Jeff Dirks, Jacob Hale sign

Jeff Dirks, left, and Jacob Hale have seen the Dirks Group grow into an expanding world of cyber security. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden

In an ironic twist, Jeff Dirks moved into the largest available office space the Dirks Group has ever had just months before working from home became a new norm.

Actually, the desks usually are occupied at the networking, information, and cyber security provider, but that doesn’t mean the entire company isn’t on the move. Dirks founded his group in 1999 and around Thanksgiving will mark its first year in its new digs at 3802 Hummingbird Road in Rib Mountain.

Once populated with American Family insurance agents, the space is relatively cavernous for now, giving Dirks Group about 20,000 square feet to expand.

No matter how big Dirks Group might get, the founder always has in the back of his mind the reason he ventured out on his own to begin with.

“I was an IT manager locally,” said the Marathon native, who wanted to start anew and establish a new kind of culture from what he’d been experiencing. “I wanted to focus on ethics and doing things the right way. I spend a lot of time reviewing and adjusting invoices.”

Before he had any invoices at all, he began his group out of the business incubator owned by the city of Wausau, intended to be a nest from which fledgling startups can learn to fly. It wasn’t long before Dirks expanded into a small store front, which he still owns, at Callon Street and 12th Avenue behind John Muir Middle School. Dirks then spent about 10 years at his office off Hummingbird Road in Rib Mountain before securing the current site last year.

“We were stacked like cordwood,” Dirks said of that 3,700 square feet. His staff of 22 includes one part timer, all a testament to his firm’s expansion. “We’ve grown about 25 percent to 30 percent year over year.”

Still, Dirks was quick to acknowledge that responsible growth is a team effort.

“I’ve been blessed with good managers who can tell me, do we add or don’t we,” he said, adding that his group’s connection to clients has remained strong. “We have about a 90 percent customer retention rate.”

Dirks has seen technology in his field evolve from floppy disks and modems that could take hours to transmit information, to remote access to computers and servers virtually anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

“We have a couple of clients who have offshore operations, and places like Nicaragua,” he said. With more clients relying on more widespread operations, cyber security is at an everhigher premium.

“We try to remotely manage systems proactively, before it even breaks,” said Jacob Hale, who joined Dirks as inside sales in 2007 and has been his chief operating officer for two years. “Hackers are finding the human weakness.”

Hale related a familiar scenario that so many will recognize from workplace training videos.

“They say a system is its most secure when it leaves the plant,” Hale said, “until it’s touched by human hands.”

That’s when someone clicks through an email before realizing it was a pishing scam, possibly opening a portal to a storehouse of sensitive information.

“Even with something such as (Microsoft) Office 365,” he said. “Hackers will spoof your information to get your password. Then, they’ll spoof a friend’s email to get your contacts. Meanwhile, they’re trying to find a finance person.”

Not only can such hackers redirect transactions to their own accounts before the actual vendors realize what happened, they can turn around and sell credit-card information on the black market.

“It’s why our business is booming,” Hale said, “but the rise of artificial intelligence is learning how to block it. And there are different levels of security, next-generation firewalls.”

But even artificial intelligence needs people to manage it all.

“Do they fit your culture, and your core values,” Dirks said of the filters he has in place for the types of candidates he looks to bring on board. “I’ve used the job sites, the technical college in town; we’ve found some home-grown talent, and sometimes they’ve come from customer recommendations. We even try to have fun activities, like take a bus to a Badger game.

“I’m also piloting with a couple of (high) schools to have some IT students come in and give them some tasks.”

With more work forces logging in from remote locales, the Dirks Group’s cyber world could be getting a whole lot bigger.