Executive Insights With Jim Butman, President and CEO, TDS Telecom

May 1, 2019
Topic: You —  You’ve been with TDS Telecom since 1985. That’s impressive! What has been your greatest accomplishment? What has been your biggest disappointment?   Greatest Accomplishment Butman: I had the […]

Topic: You — 

You’ve been with TDS Telecom since 1985. That’s impressive! What has been your greatest accomplishment? What has been your biggest disappointment?  

Greatest Accomplishment

Butman: I had the opportunity to build a company pretty much from scratch. In 1997, I was asked to build a team, networks, and services to go into the competitive local exchange carrier business (CLEC). It was the toughest and yet the most rewarding business I have ever been involved with. We grew it to over 1,000 employees and $250 million in annual revenues.

Biggest Disappointment

Butman: I had to make the hard decision to end our run on the very same CLEC business. Given policy decisions at the FCC, we stopped making investments in that business and refocused our energies toward our new out-of-territory fiber strategy. 

Topic: Being All Things to All Users

A significant challenge for service providers today is the need to simultaneously service consumers and industry verticals, including transportation, high value manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture, smart cities, etc. The range of options puts pressure on networks to be all things to all users. 

Question: What is your advice to telecom providers about this challenge?

Butman: Maintain focus. I have seen too many companies stray from their core. Trying to be all things to all people is a mistake. If you do, you will likely take your eye off the ball. At TDS Telecom, we are a high-quality, market-focused, broadband delivery company. Notice what I did NOT say: wireless, content development, IT development/management or hosting, or a custom shop. In addition, being in fixed geographies also drives product strategy. We must pick products and services that scale locally. We have plenty to focus on in the delivery of high-quality data, video, and voice communications. At TDS Telecom, we are in the business of delivering other providers and end-user’s content. 

Just look around our industry — it’s littered with companies who got into trouble by straying from their core competencies.

Topic: Inspiration 

Question: Share a quote from someone who inspires you.
"Fame is vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character."
-Horace Greeley, Newspaper Editor

Topic: Fiber Deployment

Congratulations on the recent announcements below:
• $8-10 million project in the Village of Weston, Wis.
• $12-15 million project in Stevens Point, Wis. 

Question: With these fiber construction projects starting in spring 2019, what are the challenges you face when working with your own team and/or contractors to deploy fiber in communities like Stevens Point and Weston? What are some of the tactics and solutions you employ to get this expedited and completed on budget?

Butman: One of the biggest challenges in deploying fiber to communities is keeping the projects on time and on budget. When overbuilding an entire city, there are a lot of dependencies that can challenge timelines — many times you are working with numerous municipalities in a metro area. These municipalities control right-of-ways and permitting and they field community questions while construction is underway.

There is a lot of locating work for the other utilities. In addition, getting access to telephone or electric poles can cause delays and added expense requiring engineering re-work. And to top it off, we can have complications such as freezing ground in the northern states, or other bad weather conditions.

These challenges require a team that is deft at managing community relations, anticipates obstacles, and works well with contractors and local utilities. You must have high quality interdepartmental teamwork and highly skilled project management to do this well. TDS excels at doing just this.

Topic: Inclusion

Question: Share the changes you are most proud of related to diversity and inclusion? 

Butman: I am proud to say that at TDS we foster Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These employee-led groups are formed based on unique circumstances or common interests. Currently, we have 7 ERGs: Patriot (Veterans), WIT (Women in Technology), ABLE (Employees with disabilities), Interns, 2BU (LGBTQ), Heritage (different cultures), and Emerging Professionals.

We encourage these groups by providing company resources such as time, meeting rooms, lunches, and some funding to help them accomplish their missions. It has been really special to watch these groups form and take off. Each of these ERGs has incredible passion for their causes and missions. The groups are all-inclusive, welcoming all to participate. For instance, 28% of the Patriot ERG membership is made up of non-veterans.

Food for Thought from Our 2022 ICT Visionaries

Topic: Rural Challenges and Solutions 

Question: What is your greatest pain point delivering higher speeds to underserved and rural communities? What are some solutions?

Butman: The challenge has always been low customer density which drives higher costs. Given the growing demand for bandwidth, serving rural areas is becoming even more challenging. The distance sensitivity of copper-based technologies generally requires shortening of loops and greater out-of-market network capacity upgrades to improve broadband services. Low density generally makes it economically challenging to make these upgrades.

The solution for TDS Telecom is government support. We have been a big supporter and leading recipient of federal and state funding. Our customers are benefiting from the Federal Alternative Connect America fund (ACAM) and state broadband grants which help supplement the on-going construction of high cost networks. We are using all the technologies at our disposal, such as vectoring and bonding, to help improve broadband speeds over copper in low
density rural markets.

Topic: Upgrade Realities and ROI 

Upgrading a network is no small feat, nor is it inexpensive. Thus, all network upgrades must be thoroughly vetted to ensure that they both provide the necessary performance enhancements while also making themselves financially viable. It’s a tricky balancing act. 

Question: What network upgrades are most important to TDS? 

Butman: Since we operate a portfolio of networks — telco, cable, out-of-territory (OOT) — we view fiber and DOCSIS 3.1 as the most important network upgrades. We are driving fiber to about 30% of our telco footprint and continue to work on ways to bring down the build costs to enable us to go even deeper into those networks. Our new OOT markets are all fiber. For Cable, we will have deployed DOCSIS 3.1 to the majority of our footprint by the end of this year. In both cases, our goal is to get to sustainable 1Gig broadband speeds. 

Topic: Subtleties

Question: Share your thoughts about this quote: "A boss has the title; a leader has the people." (Source: Simon Sinek) 

Butman: Let’s be clear, titles don’t make leaders. Leaders should bring out the best in their people and teams, by recognizing, rewarding, and facilitating great team collaboration. This is akin to being a great parent: they are calm in the storms, build confidence, and provide tough love when it is needed. Finally, if your people stop bringing you problems, you are leaderless.

Topic: Balance

Question: What do you do to help create work/life balance in your life?

Butman: We are fortunate to have a beautiful lake home in Northern Wisconsin where we recreate and recharge. There is always something to enjoy: skiing (both water and snow), fishing, biking, boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding. It’s a most wonderful place to be with family and friends.

Topic: Agility

Question: A business needs to run two models simultaneously. One optimized for today and one optimized for tomorrow. How do you do that well without neglecting one or the other?

Butman: Providing solid communication services to customers day-in and day-out takes great commitment from the entire organization. Every day I’m amazed at the skill of our employees: We have an experienced team in the field and in the call centers taking care of customers — they all do exceptional work. We are focused on optimizing resources to allow us to deliver valued products and services. 

My leadership team maintains a strong pulse on the day-to-day, but we spend an immense amount of time planning to ensure we are transforming the business while meeting our financial commitments. This requires 3-5-year planning strategies to achieve top-line growth and take cost out of the business.

This year, TDS is celebrating its 50th anniversary and we are quite proud of the way we’ve navigated the industry: We are always looking for new technologies, new markets, and potential acquisition targets to grow and transform our business for the future.

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Topic: Satisfaction 

Question: Please fill in the blank. Satisfaction is: _________

Butman: Being proud. Pride is lasting, while happiness is fleeting.

About the Author

Sharon Vollman | Editor-in-Chief, ISE Magazine

Sharon Vollman is Editor-in-Chief of ISE Magazine. She oversees the strategic direction and content for ISE Magazine. She also leads the educational content development for ISE EXPO. 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. 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.