They’re one of the fastest-growing private tech companies in the United States.
Their headquarters look like something you’d find in Silicon Valley rather than the gateway to the Flint Hills of Kansas.
They’re considered an industry leader in providing integrated technology platforms for local government.
Yet when you ask a CivicPlus executive what propelled the Manhattan-based business from humble origins to dizzying heights, the answer may be surprising.
“It comes down to maybe more luck than foresight,” said Sascha Ohler, vice president of research and development.
Recognizing future needs
CivicPlus started more than 20 years ago as Networks Plus, which focused on network and computer equipment management – servers, desktop systems, tech support – for customers around Kansas.
The company began building websites for customers as the new century arrived, “and we very quickly realized that’s where the future growth would come from for us,” Ohler said.
Websites for city and county governments became the company’s focus, and little more than a decade later the company sold off Networks Plus.
Ohler cites luck as a factor because when company officials debated what their target audience for building websites should be, they selected local governments.
“We were fortunate in that we selected a market to go after that is very stable and is very cohesive and so there’s not a lot of variability there,” Ohler said. “Whether you’re a city in California or Kansas or Florida, there’s not that much different” in what they need.
Most smaller governments, if they had a city or county website at all, offered basic information on static pages. Residents still had to go to city hall or county offices to pay bills, obtain information or request services.
As CivicPlus built its clientele, Ohler said, “We didn’t have to be the ones with the latest and the greatest, we just had to be better than the rest of the competition.
“It allowed us to open up a market for ourselves that didn’t force us to be a Silicon Valley-type start-up in order to succeed.”
Dramatic changes in local government
But that has changed in recent years.
The general population is getting younger and the expectations of local government are changing as more and more professionals are returning to their hometowns or migrating away from crowded, expensive urban centers in search of a higher quality of life.
Generations of residents now are used to being able to pay bills, go shopping and gather information online whenever it’s convenient. They have higher expectations from local government as well.
“It’s no longer okay to just be open 9 to 4,” Ohler said. “They expect ‘round-the-clock access from their mobile devices.”
In response, CivicPlus began creating more sophisticated websites that allow residents to pay bills, ask questions and look up a wide range of information about city and county services online.
“Local government is changing pretty dramatically,” he said. “We’re increasingly less and less patient so we want to have stuff at the tip of our fingers. We’re seeing local government wake up to that.”
Katrina Rubenich, communication and information specialist for the Wichita suburb of Valley Center, has witnessed those changes. The city hired CivicPlus to update its website about four years ago and has seen usage soar.
“They want to be able to go online and take care of everything they need to without having to interact with a real person if they can,” Rubenich said.
It saves time for city staff as well, sparing them from repeatedly fielding calls for information that can easily be found on the website.
Having a strong website is important for cities and counties in the modern era, Rubenich said.
“I know that personally if there’s a company or a city that I want to go to if they don’t have a website, it kind of makes me think, ‘Why not?’ and ‘Are you legit?’” she said.
The city of Louisburg is another CivicPlus client, and communications coordinator Jean Carder said an intense hail storm that struck the region last year showed how valuable it is to have a sophisticated website.
“When the hail storm went through and roofers started showing up, they didn’t necessarily have to come into the office to get their permits,” Carder said. “They could fill it out online and email it to the guy that handles the permit. It makes it easier to do business with the city.”
Business is booming
As local governments recognize the need to offer more on their websites, business is booming for CivicPlus. The company has grown 30 percent a year for the past several years and Ohler said similar growth is anticipated “for the foreseeable future.”
CivicPlus now has 3,800 clients around the world, including more than 175 in Kansas. The company has grown to 350 “team members,” with 280 of them working in Manhattan.
According to data released earlier this year, more than 60,000 local government employees use CivicPlus software solutions. More than 75 million constituents view the company’s local government websites, registering more than two billion page views.
But this is no time for CivicPlus to relax, Ohler said.
“Change is kind of a constant in this business,” Ohler said. “As our clients are looking at new ways to utilize technology and really figure out how to lead change inside their organizations, it has forced us to become more than just tech experts, but become experts in local government as well.
“It has definitely forced us as a company to grow both from a number of employees and from a skill set perspective.”
Most of the company’s early growth was organic, but in the last three years, CivicPlus has also undertaken acquisitions.
In 2016, CivicPlus acquired Rec1 in Atlanta, which specializes in parks and recreation management. A year later, the company bought another Atlanta firm, BoardSync, and rebranded it as CivicClerk. Last year, CivicPlus purchased Virtual Towns and Schools, a website business in Foxborough, Mass., that caters to towns with less than 10,000 people.
More acquisitions are likely, Ohler said. To help facilitate the growth, BV Investment Partners of Boston announced a minority investment in CivicPlus. BV is a middle-market private equity firm focused on the business services, software and IT services sectors.
“We went through a careful vetting process to find the right partner who can help us achieve our ambitious goals in the years ahead,” CivicPlus Chief Executive Officer Brian Rempe said in a prepared statement released when the investment was announced.
Rempe called BV “a like-minded partner” and added, “I’m confident that the partnership…will put us in an even stronger position to offer more and more value to our clients and their residents.”
Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.
Photo Credits | Jeff Tuttle | Website | Jeff is a native Kansan from Augusta and a Kansas State University graduate. He married his high school sweetheart Laura, and they have two children, Erin and Zach and a handsome Cardigan Welsh corgi, Wembley. He is a former newspaper photographer with a 25-career at The Herald, Jasper, Indiana, and the Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. He is currently a freelance photojournalist in Wichita.