Turning Yukon’s IT sector Orange

Six years ago, Martin Lehner was designing websites for local businesses out of a home office. At the time, the co-owner of Orange Technology said, it wasn't his plan to build a technical support company at all.

Six years ago, Martin Lehner was designing websites for local businesses out of a home office.

At the time, the co-owner of Orange Technology said, it wasn’t his plan to build a technical support company at all. But then, a few clients started asking if he could fix their computers. And then they kept coming back for more.

“It wasn’t completely planned like that, but there was obviously a need,” Lehner said.

These days, Lehner and his business partner, Martin Lawrie, have their hands full. In the last year, they’ve acquired two other local IT companies – Mid Arctic Technology Services last July and Quest Computers at the end of January.

The two deals have more than doubled their client base, which now numbers upward of 150.

And they’re no longer working out of Lehner’s home. They now have an administrative office in Marwell and a retail space at NVD Place on Fourth Avenue and Ogilvie Street.

Orange Technology provides all kinds of IT support for local businesses and non-profits. That means they help companies manage desktop computers, servers, data storage and cloud backup, among other things. They also sell IP phone systems, which route phone calls over the Internet so that clients don’t have to pay for landline phone service.

Lawrie said he and Lehner started looking to grow their business a couple of years ago, after they realized that some northern businesses were hiring IT firms from Outside.

“IT support is always better if it’s local, so obviously there’s something in the industry that’s missing,” Lawrie explained. He said there were limited options for IT support services in the North, and with advancements in technology, it was getting easier for clients to look outside the territory.

“We realized that there’s probably a bigger opportunity in the space, and we started to get a little more aggressive in our marketing,” he said. “We started to see more growth just from that.”

Lawrie and Lehner agreed that the biggest issue they face in Whitehorse is a lack of trained technicians. They said that’s been exacerbated by the fact that a two-year online course offered through Yukon College, called Northern Collaborative Information Technology, was cancelled in 2011. The college says a one-year version of the course is still being offered under a different name.

“Even nationally,” Lehner said, “it’s hard to attract anybody who would be willing to move up here.”

That means Orange Technology often takes on employees with nothing more than high-school education and trains them on the job. Lehner said that process can take months.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we need to look at attitude and drive more than qualifications and education,” he said.

And after the technicians are trained, Lawrie said, they’ll often move to some of the “larger players in town,” like the city or the Yukon government.

“And we start again with new guys. So that’s been a sore spot and it definitely impacts some ability to grow the sector here for sure.”

Those challenges could give pause to those who say the Yukon should diversify its economy through its IT sector.

“You can’t just decide that this is a sector that you want to be in,” Lawrie said. “It’s not like next year we can be an IT hub, by any means.”

He said the territory should focus on education, and should start teaching students about IT in high school, or even younger.

But both Lawrie and Lehner said there is potential for the Yukon’s IT sector to grow.

“It’s an industry that’s growing and will just continue to grow, between the Internet of things and all these things that we’re making smart – everything from fridges to washing machines to houses. There’s lots of opportunity,” Lehner said.

For the moment, Lehner and Lawrie plan to spend some time sorting out all the new clients they’ve acquired. And they don’t have plans to take over the territory’s technical support sector anytime soon. “For client satisfaction, choice is probably the most important piece,” Lawrie said.

They also have a legal battle looming. Northwestel has recently sued the company for libel, over comments Lehner made to local media about Northwestel’s service. Orange Technology’s defence statement claims that everything Lehner said was true.

Lehner and Lawrie said they’re not sure how the court case will affect their company. But they said the Yukon is still a good place to do business.

“We have a quality of life that I would say is unparalleled,” Lehner said. “If I had the choice between living in Silicon Valley and here, I will choose to live here. Because I’ve been to Silicon Valley and I’ve seen the traffic. Forget that.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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