MERRIMAC—The first day Bart Olson didn’t travel the 100 or so steps it takes to walk from his home and the large metal building that served as his business, Merrimac Communications, in 28 years was Feb. 2.
After more than four decades in the communications business, Olson and his wife Char completed the sale of the business they built from the ground up to TDS Metrocom LLC, a subsidiary of TDS Telecom.
In November, 2017, TDS announced its intention to purchase Merrimac Communications and signed a purchase agreement. Merrimac Communications provided cable TV, internet, and phone service to thousands of residents and businesses across three counties, including the towns of Merrimac, Caledonia, Sumpter, Prairie du Sac, Roxbury, Mazomanie, Greenfield and West Point, and the villages of Sauk City, Prairie du Sac and Merrimac.
“It was a little disorienting,” Bart Olson said of his first day not working. “When your business is offering 24-7 Internet service, there is always that stress level, because everything always has to be up and running.”
Since 1970, the Olsons started five shopper Stoppers and three newspapers; The Baraboo Sun, Reedsburg Report and Sauk Prairie Eagle. They sold those businesses in 1998. During those years the Olsons had started Merrimac Area Cable, a cable system serving the Merrimac area in addition to selling satellite dish systems.
“We hired a company and built out to 100 households to start,” Bart Olson said. “For a time, the guys who ran the printing press for the shoppers were also the cable TV guys.”
Merrimac Communications evolved after the Olson’s sold off their shoppers and newspapers, focusing solely on telephone, cable and later adding Internet services.
The Olsons said Merrimac Communications has survived throughout the years despite competition from Frontier, Charter and other larger cable and Internet companies with a combination of quality service and products, excellent customer service and by offering a 24-hour a day, seven-day-a-week tech support.
“Try to get an actual person rather than an automated answer (with other communications businesses),” Bart Olson said. “It’s frustrating.”
“People want answers now,” Char Olson said. “They want to know right away when something is going to get fixed.”
Char Olson said friends and family have been encouraging them to slow down for years.
“People kept saying, we’re retiring, why don’t you?,” she said. “They didn’t understand selling this business is not like selling a root beer stand. There aren’t a lot of buyers out there. You have to wait until things fall into place.”
It isn’t as though the Olson’s haven’t had offers over the years, but either they weren’t ready to sell, or the offer wasn’t right. Then TDS Metrocom approached them.
“We felt it was a good offer and in line with prices other cable TV stations this size are getting,” Bart Olson said. “We felt it was a good time to sell.”
In addition to being the right offer and the right time for the Olsons, TDS offered all current Merrimac Communications employees to retain their jobs at the same rate of pay they are currently receiving. All but two have chosen to remain. In addition, TDS is leasing the Olson’s building where Merrimac Communications is headquartered for the foreseeable future.
In a news release, TDS stated it will immediately begin transitioning customers and planning improvements to the network, which passes more than 6,000 homes.
“We look forward to serving the customers of Merrimac Communications and transitioning them to TDS’ state-of-the-art solutions,” Jim Butman, president and CEO of TDS, stated in the release.
The Olsons said the best compliments they’ve received over the years is about their staff.
“We’ve been blessed with the best employees; some of which have been with us for three and four decades,” Char Olson said. That includes their son, Kirk Olson, who will transition with TDS.
So, what’s next for the Olsons?
“We want to travel like other people,” Char Olson said. “I’m involved with nine different groups so I am not worried about myself.”
“If I get bored, I’ll just find something else to do,” Bart Olson said.
“We’ve never lacked for ideas or for stuff to do,” Char Olson said. “There are dozens of books to read and places we want to visit. So I guess it’s to be continued. Stay tuned.”