WEST CHESTER - Michael Kelly climbs into ceilings and crawls through small spaces for his clients.

It's a skill he learned while serving in the U.S. Marines, one that earned him the nickname "cable rat."

But the tag doesn't bother him, not when his business generated $182,000 last year.

Kelly installs and retrofits buildings with voice and data networks - telephone, fax and computer system cabling. His client list of mostly small- to medium-size companies includes banks, chain restaurants, manufacturers, offices and retail outlets.

"We do the under 25 crowd - small companies or branch offices of large companies with less than 25 people - a very neglected part of the market that can't survive for long periods without their telephone or fax," said Kelly, who founded his company, Phone Medic, in 1995.

When Stratus Group expanded from its Fairfield base into leased space on Union Centre Boulevard here, controller Mark Lohmann said the building's telephone system was too small.

"When I found Mike and called him, he was out here the next day," Lohmann said. "He does the equipment and labor, his customer service is very accommodating, and he saved us so much money by coming up with a creative solution. He thinks outside of the box."

Stratus Group, a commercial package printer of labels and folding cartons, went from three to six telephone lines, added paging and 16 extensions.

"He likes to learn," Lohmann said of Kelly. "He's not just out to make a buck. There's nobody like that anymore."

Kelly built his business with his brother Steven (who now runs a similar business in Detroit) while working full-time in an unrelated field. In 2001, Kelly left his full-time job as a training manager at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to devote all of his time to Phone Medic.

In the beginning, Kelly did work for just one company (Expanet) and built his client list from there to include both private and pubic companies in Southwestern Ohio, Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana.

Many of his national contracts developed from local jobs, because, he said, "The headquarters usually like one company to handle all of their communications and data needs."

High Wire Networks, Inc., whose customers include telephone equipment manufacturers, distributors and carriers, is one example.

The Eden Prairie, Minn., company - which was ranked No. 34 in August on Inc. magazine's 25th annual list of fastest-growing private companies - deploys technicians nationwide to install and maintain voice and data systems, said Kim Stoltz, customer and vendor services director.

"We look for vendors and preferred partners, and Mike is one of our preferred partners" covering Cincinnati, Columbus and Northern Kentucky, Stoltz said.

"Large distributors of telephone products will provide the equipment and remote support, but when they need technicians - who they call feet on the street - to work on a piece of equipment, they call us," Stoltz said.

Kelly is a good fit for this line of work because he has the technical skills and the "people skills," Stoltz said. "Some of our customers can be very challenging. Mike can walk into a site where they've been having phone problems for a couple of days, calm everybody down and solve the problem. And they just love him."

Phone Medic schedules large installations in advance, usually two to three months out. Service trouble and technical repair is done within 24 hours of a call, but most often sooner.

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Despite an "extremely slow start-up," Phone Medic has grown steadily in recent years. Revenues in 1999 were about $35,000, Kelly said.

The business is growing mostly by word-of-mouth and internet advertising.

Kelly's immediate goals are to purchase more vehicles (Phone Medic currently has one), add more staff and continue to increase business revenue and customer base.