A Conversation With Alex Harb

Alex Harb grins and leans forward in his chair, buried in the back room of the Ribbit Computers headquarters at Douglas and Washington.

There's no economic hand-wringing allowed in Harb's four-store computer supply and repair chain in Wichita, just debate about what will drive the company's next two stores that are coming soon to 21st and Maize Road and 71st South and Rock Road in Derby.

Harb, who founded Ribbit in 2005, doesn't harbor any worry about expanding too fast in a slowing economy.

"We're always going after it," he said, chuckling. "My theory is that it doesn't matter what happens, because it could always be a lot worse.

"America is still the number one opportunity place in the world, and you're not scared to take risks here. Scared money doesn't make money."

Talk about the business model that's driving your expansion.

"Usually, a business owner has more knowledge about the business than anyone else. As a business owner, I can work like four employees. I can do several things in the business and still manage the business.

"The key is being present 24-7 and being able to save money and labor by doing stuff yourself.

"That way, you know that it's being done your way and efficiently because of your experience. You have the know-how about everything, so do things yourself and eliminate the margin of error, eliminate labor costs.

"I'm not one of those people who's going to become an absentee owner."

What is your niche in the Wichita computer market?

"What allows us to continue and grow in business in this market is our service in the local market.

"Local businesses save a lot of money dealing with us because we're a lot cheaper than the brand-name computer stores, plus we provide faster service.

"When the economy's not doing great, like now, local businesses save more money through us than through bigger companies or nationwide companies."

Is your business suffering as the economy slows?

"It's still doing well. We're still increasing our business every month because we're focused on what we need to do.

"We focus on eliminating unnecessary expenses and focus on the expenses that directly help our business.

"And customer service."

Talk about your philosophy of customer service.

"We're constantly talking to our staff to find out what the customer needs.

"If we find ourselves stuck with something our customers aren't interested in, we right away eliminate it.

"It comes down to this: If you have the product in and a customer ready to buy, you'll sell it. If you don't have the product they want, you've lost their business."

What's the fastest-growing segment of your business?

"We're constantly improving our business customer base. And this downtown location helps us quite a bit getting exposure to businesses.

"We're doing more of the business project, more camera systems, IT projects, point of sale software for restaurants, liquor stores and gas stations.

"It's grown into a pretty solid business customer base helping us continue to build our margins."

You've also diversified the product line, into Mac computers and now Alltel wireless equipment and services. Why?

"Our local market has its own special qualities with the customer base and products.

"With Alltel, we've had a bunch of customers request the air card to go with their laptops." (Air cards) are absolutely a serious competitor to Cox and AT&T. I'd estimate that 80 percent of customers within five years will be using air cards."

Why 21st and Maize, and Derby?

"When you have 50 or 60 different businesses going to the Derby Marketplace at 71st and Rock, you've got all those businesses needing IT services.

"And you've got business owners and employees needing help with computers and houses. Derby will do very well with that.

"At 21st, it's the same principle. There are lots of businesses and lots of homes going up.

"Plus, it's quite a bit of distance from our Maple and West store to 21st and Maize, so I'm confident we'll be able to serve more customers."

Any parting advice for fellow entrepreneurs?

"Watch your numbers."