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The Globe and Mail

Mircom gears up for the condo of the future

The next time you walk into an office building, take a closer look at those ubiquitous wall-mounted red fire alarms (the kind you pull to activate): There is a good chance that they were designed and manufactured in Canada by the Mircom Group of Cos. But the humble red alarm is really just the most recognizable tip of what Mircom does. The company, based in Vaughan, Ontario, just north of Toronto, is moving toward sales of $100 million producing sophisticated fire, security and building automation systems—including emergency nurse call stations, mall kiosks and apartment intercoms—that are exported to more than 50 countries around the world. We interact with its products every day, without knowing anything about the company behind them, but that could change as Mircom's global footprint grows.

When the U.S. military needed to beef up the emergency notification system at Ford Hood following a mass shooting in 2009, it bypassed much larger U.S. rivals and turned to Mircom. Its technology has also been installed everywhere from Telus Corp.'s offices in Burnaby, B.C., to the European Union headquarters in Brussels, to the BP Atlantis deepwater oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico. But where Mircom sees the biggest opportunity now is in the application of "smart home" technology to condominiums, making it possible for residents to program or remotely control their lighting, heating and security features, and even hold video conferences with other residents.

"We really feel that we are going to have some products that are going to make waves in the industry, because they do what people are looking for, not what the marketing people at some of these bigger companies are specifying," says Jason Falbo, Mircom's vice-president of engineering.

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Though Mircom has more than 20 branch offices around the world to help with sales and service, nearly half of its 570 employees work in the Vaughan facilities, where key research and development and manufacturing is done. The R&D team has tripled in size over the past five years, to 57 people, typically engineers and programmers who design the hardware, board layouts, firmware and software. They can form as many as a dozen project teams, which continue to support and enhance products after they are launched. Mircom has also formed partnerships with colleges and universities, including the University of Toronto, to gain outside expertise.

The manufacturing side is just as impressive, with everything done in-house—save for the paint jobs on those fire pull stations. Workers in blue uniforms assemble high-volume products in neat lines, often with the help of fully automated machines. But Mircom has also moved toward work cells, where two or three people collaborate on more complex systems and conduct testing, allowing for a speedy product switch if needed.

It's a family-run business, founded in 1991 by Tony Falbo, an Italian immigrant who is still Mircom's chief executive. Three sons, armed with degrees in law, engineering and business administration, now fill executive roles—in addition to Jason, Mark is president and Rick is vice-president of business and market development—along with positions held by cousins and other relatives. If doing their own manufacturing gives them the level of control they seek, the family-run aspect gives the company the speed it needs to compete against the likes of Tyco International Ltd. and Honeywell International Inc.—U.S.-based firms with combined revenues of $48 billion (U.S.) in 2012. "As a big public conglomerate, it's a lot harder for you to pivot than it is for our company," Falbo says. "We've been pivoting very quickly over the last few years."

Moreover, being the little guy doesn't seem so precarious within the niche of alarm and communications systems, where close relationships with builders and distributors help secure contracts and keep barriers to entry high. If smaller players have a tough time breaking in and bigger conglomerates lack the necessary flexibility, Mircom looks well positioned for growth—and may soon be recognizable for more than red fire alarms.

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