High in fiber
TDS CEO wants people to know that TDS has moved beyond the old mom-and-pop telephone system. Way beyond.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Last January, when James “Jim” Butman succeeded David Wittwer as president and CEO at TDS Telecommunications LLC, he was a seasoned veteran with 37 years in the telecommunications industry, including 32 years at TDS.
A year later, our inquiry into his first year at the helm found him momentarily taking a trip down memory lane.
It was 1980, he recalled. The economy was down and interest rates were around 18 percent. Butman, a UW–Eau Claire finance grad, was scrambling to find a job when jobs were hard to find, and he had a special urgency: The Marinette, Wisconsin native and his new wife were expecting their first child.
Eventually, Butman landed at GTE Corp. in Sun Prairie, a behemoth in the telecommunications industry at the time. It was a good job, but the young family was uprooted three times in four-and-a-half years with the next move planned for the East Coast. Butman decided it was time to look elsewhere.
He still remembers his boss’ warning when he informed him he’d be leaving GTE for a job with TDS, a “little” $150 million company in Madison. “He said, ‘That little company isn’t going to make it in this big industry.’”
That was 1985.
“Today that $150 million business is now a $5 billion annual business,” Butman states, “while GTE twice has been sold, first to Verizon and then Frontier.”
Recently, the affable CEO shared more about his rise to the top.
IB: Has anything surprised you in your first year as president/CEO?
Butman: I’d already gained a wealth of experience here, so nothing was intimidating, but what I didn’t anticipate was how a simple title change from COO to CEO could so quickly consume my evenings with meetings and dinners.
IB: What’s made you particularly proud thus far?
Butman: Certainly I’m proud that we’ve made every key financial target, but early on I also reorganized my executive team in a fairly big overhaul. Now there’s a renewed sense of ownership and teamwork. I see it and I feel it.
IB: How has TDS changed through the years?
Butman: In our history, we’ve evolved from phones to pagers, cellular, fiber optics, and we now have incredible data centers with our OneNeck facilities.
IB: Technology is constantly changing, of course. Has TDS’ growth strategy changed, as well?
Butman: The traditional phone system has been declining, so we bought some cable TV companies on the West Coast, but there aren’t any more for sale. What’s plan B? We decided to go ‘out of territory.’ Now, we have franchise service areas and launched a Sun Prairie initiative bringing underground fiber optic to the city. Our board agreed and helped us secure $25 million in funding because fiber is the best and fastest technology available.
IB: Why Sun Prairie?
Butman: Honestly, our research showed that Frontier was struggling and Charter was becoming too dominant in the area. Now, after just 18 months, TDS has the highest market share there. This is our growth strategy. We conduct business in 30 states, but our roots are in suburban, rural America.
IB: Not Madison or larger cities?
Butman: We feel we can get more cooperation from smaller communities. Bigger cities often cost more and have more red tape.
IB: So how do you compete against the big guys?
Butman: We don’t go into the largest or most contested markets. We go after the business of large providers that can’t pivot quickly. Sun Prairie, for example, won’t be a priority for Charter or Frontier; Verizon/AT&T is interested in NFL cities and won’t fight us in Stoughton.
IB: What about price?
Butman: The huge corporations do have leverage, no question. We believe we can still compete, although it probably puts more margin pressure on us.
IB: Are you finding enough workers?
Butman: We call it the war on talent and yes, it keeps us up at night. We have around 250 jobs on the board right now.
There’s a lot of attention here on what Epic and other excellent employers have done to attract workers, yet if people knew what went on here they’d be shocked. This is not your parents’ old phone company! We’re all about super high speed data networks and creating an incredibly digital future world.
We’re also a relatively small company with a $5 billion market cap. We have engineers, IT professionals, and with the revolution of cloud TV, everyone here is a knowledge worker. We also believe that interns — we have about 100 — provide a wonderful feeder pool into our tech jobs.
IB: What about diversity and inclusion?
Butman: We have a number of employee resource groups that connect employees with similar interests, so nobody has to feel alone — veterans, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, women in technology. These employees identify with impactful things that have happened in their lives and might want to help their local community, as well. We support them all, but selfishly hope the groups help attract and retain others to come work for us!
IB: What’s next for TDS?
Butman: We’re working on expanding our fiber optic network into McFarland, Oregon, Windsor, DeForest, and Cottage Grove, but our next phase is targeting central Wisconsin. We’d also like to get into some warmer climates because we can’t build in winter.
IB: You seem like an open book, but what might people not know about you?
Butman: I have a great appreciation for how things used to be made, so I collect and restore old, cool things, like a canoe from 1926, an old phone booth, or apothecary cabinetry. I think I have a pretty good eye for things.
IB: To whom would you attribute your success?
Butman: No question, my wife, Katie. She’s been there for me for 40 years, supporting and sacrificing for my career and being a great mom to our kids. Please print that!
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