My column this week is of a personal nature. I want to tell you about my friend, Mike Brown, who is retiring as Vice President of Sales for TownNews.com.

In the narrow field of web hosting for U.S. newspapers, TownNews.com is now a big player, hosting over 850 newspapers, consuming 80 megabytes of bandwidth per second and employing a great team of programmers, designers, customer support, sales and accounting staff.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Today, we serve many of the finest newspaper groups in the nation, including Lee Enterprises, Pulitzer, Stephens Media, cnhi, Liberty Group Publishing, Wick Communications, Pioneer Newspapers, Western, Brehm, CNI, Horizon, Paxton, Boone, Media News Group, Rust, Landmark, Lancaster, and other groups and independents.

We now have a sonnet ring, network area storage systems, ad serving servers, clustered web servers, security devices and servers, etc.

But it wasn’t that way 10 years ago on the cold January day when I first met Mike.

Back when, the company owned just one tiny MacIntosh server in the back office of a weekly newspaper in Bigfork, Montana, circulation 1,900. That Mac server ran BBS (bulletin board software) that delivered information to members of the Montana, Alberta, Arkansas, North Dakota, Louisiana and Wyoming press associations. The company was then branded as the International Newspaper Network (I.N.N.).

That lone Mac server was dying, and I called the computer store in nearby Kalispell, and asked to speak to the MacIntosh expert.

That expert was Mike Brown.

It was a bitterly cold, snowy January day in Montana, but Mike offered to drive to Bigfork to discuss our needs.

He met later that day with me and Bob Keenan, who’d recently invested to help keep I.N.N. alive.

Typical Mike. He didn’t just try to sell us a computer and hit the road. He wanted to know what we were doing, what we were trying to do and what we hoped to do.

He liked what he heard, and we liked Mike.

He not only sold us a server, he sold us himself.

Within a week, he was a partner in the company. His first assignment was to generate enough revenue to pay himself

The BBS business was OK, but we heard some talk about something called the World Wide Web, so we thought we’d better get into that business, too. We hired Rich Lehl to design web sites, and Chris Dorr to post newspaper classified ads to the Web. (Both Rich and Chris are still with the company - they can tell you some stories!)

The first site we posted to the Web was the Bigfork Eagle, which Rob Dalton and my wife, Ginny, and I owned. Second to the Web was Milt and Gloria Wester’s Laurel Outlook, followed by the papers in Choteau, Chester, Cut Bank and other Montana weeklies, all still customers.

Lee Enterprises took an interest in what we were doing, and became a partner, giving us stability, financing and many kindnesses.

Soon, Mike and I, were traveling the country, adding more weeklies.

Airline prices were such that we could only get reasonable prices if we stayed over a Saturday night. Mike spent 26 Saturday nights on the road in 1996, while I spent 13 Saturdays on the road while Ginny and I still published the Bigfork Eagle.

We signed our first daily - the Chico Enterprise-Record - in 1997 when the Donrey group asked us to provide web solutions for most of its papers. Then we got a contract to do all the Liberty Group 67 dailies.

We really started to grow fast.

We - especially Mike - would go anyplace, anytime to meet with a customer. (He’d promised them anything - then we’d build the product.)

Two-week road trips and 12-hour drives were almost routine for Mike. His wife, Laurine, sacrificed much to help make the company grow.

Thanks to great customers, staff and partners, I.N.N. grew into TownNews.com. It’s a much more complicated business than the one-server company that Mike joined a decade ago.

Mike and I made many friends along the road - editors, publishers, ad directors, corporate executives, our staffers, even competitors.

But the best friend I made along the way was Mike Brown, forever a Marine with whom you’d want to share a foxhole.

(Marc Wilson is general manager of townnews.com. He’s reachable at marcus@townnews.com.)