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Local businesswomen honored: Woman Innovator Award, recognizing success in a nontraditional business

The Sacramento chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners' second annual Outstanding Women Leaders awards luncheon on Wednesday might well have been subtitled "Beating the Odds."

Recipients of this year's OWL awards at the Sutter Club either started from humble beginnings or overcame major obstacles to succeed in business.

Janis Agopian started in sales in 1973, a time when businesswomen faced a tough climb up the corporate ladder. Today, Agopian is vice chairman of Rocklin-based TASQ Technology, a service provider to the payment-processing industry. In its five years of existence, TASQ revenues have grown to $80 million.

On Wednesday, Agopian won the Wise Woman Award as the area's businesswoman of the year.

Jeanette Towne of Walnut Grove-based Towne Communications won the Woman Innovator Award, recognizing success in a nontraditional business.

Today, Towne oversees 22 employees, many of them mothers who work in virtual offices. Agopian and Towne said business opportunities for women are increasing but added that they succeeded with approaches universal to all business people.

"I didn't plan the growth we have had," Agopian said, "but I think it's something that happens when you work to improve every single day. And then the next day, you start doing it better."

Towne joked that she and her husband figured they could get jobs in fast-food restaurants if her gamble had not worked.

"But it didn't come to that," Towne said. "We were determined and we played it out."

Dorothy Lombard, a partner with Porterfield & Co. certified public accountants in Sacramento, won the Lifetime Achievement Award. OWL recognized Lombard for her trailblazing efforts locally, including heading up some of the area's most powerful business organizations.

Other award recipients were:

Linda Rogers, head of Linda Rogers & Associates in Folsom, won the Woman On the Way Award, recognizing accomplishments by a woman in business for less than five years. Rogers' company specializes in searching for and placement of high-tech personnel and services. Revenues have doubled for four straight years.

Lisa Kohl, chief executive officer of Community Resource and Business Alliance Inc., was recognized with the Luminary Award for service and mentoring in the community. Besides heading her organizational management and consulting firm, Kohl volunteers 20 to 25 hours a week as the director of the Sacramento Young Women's Christian Association.

Susan Irwin, a vice president and general manager of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Sacramento, won the Executive Woman Award. She oversees 61 Enterprise outlets throughout Northern California.

Big Hairy Dog Information Systems, a Sacramento firm that sells and supports computer software and networks for the retail industry, won the Vision Award for providing opportunities to businesswomen. Sandy Malaney is the company's co-founder and chief executive officer.

Jeanette Towne's company sells used phones

Towne is the president of Towne Communications Inc. and her company resells telephone equipment for small businesses throughout California.

But it goes much deeper than that.

Towne's company is an exclusive business partner of Lucent Technologies, formerly known as AT&T, and has been since January 1995. Towne Communications has a statewide sales force that provides telephone wiring and networking equipment for the small business.

Lucent became AT&T's maker of telephone equipment when the communication giant limited its operation to just providing ling distance and other communication services.

Towne said, "We can provide even the most basic equipment for the home-based business as well as a multi-network or LAN system at a business location. We can also provide LAN development it the business owner desires it."

The Turlock location is a new phase of Towne Communication. Towne Communication is refurbishing AT&T and Lucent Technologies business equipment at its South Avenue location.

The operation currently employs six people, but according to Donna Fiol, business manager, "We are always expanding our operation. We currently refurbish one to two phone systems a day and send them out to our customers based on what our sales force has sold."

As the company grows, Fiol expects that the day-to-day operation will also expand and require a larger work force.

Towne Communications, as an exclusive business partner of Lucent Technologies, is contracted to sell and install start-up business telephone systems to small and medium business or expand systems in need of upgrade. Towne said Towne Communications has the capability to sell and install up to a 20-phone system at a single location or can provide a small tow-line, tow phone system for residential businesses that want to be Internet connected.

"We can supply the necessary computer and communications system that will provide digital technology married to analog systems requirements," Towne said.

If a small business would like to link their phone system to a modem that provides fax capabilities with a credit card reader while providing telephone service, Towne can provide the refurbished AT&T or Lucent equipment at an affordable price forthe customer.

Through a Lucent Technologies' patented process called Digital Plus, Towne can provide equipment and wiring that provide internal digital speed and clarity with analog based services such as the credit card readers and fax processors. "And allof this is Internet-ready," according to Towne.

Towne said that her company can supply a small residential business with the necessary wiring, two phones and two telephone lines that are Internet capable for as little as $39. The system will provide a "music while on hold" feature, as well asspeed dial capabilities. For a small additional cost, Towne can provide voice mail if that is what the customer needs. Towne is located at 1232 South Avenue, Suite A and can be reached at 664-9229.


Towne Communications starts as part-time solo venture

Jeanette Towne never intended to start her own company. The Modesto mother of four simply wanted to spend more time with her children. So she fled the voracious time and travel demands of the corporate world and retreated to the "virtual office" tucked in her garage.

Towne Communications started four years ago as her part-time solo venture. Now she manages 20 employees, five subcontractors and more than 3 million in annual sales in the surging telecommunications industry. "Our sales tripled our second year, then tripled again, then doubled the fourth year," said Towne, 41, whose company helps businesses take advantage of the latest advances in telecommunications. She projects annual sales will top $5 million in the year 2000.

But some fundamental things have stayed constant for Towne; She still puts her family first, works part time and runs everything from her home.

Towne paved her own path along the high-tech highway. The one-time nursing student graduate, rose quickly through the technical sales ranks of industry leaders like Motorola and AT&T before giving it all up for her family.

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"Once I had those babies, my whole life's focus changed," said Towne, recalling the birth of her twins six years ago. The constant traveling required as an AT&T account executive overwhelmed her. "I wanted to be with my babies, but they didn't have anything that worked for part-time hours."

She confided in her friends at Central Valley Christian Fellowship.

"They said, 'Why don't you just trust God and quit,' "she recounted. "So that's what I did. I quit."

That was in December 1994. One month later, AT&T asked if she would consider working part-time as a private contractor selling telecommunications systems to small and medium-sized businesses.

Towne Communications was formed. Now it sells products from Lucent Technologies (formerly a part of AT&T) and Nextel Wireless Communications, along with assorted computer hardware. Her company sets up telecommunications systems, including phone, data and high-speed Internet connections (like ISDN lines), voice mail, call centers and communication networks (like LANs and WANs). It provides installation, training and financing options.

"At the start, I picked my own hours and worked from home 10 to 15 hours a week," Towne said, noting her company's modest beginnings.

Controlled Growth

But as her babies grew, so did her business. Nine months after she started Towne Communications, she hired her first employee. The growth - of both her family and her business - has been steady since.

"If we wanted, we could have 50 employees now, but we've opted for controlled growth instead," she said. These days, she works 25 to 30 hours per week and spends much of her time managing and training her staff.

One of her key hires has been her husband, Sam Towne, who joined the firm as vice president.

"I've been sucked out of my plastics company and now I'm doing this full time," said Sam Towne, who owns the KFM Inc. manufacturing plant in Modesto.

He now specializes in integrating telephone and computer systems. "Getting up to speed in this industry is like trying to climb on a rocket," said Sam Towne, 40, whose desk is a few feet away from his wife's in the garage.

He and the entire Towne Communications staff go through constant training to stay current on products in the ever-changing market.

"Bell Labs alone is registering three new patents a day," Jeanette Towne said.

Helping businesses throughout the Central Valley take advantage of technological advances is Towne Communications' focus. Finding employees who can provide such technical advice is a challenge.

"You want someone who is both a techie and a people person," she said, noting that she posts job openings exclusively on the Internet.

'Virtual offices'

The big advantage she offers high-tech employees is the one she sought when she was in their shoes: The option of working from home.

"Most of our employees are mothers with kids who work in virtual offices," she said.

They are scattered throughout California, and they communicate with each other primarily through telephones and computers. When meeting with customers, they have the option of using Lucent Technologies' demonstration site offices.

Customers, for instance, never visit the Towne home or see the couple's cramped work space.

Not everyone - nor every family - is cut out for work out of a home office. "You have to be self-motivated," Jeanette Towne stressed. "Sam and I, for instance, are always in our office by 8 a.m."

They never meander in wearing pajamas, she assured. They dress in casual business attire or better.

And while their commute to the office takes just a matter of seconds, the Townes contend they maintain a tight focus on work while they're there.

"When I'm in here, I get my job done so I can get off to my life out there," Jeanette Towne said. The children, who have a full-time nanny, know the drill. "They've been trained to understand this is the office."

The Townes also know the difference between home and work.

"We never answer business calls when we're inside the house," Jeanette Towne said. she even has her pager programmed to turn itself off during evenings and weekends. "Otherwise, we could be overwhelmed by the calls. It's easy to put in too many hours when you work from home."

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