Quiet giant makes splash from Basalt headquarters | AspenTimes.com

Quiet giant makes splash from Basalt headquarters

Brothers Ed, left, and Matt Freedman are founders of the Basalt-based company Total Merchant Services, one of the top employers in Basalt. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Towns in the Roaring Fork Valley often dream of luring businesses that supply decent-paying jobs that don’t depend on tourism. Usually it’s just a dream.In Basalt, that has evolved into reality over the past seven years.A company called Total Merchant Services has quietly become the biggest employer in town and one of the largest private sector firms in the valley. It supplies the machines through which businesses process credit cards and technical support to more than 40,000 businesses throughout the country. The rapidly growing company already employs more than 100 workers at its headquarters in downtown Basalt and plans to add 65 positions within the next year, according to company President Ed Freedman, 33. He co-founded the company with his brother, Matt, 38.Basalt’s other large employer, the schools, employ roughly 150 full- and part-time employees, according to a spokeswoman for the Roaring Fork School District.Total Merchant Services’ contributions to Basalt are enough to make an economic development committee salivate. Its annual payroll is about $4 million for its local workers, according to Matt, the chief operating officer.It covers 100 percent of employees’ medical and dental insurance and offers a two-day-per-week ski pass or the equivalent cash. It provides people with a chance to make a career in a high-tech field.It has immediate openings for about 20 workers in its application processing, customer service and technical support departments. Starting pay is $30,000.

At a time when about 54 percent of Basalt residents still commute to jobs in the upper valley, according to a recent community survey, Total Merchant Services gives midvalley residents a reason to stay put.It has provided a new career for longtime locals, such as Basalt native Jill Crawford, and a promising future to recent college graduates like Hawkins Siemon.Siemon cruised through 11 mountain states on his motorcycle after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He checked out resorts where he wanted to live, find a job and snowboard. He picked Aspen but never seriously imagined he could start a career here.He started with Total Merchant Services three years ago in a data-entry position, mostly just thankful to score a ski pass. He said it quickly became apparent that the company was dedicated to quality, aggressively pursuing growth and providing opportunities for a hard worker. “My supervisor knew I needed more. I wasn’t going to stick around if I was just doing data entry,” Siemon said. He has been promoted three times and now works as a liaison between Total Merchant Services’ more than 800 independent contractor sales force and the Basalt office.Siemon, 28, is thankful he chose Aspen after his tour of the West.”You stumble onto a company that’s taking the industry by storm and get a good job,” he said.Crawford started working for Total Merchant Services during its infancy six years ago, when there were only six other employees. She had worked for the school district for 11 years but was ready to refocus her career after raising her children.She answered Total Merchant Services’ help-wanted ad in a local newspaper, got hired and decided to give it a shot for six months. She’s now manager of the application processing department, which determines if new clients will be accepted, and firmly entrenched in a career she hadn’t imagined possible in Basalt.

“Everything is exploding. The owners have great vision,” Crawford said.Matt said about one-third of the firm’s employees were recruited from other parts of the country. Two-thirds already lived in the area. While some workers live in Basalt, others commute from Glenwood Springs, New Castle and Silt.”It’s challenging to find quality people in the valley, but when they do join, they stay,” Ed Freedman said.Matt Freedman said he aims to fill the 20 current openings from within the local labor force. (For more information about the openings, Total Merchant Services can be reached at 429-7560.)The Freedman brothers started their company in 1996 in their hometown of Philadelphia. They were successful from the start but told each other “this doesn’t feel very successful,” Ed said. The outdoor-oriented men wanted to relocate their business somewhere more fitting of their lifestyle.They had skied Aspen frequently since childhood so they started their search here. They quickly learned they couldn’t rent a space bigger than a closet, so their real estate agent took them downvalley.”When we pulled into a town, we had never even heard of Basalt,” Ed said.They moved into a 600-square-foot space in Basalt’s Elk Run, then moved as internal growth and acquisitions expanded the company.

They moved into a 10,000-square-foot space in the Riverside Plaza building at Midland Avenue and Two Rivers Road in 2002 with a staff of about 30 employees. A year later they rented 4,000 additional square feet in the level below their office and drilled a hole in the floor to connect it.This year they convinced an insurance company in a 6,000-square-foot adjacent space to vacate for another site in Ute Center. Total Merchant Services paid for the insurance firm’s relocation and customizing of its new site. It also paid for its own remodeling.The Freedmans will hold a grand re-opening for their 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility the week after Labor Day.”We’re operating as if we were in any major city in the country,” Ed said. “We’d like to think this will handle all our growth for the next five years.”Total Merchant Services is the 33rd-largest credit card processing company in the country, including all banks. Its 40,000 clients process 50 million credit and debit card purchases annually for $4 billion in annual sales.Those figures are rising steadily because the company is adding 2,000 merchants per month as clients.”We have defied the thought that you have to drop out to move to the mountains,” Ed said.Although the operating costs are higher in Basalt than in other parts of the country, that hasn’t nipped the company’s growth. The Freedmans have no regrets about their relocation. The outdoor enthusiasts said they enjoy 52 vacations per year – on weekends.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com