Dubuque-based business celebrates 40 years of growth, family ownership

Growing up, Greg Cox was certain he was destined to work in the family’s software business.

From the age of 10, Cox remembers traveling to installation appointments with his parents and older siblings, who helped input customer data and rental contracts from their hotel rooms.

Cox watched his father, Dave Cox, start the family business, now called Tri-Tech, from the kitchen of their California home. Soon thereafter, the business — and family — moved to Dubuque, where it has grown over the last 34 years.

“It really has always been a part of my life. Once I graduated (high school), it was natural to go straight there full time,” said Greg Cox, now chief operating officer at Tri-Tech. His father serves as chief financial officer.

Greg Cox said he learned about software, retailers, business and life from the mentorship he received from his dad and brother-in-law, Paul Acton, who is currently chief executive officer at Tri-Tech. Acton is married to Greg Cox’s sister Stephanie Acton, who is operations manager at Tri-Tech.

With several children and grandchildren working in the business, Dave Cox says it’s rewarding to see the company he founded support multiple generations of his family.

“It’s more than a business, it’s a family enterprise,” he said.

This year, Tri-Tech, located at 3162 Cedar Crest Ridge, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Formerly called “Soft Music,” Tri-Tech’s point of sale (POS) technology was initially designed for the music retail industry and evolved over time.

In 1984, Dave Cox started the software company after watching his friends struggle to keep up with handwritten transaction documentation for their music store. Cox saw an opportunity to help them be more efficient, said Acton, who joined the company in 1991 shortly after it moved to Dubuque.

“It used to be that music stores would have these ledger cards. Every time a payment would come in, they’d have to go into the filing system and grab a card,” said Acton. “It got very tedious … and the music industry has some very unique characteristics.”

Keeping track of rentals, repairs, payments and lessons is labor-intensive for music store managers. The Tri-Tech software was developed to perform those duties and make life easier for music retailers, said Acton.

Over the early years, Dave Cox remembers taking the family van on the road to sell to new customers. When not traveling with him, his wife, Julie Cox, raised their five kids while answering customer support calls from their home phone.

If a customer question required more complex support while Dave Cox was traveling, he would call the customer back from a phone booth along his route.

“Raising five kids (the family business) was our means of income. It felt like a necessary job to keep things going for our family,” Dave Cox said. “It was our next week’s groceries.”

In 1990, Dave Cox moved the business to Dubuque to be closer to family. Dubuque’s central location and proximity to the airport in Chicago was an added benefit, as it made traveling for work easier, said Greg Cox.

Throughout the move, Dave Cox’s vision for the company expanded. With a desire to grow the business beyond the music industry, he renamed the company Tri-Tech to apply broadly to other retail industries.

Acton met Dave Cox while studying for his bachelor’s degree in computer sciences at Clarke University, and Cox hired Acton to program the POS software and work in both support and sales duties during the early days.

Over the years, Acton focused on development as the company grew and hired more staff. Currently, the business employs nearly 50 people between its Dubuque corporate headquarters and a small group in Chandler, Ariz., that includes Acton.

In 1993, Greg Cox graduated high school and joined the company to work in a tech-support role and worked his way up.

Tri-Tech’s managers pride themselves on employee development and promoting from within.

“Someone hired in the support department might end up being a great developer,” said Acton. “We’ll train them in development and give them opportunities to move up within the company.”

Tri-Tech’s current customers range from gun stores to sewing shops, and Acton said the common thread among their customers is they all use serialized numbers for tracking purposes.

Tri-Tech’s customers are based all across the U.S. with a few abroad, but the Dubuque business serves local entities, too. From being utilized in Dubuque Mining Company’s kitchen to Dubuque Community School’s concession stands, Tri-Tech’s POS solutions appear in organizations both big and small.

Over the years, Tri-Tech has adapted to changes and overcome hurdles.

“We’ve rewritten our software from the ground up three times to take advantage of the newest in development technologies,” said Acton.

Economic instability has impacted the tech industry in multiple ways, but Greg Cox said Tri-Tech weathered the worldwide impacts of 9/11, Y2K and the COVID-19 pandemic with consistent 10% average year-over-year customer and revenue growth.

“We had some sleepless nights with COVID,” said Acton. “We sell to retailers, and all the retailers were closing down.”

During the pandemic, Acton and Greg Cox quickly acquired laptops and webcams for every employee in 2020.

“We kept all of our employees hired (throughout COVID) by keeping them working from home and having campaigns to either contact prospects or existing customers to use newer portions of our software,” said Acton.

Amber Earles, director of project management at Tri-Tech, was one such employee. She’s worked for Tri-Tech for 27 years. As project manager, she floats between projects and departments including customer support, sales, development and marketing.

“I get to think and work creatively to develop new ways to work with customers and our different departments and ultimately help the company grow,” said Earles. “You can feel that sense of family within the company culture, and it carries over to our customers.”

Pam Lewey, general manager of The Bike Shack, a Dubuque-based Tri-Tech customer, sees that culture firsthand.

“If I have an idea, I call them and share it. Then all of a sudden, they do an update (to the software) and it’s there,” said Lewey. “If you have a problem, chances are someone else does, too. They’re really good about actually going and implementing it.”

The Bike Shack uses Tri-Tech for everything from inventory and order control to invoicing and reporting. Lewey praises the software for its ease of use and efficiency.

But besides Tri-Tech’s customer service and efficient software, Lewey said she’s glad to work with a local company.

“Being a small, local business ourselves, it’s just nice to support another business in the community,” said Lewey. “That’s just how the world works best.”