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Posted: July 01, 2008

Executive Edge: Richard Lewis

Air Force and tech industry vet finds success with IT firm

Lynn Bronikowski

As a kid Richard Lewis rigged a doorbell to his bedroom and built an electric generator from an old vacuum cleaner.

"I was always tech-minded," said Lewis, who in 2002 founded RTL Networks Inc., a multimillion dollar Denver-based technology solutions firm that employs 35. "I would confiscate anything with a motor and make something out of it."

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Lewis lived in several cities, as his mother advanced her career with the Social Security Administration.

"Whenever she had an opportunity for promotion, she went and was a role model in a way," Lewis said. "We didn't know we were poor, and I always dreamed of being a physicist."

So when his high school history teacher in Williamston, N.J., suggested the Air Force Academy, Lewis listened up.

"As soon as I saw the brochure with the mountains, the planes, the Air Force falcon, I made up my mind that I wanted to go there, and that was the only school I applied to," said Lewis, 41, who graduated from the Academy in 1989. "The Academy is designed to be impressive and challenging — it was competitive and tough — but after the first day you’re so invested that there's no turning back."

Following graduation, he spent 10 years in the Air Force as a commissioned officer, traveling the world and working 12-hour days, seven days a week, as part of Operation Desert Storm. His Air Force career shaped a work ethic that today includes long days at the office, serving on boards of community organizations and raising his 10-year-old son, Tyler, who is the "T" in RTL.

"When your job is to defend the country, you cannot fail, so there are no excuses," said Lewis, recalling a rare day off during Desert Storm. "If something doesn’t work, you need to think differently and sort through various solutions. And no one goes home until it’s done."

After leaving active duty in 1999, Lewis worked for Cisco Systems, Avaya and Qwest Communications before starting RTL.

"You join the big company for the security, but it was a very rocky time for the industry so I figured if I’m not going to have the security, then I might as well start my own business."

RTL has landed contracts with such federal agencies as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency and all branches of the Armed Services and won such awards as Department of Defense Small Business of the Year for the Pikes Peak area and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Emerging Business of the Year.

"Last year at this time, we employed 20," said Lewis, noting that business has doubled in the past year. "And we don’t like to think of ourselves as a small business because we’d be limiting ourselves if we thought that way. And instead of looking at ourselves as being a good minority-owned business, we focus on being a good business.

"Sometimes, the small- and minority-owned business certifications may be a foot in the door, but to be successful, you have to give the customer what they want, and we’re striving to be the best in the industry."

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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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