Chicago Sun-Times article - From basement to top-flight Web developer

by Sandra Guy


Online transactions as diverse as the Chicago Transit Authority's high-tech fare card to Fannie May Candies' e-commerce are the product of a Park Ridge company.

The Web site developer and operator,, got its start 27 years ago as a software developer .

Norbert Svanascini was a business broker at the time who bought the company and renamed it. The Svanascini family, which transformed the company into the Web designer and operator it is today, started by duplicating and shipping diskettes of adventure games and software utility programs in the basement of their house.

"We shipped seven figures [worth of revenues] out of the basement each year," said Tony Svanascini, Norbert's youngest son, who runs Norbert, 64, is the company's consultant, and Tony's brother, Michael, 39, an attorney, joined the company three years ago.

The diskette business ended when the Apple II started its decline in the mid-1980s.

Tony, 32, transformed the business in 1990 into a computer reseller, installation and networking company. When he wasn't going to classes at DePaul University, he sold used computers that he had loaded with software, and installed and networked the computers at the buyer's business. "It was more difficult to network computers at that time," said Tony Svanascini, of the pre-Windows days.

The business grew to 150 clients, but it required that Svanascini and two technicians run at a moment's notice to fix fax machines and do other repair and maintenance work.

In 1995, the Svanascinis hired a Web site developer and started hosting and designing Web sites. About 70 percent of the company's clients transitioned to the Internet, and the family sold the network consulting piece of the business in 1998.

"It was a refreshing change" to work on Web sites rather than running to client's businesses to fix machinery or network problems, Tony said.'s clients include the Chicago Blackhawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Bills and the intranets of all the NASCAR racetracks.

Its second-largest client base is not-for-profits and associations, such as Misericordia, the Professional Convention Management Association and the Building Owners and Managers Association.

But its most difficult job was setting up the CTA's Chicago Card Plus, smart cards that only need to be touched to sensors on buses and train station turnstiles to have fares deducted. The Chicago Card Plus is linked to a credit card and allows users to manage their accounts online.

The family has never taken out loans or gone into debt to make work. 
The company has grown at a yearly 25 to 35 percent rate, reaching more than $100 million in sales, 3,000 clients and 100 employees. Tony said one of the keys to the company's success is its hiring of people who love computers and are passionate about their work.

"We don't hire people based on their college degree," he said, noting that has hired people with majors in art, English and philosophy.

Another important ingredient is that the top executives understand technology, and live and breathe it. Programmers respect bosses who know technology, Tony said.

"It's not about reading articles and saying, 'We want to do that,' " he said.'s expertise with sports sites helped the family develop a second business,, a sports site that claimed Dick Butkus as its original spokesman.

Its Web-site development experience led to update Fannie May's home page,

Shoppers can create their own assortments of four-ounce boxes of candy, find local Jewel stores where Fannie May candy is sold, and quickly find gifts in categories based on price, holidays or special occasions.

Said Jan Waanders, Fannie May's director of marketing, "We sat together [with] and went through the strategy, graphic design and programming needed to bring the Web site into the 21st century."