all types, some of which could be considered ancient in a technology sense.

The U.S. Navy and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have hired the company when they needed to be able to read data that was stored on machines decades ago. The data was still valuable, but the machines had given up the ghost.

Such situations are when Pinetree gets the call.

“We (re)built these really old ones because there’s still a need to read the data and use it,” Tilleman said.

While the past couple of years have been hard on his business, just like everyone else’s, Tilleman said the market for repairing and rebuilding older equipment is as strong as ever. And a decade later, the family element of the business continues, just like when it was started.

“It started out to be just family — I wasn’t going to work this hard,” Tilleman recalled.

When he and his wife, Mary Ann — who is Pinetree’s chief financial officer — started the business, they were working on savings and bank loans. It wasn’t until September 1992 — five months after it opened — that the company saw its first cash-positive month.

Nowadays, Tilleman’s two daughters, Michele and Jean Marie, and his son, Don, are all part of the Pinetree team.

This “familial” approach to the business extends to the other employees as well. On a wall inside the company’s conference room are copies of Pinetree’s mission statement, company policies and goals for the upcoming year. Dating back a decade up to the present, each of these documents bears the signature of all the company’s employees.

“Everybody signs it because we want to talk about it, and we say, ‘You might not understand all of it, but you should at least have a concept of it so you can see what we’re all about,’” Tilleman said.

Numerous plaques and awards adorn the walls of Pinetree Peripherals’ lobby, reflecting the community involvement Tilleman has emphasized since the business began. The company supports several local causes — including the Scouts, Boulder County Hospice and the OUR Center — and Tilleman also serves as chairman of the board of the Longmont Area Economic Council, a group with which he has been involved for several years.

Pride in the community also translates into pride in workmanship. Little things — like sending out repaired or rebuilt products in brand-new boxes, and cleaning equipment before it is sent out — demonstrate to Pinetree’s customers that while the part or machine inside the box isn’t new, extra care has been taken to assure its quality, said Tilleman.

“Some of our competitors use the same boxes over and over again, and they get pretty beat up,” he said. “We’re known for our quality. They know when they get it from us, it’ll work.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.