FMU’s Brent Tiller (’01) is a high-tech, center cut entrepreneur
Put computers together with a nice center cut steak and what you get is…well, most of the time, nothing at all. But in the world of entrepreneurs like Francis Marion University alumni Brent Tiller (’01), the unlikely and the impossible can become commonplace.
So it is that Tiller is the owner of both Pinnacle Network Solutions, a value-added reseller of computer network products, website design and now digital marketing; and of the Block and Vino, a West Florence butcher shop noted for its gourmet offerings. The two ventures aren’t related except that both are owned by Tiller, and both are very successful.
Says Tiller, “At Pinnacle we are looking for long term solutions, but the Butcher Shop is all about the now.”
Tiller, a Hartsville native, picked FMU because it was close to home and because of the reputation of its School of Business. He planned to major in Accounting. FMU seemed like a good fit. But then, as a bright-eyed business student looking to make his way – and a few extra bucks — Tiller took a job with NetCom, a value-added reseller of computer products. Like any novice, he started at the bottom.
“For years I was the one going (to sites) and installing computers and doing the grunt work,” he says. “Then I started building the computers and once I learned how the computers were put together, I started selling them.”
When Tiller graduated in 2001, he took over as the manager for NetCom, working alongside Matt Reich, one of Tiller’s Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers at FMU. Tiller handled the technical stuff, Reich handled the business side. They did okay for a few months, then the business went under. That may sound like a disaster story, but Tiller says it was not.
“I was in that business with Matt for about six months,” says Tiller. “During that time we realized what they (NetCom) were doing wrong and we saw an opportunity to start a long term business.”
So, Tiller teamed up with two friends from Greensboro, N.C., David Hudgins and Allen Blake, to partner on a new venture. That’s how Pinnacle began.
“All three of us were motivated,” says Tiller. “Their parents owned businesses, my parents run businesses (the Hartsville Arcade and Grill) and we wanted to be our own boss.
“We didn’t really want to reinvent the wheel. We noticed that HP (Hewlett-Packard), Cisco, IBM (International Business Machines Corporation), the big guys could sell better equipment than we could ourselves, so we become resellers.”
Pinnacle Network Solutions got off the ground quickly when the partners were able to snag two of the biggest accounts in the Pee Dee at the time, one of which was the Darlington County Schools.
“The day we opened, I actually processed Darlington County Schools on the same day, which really helped us get off the ground,” says Tiller.
Darlington County Schools was one of his accounts as a NetCom employee, so the people there knew him as the guy that took the orders and delivered the products to the school.
“I unboxed the stuff, put it on the table and took the trash out,” he said. “That meant a lot to them, because they knew I would work hard for them.”
Thirteen years later, the business is booming. Tiller says gross sales have doubled the past couple of years. That’s after a post-Recession jump of some 20 percent. The company now has 11 full-time employees.
Pinnacle’s primary focus has been in two areas: helping businesses secure needed networking hardware, and then supporting a businesses’ IT operations as needed. Pinnacle can serve as the IT staff for a business if necessary, or can simply supplement an existing IT department as needed.
“We go after the big businesses or school districts and government and we will try to sell them their whole network infrastructure of all their systems and then we do that on a very low margin business,” says Tiller.
As a byproduct of its network services, Pinnacle has developed business websites for a number of years. About three years ago, the company expanded its operations to include search engine optimization (SEO) and website content production and social media management. Pinnacle has recently added video services for web and digital media and is now Google-certified for photography.
“Our plans are to expand our video production with equipment that will enable us to provide unique shots in HD quality for clients,” says Tiller. That work may include video and still photography shot from drones.
Where’s the beef?
As it often does in business, especially for those with an entrepreneurial bent, one thing led to another for Tiller. One day, after playing some business golf with some clients, Tiller figured he would treat them to a nice steak dinner, cooked on the grill at Tiller’s home. He headed to Harris Teeter and asked the butcher to cut him some nice thick steaks.
“Too bad,” said the counter man. “It’s after five and the butcher is off duty.”
All that was available was what was already on display. Tiller left that store and headed to Piggly Wiggly where he received essentially the same response.
And so, the Butcher Shop (now Block and Vino) was born.
“I know, not the best reason to start a business,” says Tiller.
There’s a bit more to the sequence than that. A friend had actually discussed the idea of operating a high-end butcher shop with Tiller before his big steak out. That idea began to resonate after Tiller found himself shut out at the butcher counter in the mainstream stores. He began working on a business plan, predicated on demand for a special service.
“I wanted to have higher quality products that you can find in Charleston and Columbia,” says Tiller. “I wanted to have a place that anyone could walk in and go up to the guy at the meat counter and ask him (for what they want). For years I wouldn’t. I had to work up my courage that day at Harris Teeter. Usually, I would buy what’s at the counter, but really, those guys ask you to ask them.”
When the Butcher Shop first opened it was part of the N.Y. Butcher Shop franchise. Tiller learned that business and eventually switched to the Block and Vino. The Butcher Shop opened in May 2007 and continues to do fairly well, although Tiller warns friends not to try to make a career out of it.
“It’s brought me a lot of personal rewards, not too many financial,” says Tiller. “You cannot quit your job and open this business. This business is profitable seven months out of the year and from Labor to Memorial Day we do a jam up business.”
Besides a wide assortment of meat and fish, the Butcher Shop also sells wine, gourmet snacks, speciality prepared food, deli meats and deli sandwiches.
Tiller says there’s no doubt that Francis Marion has played a big role in his life. It’s where he met his wife DeAnn Weatherly (FMU ’99, ’01). The couple, who live in Florence, have two girls Weatherly (9) and Laura (7).
Important lessons were learned at FMU as well. The most important, Tiller believes, was learning to sell himself and to sell his brand. A business that provides service and value to its community builds value that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
“We do all we can for the community,” says Tiller. “It’s selling the brand. I learned a lot in business school that it’s not always about making more money it’s about how you treat people. If I can do something for (the customer) then I have them for life.”
Tiller says that the diversity of his college life experience at FMU also helped him develop into the man that he is today. He was involved in the Baptist Collegiate Ministries, the marketing club, and was, as noted, a member of the KAs.
Tiller has remained involved and engaged as his moved into adulthood. He’s involved with the FMU alumni as an advisor, he helps the Florence Area Humane Society with its Bon-A-Fit fundraiser and this past year helped create a non-profit called SNAC that helps supply food to school children in poverty. His next project is to launch a website called UScheerdads.com in support of his two daughters. Both Weatherly and Laura are into cheerleading.
So dad, ever the entrepreneur, is working on a startup there, too.
Of course. It’s a perfect match.