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Bird Island business connects to the world

Siblings Kevin Sheehan, left, and Sue Peterson, center, and business partner Brian Fagerstrom, right, view a computer monitor while discussing how their Bird Island company, Rural Computer Consultants Inc., has carved itself a market niche by providing computer software and programming support for rural-based fuel and mutual insurance companies. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

BIRD ISLAND -- The Minnesota Vikings have been the source of inspiration for many sports fans, and at least one rural business with a truly global presence.

That company is Rural Computer Consultants Inc.

Founded and based in Bird Island, it also has an office in Birmingham, Ala., as the result of an acquisition.

The business has carved itself a market niche as the provider of computer software and programming support for rural-based propane and fuel distribution and mutual insurance companies. It does business throughout North America, with the Midwest and Southeast being its strongholds.

It also serves customers across the globe, ranging from the Middle East to remote Pacific Islands.

The company's founders rarely get to visit the more exotic locations or, for that matter, those much closer to home. And that is exactly the crux of this business: Thanks to the community of Bird Island's aggressive pursuit to make it a community wired for high-speed Internet commerce, Rural Computer Consultants Inc. can conduct all of its computer-focused business via Internet connections.

And just what do they do for their customers?

"It's the work they hate,'' said one of the company's founders and owners, Brian Sheehan, of the computer programming the company has developed for its customers. Its software and programming support makes it possible for fuel and insurance companies to efficiently manage everything from billing and inventory control to payroll, along with all of the needs particular to their business.

In the case of rural propane companies, that includes keeping track of when a customer's tank will need to be refilled.

That's where the Minnesota Vikings deserve some credit.

Years ago, the Sheehan family kids of Bird Island used to watch their dad scratch away on pads of paper while the Vikings played on television. While his children cheered the team, Fabian Sheehan was computing heating degree days and calculating when he needed to refill the propane tanks of each of his rural customers.

Computers do that calculating now, allowing siblings and company co-owners Kevin Sheehan and Brian Sheehan and Sue Peterson, along with partner Brian Fagerstrom, to keep their eyeballs glued to the games.

But more than that, they keep abreast of the trends in the various industries they serve, along with the latest in computer programming and wizardry. This business is all about keeping ahead of the competition, said Brian Sheehan.

And tough competition it is: At the start, founders Brian Sheehan and Kevin Sheehan were up against the likes of IBM.

Their focus on rural niches in the fuel and mutual insurance industries gave them an advantage, as did their own computer knowledge and background. Kevin Sheehan began his career in 1979 with Control Data, taught computer classes for the Granite Falls vocational school, and worked with Willmar Poultry before setting out on their own.

Their brother Mike, who now oversees the Bird Island-based propane and natural gas business that their father launched, encouraged and helped them. It was at his recommendation that they took the business to a national scale.

Initially launched in 1984, the business was a money loser for years. "We could have went broke five times,'' said Kevin.

Their focus on rural industries, their expansion to serve national and international customers, and the strategic acquisition of other similar companies gave them the market share and profitability needed. By 1991, the founders were showing a profit and on their way.

The company had moved through those years from atop the family's propane and natural gas business office in downtown Bird Island to Willmar and back again to Bird Island. Three years ago, the company purchased the former convent from St. Mary's Catholic Church and converted the two-story, roughly 20,000-square-foot facility into a modern computer center.

A staff of 36 works at computers in individual offices throughout the building, and there's talk of adding on. The recession has made it all the more imperative that both fuel and insurance companies operate with greater efficiency, they said. That only makes the company's computer software and programming all the more valuable.