Mark Barber, the newest senior executive at Madison-based TDS Telecommunications Corp., was hired in March to lead the company in a new direction.
Already a provider of high-speed Internet, phone and limited Internet-based television service to nearly
1 million customers in 32 states, TDS is looking to expand its territory and increase revenues by buying cable television companies around the country.
“We think cable provides a great platform for broadband service into the home,” Barber said, including data, voice and video delivery. “We will become more active, more present and a more significant player in the traditional cable community.”
Barber, 57, is a telecommunications industry veteran who learned electronics in the U.S. Marine Corps. He will lead the new effort as vice president of cable operations for TDS.
Barber said he was energized by the complex, highly technical prospects of overseeing purchases and then improving acquired systems as needed, while integrating them smoothly into TDS’ overall operations.
“I look at business as a competitive sport, where you have to learn to adapt your team’s talents and resources to an ever-changing environment in order to accomplish your goals,” Barber said. “If you have passion about what you do, challenges don’t wear you down — they motivate you and provide an opportunity for creativity. That’s the fun part.”
The company’s first cable-related acquisition was in February, when Baja Broadband, a cable TV company in New Mexico, was acquired for
$267.5 million. The transaction will be final in late summer, when TDS will start managing the operation, retaining the Baja Broadband name and all of its nearly 300 employees to provide some 80,000 households with television, telephone and Internet service in five southwestern states.
A “modest increase” in Madison-based TDS staff also will likely be needed, Barber said, with the numbers still being worked out.
Before he was hired outright, Barber worked as a consultant for TDS on the acquisition of Baja Broadband, providing an evaluation of the company’s strengths and weaknesses.
“So I have had the opportunity to work with folks at TDS already and get to know them,” he said. “I got to test-drive them, and they got to test-drive me.”
Immediately before the TDS job, Barber, of St. Louis, was chief operating officer for two technology-related startup companies, and throughout his 30-year career in the communications industry he has worked as an executive for several cable companies, including Neustar, Charter Communications and Comcast.
Q: What did your evaluation of Baja find?
A: The good news is that these were recently rebuilt and well-run operations. But Baja had a limited ability to invest in a lot of infrastructure. TDS brings a tremendous set of assets (to do that), so we will be very focused on expanding to commercial customers.
The predominant charge for us is accelerating some of the marketing activities and ... providing more robust services to commercial businesses — more diversity, higher bandwidth, other voice services that Baja didn’t have that businesses want.
Q: What sort of services do businesses need?
A: A doctor’s office or a lawyer may need a high-speed data connection to transfer medical and legal documents. For video services, there’s a fair amount of hospitality programming that hotels need. And as we move up (to bigger businesses), you see things like companies with call centers, where they need expanded bandwidth for multiple lines of phones.
For restaurants, it might be providing international phone service that they need for ordering, but they might also want to put all the Sunday football games on TVs around the restaurant for customers.
Q: What’s the main difference between working for a startup vs. an established company? You’ve done both recently.
A: I’ve done startups outside of companies and as part of companies, entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial activities. But when you have an established company that is committed to making smart, opportunistic investments, it’s a lot of fun to also have the financial wherewithal to make that happen, rather than trying to build a business at the same time you’re trying to find out where the money is going to come from.
At TDS, I have the opportunity to do something new and different, but also be able to leverage the investment to make it happen.
Q: What drew you to the communications industry and kept you there for some three decades now?
A: The pace. Technology has been rapidly advancing my entire career, and it does two things for you. The first is that nothing gets stale or stagnant. Second, it does allow for a lot of creativity because new solutions are being developed all the time.
Very often you have to design systems and processes that don’t exist yet (to solve problems). So yes, it’s a traditional legacy business, but with a whole lot of innovation.
Q: With things always moving so fast, how does a person not burn out?
A: You’ll find a lot of people have become speed junkies. You just really enjoy the pace, and when you step away from it, you miss it. It’s the ability to have to take in information and assess the circumstances and make a decision and move an organization forward in unison.
Q: What did serving in the Marines teach you about having a successful business career?
A: The first thing you learn is that you take care of your people and they will take care of you. One of the most important things in the personnel evaluations in the Marine Corps is the last question, which is, ‘Would you want this man in a foxhole with you?’
I’ve always felt like that was the most important thing in business, too. Whether this person I’m doing business with or for, would I want them beside me when difficult situations arise? That goes right to the heart of trust.