Steve Barone, the owner and CEO of CBI, got his start in business selling Atari and Commodore home computers in an East Detroit shop in the 1980s.
The native Detroiter dropped out of Wayne State University, but found a job he enjoyed and paid the bills. He also sold PCs for ITT Courier, and later, decided to started his own firm, Creative Breakthroughs Inc., which now specializes in information technology and goes by the initials CBI.
This year, the company moved its headquarters from Ferndale to Detroit.
“Computer security is a very real issue today,” Barone, 51, said. “I got a text this morning from a third party that made it sound like my bank account had been actioned from somewhere. I isolated the link, put it on a separate laptop, opened it up in a protected browser, and found out it was a hacking attempt.”
CBI — which has about 100 employees and expects sales of $52 million this year — also offers workers and companies opportunities to learn new information technology skills and test their security in what Barone has playfully named the Cyber Range and the Hacking Academy.
In the next few years, he said, he aims to take the company public.
Barone — whose name is pronounced with the long e at the end — talked about the importance of Internet security, getting a college degree and how he ended up running his own firm.
Here is the conversation, edited for clarity:
Question: What does your company do now?
Answer: Our tagline is IT risk management. So in a nutshell, we help companies protect their data. Underneath that, we do give reactive support: customers got broken into, hacked into, and we help them figure it out and put a plan in place, and on the proactive side: we teach them and help them build a better defense.
Q: How did you end up in this field?
A: I’ll tell you exactly how: When I opened that computer store in East Detroit back in ’82, I was fascinated by computers talking to each other. I set up what was called back then a bulletin board, which meant there was a big ol’ computer in the back room with a bunch of really slow modems and people used to dial in from all over the world to share clues on adventure games. We would trade hints with each other. I learned a whole bunch about remote access back then, when there was no such thing as the Internet. So when I set up CBI, it was set up primarily to help customers connect their remote computer to their corporate computer. By, ’98, I started to see these things called Internet pipes on blueprints, and I thought “Man, the remote-access gig might be coming to an end here. So, instead of getting people in, I started focusing on keeping people out.
Q: How important is IT risk management and security these days?
A: It affects absolutely everybody. There’s three types of security today. There’s what you know, a password; what you have, which might be a token; and what you are, which might be a fingerprint or eye. We haven’t perfected the whole fingerprint, eye thing; and most people don’t want to carry anything around to generate a password, so we still rely on a password to everywhere to log in. As long as we have to rely on that, then security is a major problem. It affects more people than it ever has. We almost can’t keep up with the workload.
Q: You didn’t get a bachelor’s degree until after you had a successful career. How important are academic credentials?
A: U. Mass. gave me a flexible agenda to help them build out the program. But, for me it was more about the credential. It was more about me being able to go on and get a graduate degree. I was always running as an entrepreneur, growing the company, making money and finding ways to make the company relevant in the changing IT world. But it always bothered me that I didn’t finish school. One of the impetuses for me was when my daughter went to Michigan State. I harped on her how important it is to get your degree, but thought, ‘Hey, you don’t have one.’ I did not want to go to a degree mill, somewhere I could just pay money and get a degree. I wanted it to be tough. I also needed it to be 100% online. U. Mass. had the program I was looking for.
Q: What’s the toughest challenge your company faces now?
A: There’s always competition, and it’s important to us we maintain a culture that’s fun to stay at.
Q: Why did you move the company headquarters to Detroit?
A: Everybody asks me that question. I have a love affair with the city I can’t really explain. It’s the same way I feel about the Lions. I have various Facebook posts that say: ‘Hey, I heard a guy bashing Detroit at the airport today and I had to just butt in and correct him on a few stats.’ I grew up here. I’m passionate about Detroit. I’m as excited as anyone to watch the rebirth.
Q: It seems from your story, there’s not necessarily just one path to success.
A: I don’t think the plan was at all to do what we’re doing now, when I opened this thing up. It was fun to get companies connected to remote connectivity. You follow your passion with an almost laser-like focus.