Executive Insights With Kristi Westbrock, CEO of CTC in Minnesota

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Learn what Westbrock says about CTC’s investment priorities, leadership skills, and fiber-to-the-cabin.

Topic: OVERLOOKED ISSUES

ISE: What should all of us in the ICT industry be talking about that we are not? Or, what current topic is the most important that needs additional and different attention?

Westbrock: For the past few years, I have spent time researching the potential impacts of A.I., not only to our networks but also to our global automation of workforce and international advancements. In my opinion, we aren’t spending enough time studying this topic as an industry and outlying the potential impacts or growth strategies A.I. will bring. As a nation, we seem to be somewhat hesitant to explore this topic openly with the public, perhaps because of its complication or that some of it is downright frightening. I’ve yet to attend a Telecommunication conference where A.I. was a focus topic and strategies were discussed. I think any CEO of any industry should be focused on exploring how A.I. will impact their workforce, products and services, budgets, and ability to quickly adapt when A.I. explodes.

Topic: OUTSIDE-THE-BOX THINKING AND ACTING

ISE: What have you and CTC done that is really progressive for a rural provider?

Westbrock: Historically, rural telcos didn’t need to have a so-called “sales force” and instead were simply order takers. Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

CTC has an extraordinarily robust sales and marketing force, and has had that in place for well over 10 years. Our sales teams at CTC are quota-driven and they aggressively explore new markets and creative ways of increasing revenues. We have agency and channel partner relationships, which allow us to sell well outside of our service territory and across the nation. This allows us to win bids on accounts with multiple locations and tie the customers’ networks together. While this may be fairly typical for a larger telco, it is still uncommon in the rural telco. Having the fruition to build this early in my career at CTC has been one of my proudest accomplishments as it has allowed our Cooperative to grow revenues and provide opportunities that wouldn’t exist without this departmental expansion.

I can remember a conversation with a Central Office Technician about 8 years ago questioning our decision to grow our sales force. He told me that we already had too many sales orders coming in to process and that we didn’t need anyone else pushing our service. I explained to him that having too many orders was a high-class problem we could have, and that operationally we were going to need to change with the competitive space the telecommunications environment was becoming. I took time to explain how a sales team benefits the organization and how their goals were structured. You could slowly see him change from the defense to the offense as his level of understanding changed.

Additionally, we have a Partnership Development Manager on staff who works only to partner with municipals, local units of government, and Electric Cooperatives. We have been successful in deployment broadband networks in partnership with 2 Electric Cooperatives and multiple municipal entities.

Topic: FIBER DEPLOYMENT

ISE: What are your priorities in terms of fiber investments in 2019? What are the challenges you face when working with your own team and/or contractors to deploy fiber in rural Minnesota? What are some of the tactics and solutions you employ to get them expedited and completed on budget?

Westbrock: Fiber is the name of our game at CTC. While we’ve dabbled in alternate service offerings, CTC has committed that our long-term investments will be designed as FTTP.

Challenges always surround making financial models in fiber builds sustainable and eventually profitable. CTC has been using several tools to determine the feasibility in areas of high demand that serve as expansion projects for us. Knowing our committed take rates have been critical in determining the success of each build. Gaining customer commitment prior to building fiber in a neighborhood, township, or rural community, has also been critical to the return on the investment. Churn of a customer, once they have a fiber connection, is nearly non-existent for CTC, which is a testament to the service quality fiber brings.

The largest challenge in building FTTP in Minnesota is simply the weather. Our build season is short, typically May to October, and then construction is put on hold. This creates long delays when those who are anxiously awaiting Internet service in rural areas can’t get it due to the weather. Because of the short time to build, the plow needs to go into the ground as soon as the frost is out, and State and Federal permitting needs to be expedited.

Topic: INSPIRATION

ISE: Please share a quote from someone who inspires you.

Westbrock: “My philosophy of leadership is to surround myself with good people who have the ability, judgment and knowledge, but above all, a passion for service.” (Author: Sonny Purdue)

Topic: CTC AS A COOPERATIVE

ISE: Share the differences and nuances about working with a telco cooperative. Why is that type of structure a strength for CTC? How can it impede network transformation?

Westbrock: The first 10 years of my career were spent working for private and publicly traded companies. Bottom line and profits drove strategy. Then I transformed to working for a Cooperative. It was a learning curve to understand the 7 Principals of a Cooperative and tying those into the short- and long-term decisions that are made.

The Cooperative has a Board of Directors that is elected by the membership, which are the owners. The overriding goal of a telecommunications Cooperative is to bring services to those that are unserved while ensuring stability for the member owners.

Being a Cooperative is the magic ingredient in what we do each day. We focus each day on members, employees, and communities, to provide life-changing technology solutions for a sustainable future. Sometimes this means that the models don’t work out to have payback in a normal business model. Serving unserved areas is and will continue to be a focus of CTC. We are thankful for programs through the RUS. We also are deeply engrained in the communities we support, therefore having high recognition of being the local provider. Recently we underwent a full customer journey study; through this we learned that customers in our communities want to purchase from a local provider with local service.

Topic: FIBER-TO-THE-CABIN?

ISE: Share this success story. What were the trickiest obstacles you overcame to make it happen?

Westbrock: We are the service provider to cabins on islands on local lakes. We have 3 island cabins that are served via FTTH. The fiber that feeds the 3 islands was directionally bored under the lake bed from the shore to the island. Fiber was then brought across the lake on a boat and pulled back through the conduit that was installed. Our fiber splicers then had to boat out to the islands to test the fiber along with the installation technician to deliver services.

Topic: MYTH

ISE: What is the greatest myth about being a CEO?

Westbrock: As the old adage goes, “It’s lonely at the top.” In my work as a CEO, I couldn’t find this more untrue. If it’s lonely at the top, my opinion is that leadership created it to be that way. My style is to surround myself with people who want to connect, not only with the CEO but with all levels in the workforce.

Recently, I had an employee come to me and tell me how much she appreciated understanding our strategic plan and vision for the future. She said to me: “I would imagine you don’t get much feedback from the employees, but I want you to know that I really think you are doing a good job.” I smiled about that for days knowing that as a team we have created an environment where approaching the CEO with feedback is acceptable.

Topic: MENTORING

ISE: What hands-on things should good mentors do?

Westbrock: Be available. Be realistic. Be honest. I’ve been blessed in my life to have amazing mentors, and also to have the opportunity to be one. I encourage all young professionals to have a mentor early in their career, and to never stop the process of developing those relationships.

One piece of advice I give to young professionals is to identify styles and approaches that you like in corporate, local, and national leaders, and write those down to focus on. I encourage them to emulate to those styles but make them original to their leadership development.

Topic: SATISFACTION

ISE: Please fill in the blank: Satisfaction is _____________.

Westbrock: Satisfaction is a smile.

Topic: WHAT MATTERS

ISE: What are 3 words that describe you?

Westbrock: Reflective. Genuine. Strong.

Kristi is very active in the non-profit, Smiles for Jake Movement, supported by CTC. Jake’s family and friends have launched the Smiles for Jake Movement to begin work to eliminate suicide and to provide hope to all who suffer from darkness and despair. The hashtag #wearealljake was created to represent each and every person in this world who needs an extra smile, a hug, a high five, kind words, or simply a moment of attention.

For more information, please visit http://www.smilesforjake.org/.

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While a Cooperative in your community may look like the average businesses, Cooperatives are different based on being bound to the 7 Principals of a Cooperative.

The 7 Principals are:
1. Open and Voluntary Membership
2. Democratic Member Control
3. Members Economic Participation
4. Autonomy and Independence
5. Education, Information, and Training
6. Cooperation Amongst Cooperatives
7. Concern for the Community

When making decisions and taking business direction in a Cooperative, these 7 Principals should provide a strong basis for the choices that are made in the best interest of the membership owners.

Kristi Westbrock is CEO and General Manager of Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC). Follow Kristi on Twitter: @kristiwestbrock

Photo Credit: Thank you to Grandview Lodge, Nisswa, Minn., for the photoshoot location.

 

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About Author

Sharon Vollman is Senior Vice President, Editorial Director of ISE magazine. She oversees all editorial processes and staff for ISE magazine, the ISE e-newsletter,www.isemag.com, and leads the educational content development for ISE EXPO and several events. Vollman has created educational partnerships with the major communications and entertainment providers including AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier Communications and Cincinnati Bell. She has covered the telecom industry since 1996, when she joined OSP magazine as editor. Prior to that she worked in advertising with Ogilvy & Mather and CME. Vollman has a bachelor’s degree in journalism/advertising from the University of Iowa.

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