Advocate for What Matters: Rural Customers, Team Talent and Innovation
ISE: This summer you spoke as a telecom expert to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee about broadband. Share two of the key themes and action items you brought to their attention that they may not have heard considered?
Cano: The theme I spoke about is rural providers have been a consistent force advocating for our customers’ broadband needs for several years. While politicians are now focused on unserved or underserved areas, the small providers have always focused on their rural customers and have delivered better broadband speeds compared to similar areas with low density customer counts. That speaks to how local companies are deeply invested to close the digital divide in their markets.
The second point is that as an industry, we must double down on engineering best practices—because in broadband engineering, there’s no such thing as being technology neutral. Think about it in terms of best practices for building highways and structures. There is no such thing as being material neutral when building them to last. So, while there is a niche for fixed wireless or satellite solutions for some extremely rural areas, fiber optic facilities must be the priority to build a resilient network for the long-haul.
Topic: Advocating for Rural Providers
ISE: You’ve done significant work advocating for the needs of rural CSPs. Share some of the strategies you have implemented to provide education to legislators and regulators.
Cano: The most effective strategy has been joining a small coalition of rural broadband executives and operators. Coming together has enabled us to connect with legislative staff and provide detailed answers to all their questions about building and operating networks.
This small but mighty group has also provided technology 101 training to PUC staff. Most recently, we presented to a conference room packed with state legislative members at the Texas State Capitol by creating a broadband network lunch and learn series. It was well received, and we were able to highlight the commitment of many great rural providers in our industry. I appreciate getting to collaborate with some of the areas’ top CEOs like Jennifer Prather, Joey Anderson, and Patrick Sherrill.
ISE: What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve taken?
Cano: There are times in my professional career I had to take a stand for what I believe is right—for the company I serve and for the future of our industry. In some situations, I didn’t follow what industry leaders, consultants or advisors recommended as a “safe'’ strategy. Playing it safe is never a guarantee of the best outcome. In my mind, if you risk nothing, then you risk everything.
My risks are not always the most popular moves but taking risks for what I believe in is exactly what has and what will continue to advance my team and this industry forward.
Topic: Fiber Deployment
ISE: Aggressively deploying fiber is not an easy task in rural communities. What’s your secret to doing it effectively and cost-efficiently?
Cano:Six years of experience with a national engineering consulting firm prior to working for Etex gave me the real-life understanding that OSP engineering changes requested by field crews may cause delays. That gave me the perspective and drive to develop the talent within the technical groups.
Etex now performs all OSP engineering, permit acquisition, splicing, equipment installation and turn up with internal teams. These teams are involved in the vision and planning from the beginning. Of course, our long-lasting supplier and contractor partnerships are an integral part of our plan. However, the main ingredient that makes this successful is our employees. Having staff who live in the communities we serve establishes the accountability and intimate knowledge of our territory and customers. Our employees take great pride in serving our friends and neighbors.
ISE: How much of your success comes from luck or coincidence versus grit and perseverance?
Cano: I believe in the statement “luck favors hard work”. Grit and perseverance are shared traits with all successful leaders. I feel blessed to be in a leadership role. I work hard to demonstrate to my company and peers that I do not take it for granted. My work ethic is a product of lessons learned in life with positive mentors and also negative individuals who attempted to hinder my growth. I appreciate those lessons and apply the golden rule to “treat others as you want to be treated”. I feel these principles have put me in position for some luck along the way.
ISE: What are two of Etex’s network-related priorities for the rest of 2022 and early 2023?
Cano:Etex is in the process of adding new 400GB fiber rings to increase capacity and keep pace with customer growing demands. This will reduce network vulnerabilities and increase reliability by segregating network elements. We are also adding a new upstream Internet link to existing dual connections. This will increase stability and enable new peering service offerings.
“The motivation and determination to upskill also starts with the selection process and hiring the right individuals. Where there is a will, there is a way to accomplish your daily responsibilities while learning new skills for the future. I can accommodate driven individuals with additional tools and resources that may help them develop faster than they would without my help, but they must possess the key ingredients (desire, motivation, drive, and determination) to stay relevant for the future. My investment in these employees is completely up to them.”
Topic: Proactive Network Management
ISE: ICT industry analysts and observers often focus on service providers’ CAPEX budgets. But the reality is that OPEX can make or break a provider’s bottom line. The key to controlling OPEX is to improve network life cycle management for complex fiber and legacy networks in a cost-efficient manner. What are some proactive approaches you recommend to control OPEX?
Cano: It’s important to select a vendor that is sincere about working within your budget. Etex had to find the next-generation fiber and routing solution to address our massive growth. That’s easy if you're flush with cash. The trick is finding a solution that has to fit within a flat budget.
We partner with Cisco to leverage a Flexible Consumption Model that provides software portability across devices and allows Etex to buy “future-proofed” hardware with a minimal fill rate day one. This allows us to easily add capacity over time as the network grows. As a result, investments from one project can be reused. By leveraging software portability, Etex can move existing software capacity to future next-gen hardware, taking advantage of higher port densities and lower power requirements per Gbps, all in a smaller footprint.
Topic: Etex’s Disaster Response
ISE: East Texas experienced a tornado this spring that damaged 40 miles of the community. Share your team’s network preparation and engineering practices that contributed to a quick and successful response. If possible, share a specific example of how your crews helped your customers.
Cano:When I started working for Etex, I was pleased to learn that East Texas has sandy soil, making underground construction affordable and quicker to deploy compared to the complexity of aerial make-ready processes. Pine trees can grow over 80’ tall, which is beautiful. But, strong winds, can also damage aerial cables by uprooting these trees and dropping limbs. That’s why Etex adopted to install all facilities underground as one of our engineering best practices in the mid 1990s.
On Monday, March 21st, of this year, an EF-2 tornado touched down a ½ mile south of my house in Upshur County. It proceeded on a northeast path for 40 miles with a 700-yard-wide path of damage to structures, aerial facilities, farm equipment, and households. Thankfully, there were no losses of life.
Etex suffered zero storm-related damage or outages to our network. The following day, our crews were able to assist residents and cleanup instead of having to worry about network repairs. Underground construction proved to be a resilient choice and was a direct result of our commitment to quality and best engineering practices for our rural broadband network.
Topic: Talent Retention
ISE: In the era of the “Great Resignation”, what are some out-of-the-box concepts that you have or plan to implement for your company’s talent retention strategy?
Cano: In the past, our turnover was consistently below 1%. The only contributor was voluntary attrition due to retirement. Times have changed. We now work diligently to ensure to cultivate a culture that authentically shows employees we truly care about them. We empower team members to do their jobs and encourage an environment of continuous improvement. We provide learning and development opportunities through in-house training programs and stretch assignments, paired with external industry events. All of these things feed employee satisfaction and empowers them to produce their best work.
Etex is well-known for offering a rich benefits program for employees and their families with very little cost share. We are transparent about those costs and we take the time to educate employees on the total value of these benefit offerings. Our benefits are evaluated on an annual basis and we are not afraid to try something out of the norm. For example, we partnered with a nearby medical facility that functions as a 24/7 on-demand care that is just a call, text or virtual visit away. Our employees and their dependents are able to utilize this service at zero cost to them.
For the last few years during the summer months, employees have enjoyed a relaxed dress code to help combat the Texas heat. This year, we surprised our employees with a “Christmas in July” initiative. We rewarded employees with a generous appreciation bonus to thank them and show that we are aware that these are trying times.
In addition, employees have been able to enjoy half days on Fridays. They are compensated for a full day without having to use their own paid time off. This helps to demonstrate our support and value of a work/life balance.
Topic: Your Passion
ISE: Share one problem/challenge you are passionate about solving for the ICT Industry.
Cano: At the risk of sounding cliché, it is truly finding ways to build telecommunications networks in rural areas that produce our energy, food, and agriculture. My childhood years of farming and ranching gave me a great appreciation for the hard work it takes to survive in those industries. This hard work life is passed down through generations.
It takes a similar business mindset to establish long-term commitments to those rural communities in the form of extended return of investment and creative partnerships to make it work. I have also spent time in Mexico where my parents lived in very rural colonias. I understand the true meaning of “digital divide” when communities do not have access to utilities, resources, and communications services needed to grow. The lack of broadband is a disadvantage for these communities that needs to be solved. My company is committed to investing in these rural communities and understands the hard work it requires to be accountable to our customers.
ISE: What would you tell emerging leaders as they try to make a difference in the industry AND propel their careers to the next level?
Cano: When you identify team members with grit and determination to learn and grow, you should pour as much energy and support into making them better. They will return the favor based on the trust and bond that is created and could be your biggest ally as your career evolves.
This must be duplicated with each rock star you identify. I am very fortunate to have a great executive team that I have watched grow and helped along the way. We enjoy our work life together and can tackle the most stressful challenges with confidence that is fueled with the respect and support we have for each other. Each of my team members have a different life journey and we share in the drive to work united to make a difference across our industry.
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Topic: The Elephant in the Room
ISE: What is the industry NOT addressing that it should related to network evolution and broadband for all?
Cano: Technology has progressed at such a rapid pace. The support mechanisms at the State and Federal level, allowing us to serve our customers at affordable rates, are lagging behind.
Topic: Talent Acquisition
ISE: What have you done to combat the challenges of attracting potential employees in a climate of competitors providing aggressive incentives which have created bidding wars for talent?
Cano: With our company being in rural East Texas, of course we run into recruitment challenges. In the past, word of mouth was our recruitment strategy. We are now competing with big box retailers offering sign-on bonuses and starting pay structures that grab the attention of today’s workforce in our community.
One strategy that we have enhanced is our paid internship program targeting students at local schools and colleges. We partner with counselors, vo-tech staff, and academic advisors to market our internships. Once hired, interns experience real-world, hands-on training working alongside our employees in various departments. We are able to develop those students to handle things the Etex way so we’re creating our own pool of talent so to speak. A full-time career opportunity fresh out of school is very attractive to a young adult. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved.
In recent years, we have modernized how we bring candidates on board. Many processes have been streamlined by automation through our online applicant tracking system and onboarding tool. From the moment of the initial application, candidates get to experience a process that is easy and convenient. Once candidates are hired, they go through what we call our “Red Carpet Experience”. Our goal with this experience is to limit or completely eliminate the anxiety and stress that comes along with starting a new position. On day one, the employee is prepared and ready to hit the ground running.
In today’s times, we have to continuously update our business practices and procedures to stay ahead of the market in terms of recruitment. Etex is committed to doing just that.
Topic: Retaining and Retraining Top Talent
ISE: The great resignation is not ending. How does your team hold onto professionals with the most talent and the greatest work ethic when they must upskill to remain relevant? (Oftentimes, upskilling translates into working their day job and at the same time learn new skills for the future.) Share your thoughts about the “rub” of this reality to employers AND employees.
Cano: Holding on to professionals with the most talent starts with hiring the right people. It is my responsibility to choose the right people who get on the right bus and sit in the right seats. I ensure this by explaining our culture during the interview process and setting clear expectations for hard work, good attitudes, and loyalty. I do not paint a pretty picture of an easy job with great pay and benefits just to fill a needed position quickly. I want them to be prepared for how hard they are expected to work and what type of culture they will be expected to adjust to. Typically, professional and talented individuals are attracted to that mentality—where others are likely to be apprehensive and move on down the road. Holding on to these employees is easy when you gain their trust, keep them involved, motivated and accountable. Then, ensure they feel valued, and reward them for hard work.
The motivation and determination to upskill also starts with the selection process and hiring the right individuals. Where there is a will, there is a way to accomplish your daily responsibilities while learning new skills for the future. I can accommodate driven individuals with additional tools and resources that may help them develop faster than they would without my help, but they must possess the key ingredients (desire, motivation, drive, and determination) to stay relevant for the future. My investment in these employees is completely up to them.
Topic: Team Members
ISE: What’s the primary concern of your team member for 2022 and how are you addressing it?
Cano: The biggest concern for 2022 from my employees was inflation and the cost of living. They have felt the pressure (along with the rest of the country) from their expenses increasing across the board. My CFO and I decided to raise our minimum pay to retain some of the new employees. We also increased the top pay for our senior technicians.
ISE: Is there such a thing as work/life balance? How do you create that, Charlie? And what is some advice you can give others?
Cano: I wouldn’t say I have the balance figured out. I tend to go all in on everything I do. I have carved out time during the week and evenings to help coach t-ball, softball, basketball, and football as my kids tend to be very active in many sports.
I answer my family’s personal calls during business hours and I answer business calls after hours. I try to be a good listener to provide help and support for everyone who depends on me. I attend the majority of my kids’ events, but they also understand a CEO’s work/life balance must be shared.
Regardless, whether I have the right balance figured out or not, I know I am blessed with great kids and family. I must have done something right.
ABOUT CHARLIE CANO
Charlie is a fearless leader. And, when Etex say fearless, they mean it. He has led them through dramatic change over the years, even before he was named CEO. And since, he’s moved Etex to the industry forefront, with the company now recognized as an industry innovator. From enhancing our network, introducing new products and services, and building a customer-based work culture, Charlie leads by example.
He’s a 25-year veteran of the telecom industry with diverse work experience as an Outside Plant Design Engineer, a Project Manager, and Sales Director for a national consulting firm. He’s been with Etex for the last 19 years.
Utilizing his business and engineering knowledge, Charlie was responsible for guiding Etex through the FTTH network remodel, deploying wireless technology and much more. His leadership, innovative approach, boundless energy, and vision earned him the title of CEO / General Manager of Etex in 2013. His focus since then has been the transformation of the Etex customer care culture, obtaining regulatory balance for the communications industry and developing a sales channel to deliver the best in communication, information, and entertainment services to residents of East Texas.
A native Texan, Charlie graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in Electrical Engineering and a minor in mathematics. He and his wife make their home in the area where they raise their three children. Follow Charlie on Twitter @charliec314.