The kind of culture a company has is reflective of the kind of leaders it has. When leaders walk their talk and get involved in the overall business processes, the company walks alongside it too. In this episode, Carrie Charles brings over someone who has shown tremendous passion, realness, and involvement to his company. She sits down with the President and CEO of Everstream, Brett Lindsey. Brett shares with us how he has built a culture around authenticity, inclusivity, and diversity. He talks about how he empowers his employees and leaders to lead effectively and powerfully. Moreover, Brett then tells us about the things they are looking forward to this 2021 and how they are planning to move with the market as fiber-based network service providers.
Listen to the podcast here:
Everstream Walks The Talk With CEO Brett Lindsey
I am thrilled to have with me, Brett Lindsey. He is the President and CEO of Everstream. Brett, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I appreciate being here.
I want to say that we’ve been working with Everstream for quite some time, and I was excited when you accepted my invitation to come on the show. One thing I’m excited about is speaking to you from a leadership perspective, because I’ve heard many great things about not just Everstream, but also about you as a leader. Can you discuss a little bit about your journey, how you got to where you are, maybe some challenges that you faced along the way, some of your greatest professional achievements?
I joke around that I grew up wanting to be in telecom, and it’s not quite true, but I had a mentor when I was in college that happened to be the president of a company in telecom. I thought, “This guy has got a great life. I wonder what I can do to replicate what he’s done.” I asked him and he said, “Here’s what you do. You start off selling telephone equipment because you’ll understand what the customer wants. Once you’ve done that for a little while, and if you’ve been successful, then you move to an operating company so you can understand the nuts and bolts of how you deliver the underlying services to those companies. This is starting in sales. Once you’ve done that, then you need to take a pay cut and move into operations and figure out how to manage that side of the business, and understand how it all comes together. If you’re fortunate enough, then you’ll get an opportunity to leave a big company and go work for a smaller venture back or PE–backed company where you can then get into leadership roles. Hopefully, that will allow for you to move into a presidency overall like I had.” I thought, “That sounds good to me.”
I did not finish college. I got hired in April in my senior year of college. I ended up flagging two classes that last semester and didn’t graduate. I got the job in April. I was excited. It was a junior AG for the company at the time called WilTel selling key systems, which most people don’t know what that is anymore. I was excited to get this job. Two weeks later, they called and told me that there was going to be a hiring freeze and I wasn’t going to get to start until December. I was screwed at that point. I hadn’t graduated from college. I had accepted the job and I needed to figure out how to live until December. I started doing landscaping for rich people in Oklahoma City at the Nichols Hills neighborhoods to make ends meet. My job started in December. I started working in sales. I loved it and I had been there about six months when the company decided to do away with my position, and it was going to force me to have to double my quota.
I went to my manager and said, “I can do this. You’ve got to give me a chance.” She gave me that opportunity to someone that I’m still in contact with now. It was the beginning of my trajectory through telecom and it was at WilTel. I stayed there until the Telecom Act happened in 1996, which was my leverage into the operating business side of things. I was at Brooks Fiber. My mentor who told me what to do became a regional president in Ohio. That’s how I moved from Oklahoma City to Columbus, Ohio to work with him back in the day for our next lane, which later became XO, which is now part of Verizon.
I continued to have these steps with big companies. I was on a quest for a while and the Joe Nachos days, and everybody remembers what happened there. Our division was called Cross-link, and we were a pet project of his. When he got let go, our division got shut down, and it was two days before my son was born. I was sitting there thinking, “I’m going to have some challenges here.” I immediately landed a position with MC Partners, which was a private equity firm that had invested in a couple of companies. I continued to work with them multiple times and they were my first big equity partner at Everstream. We had successful exits together. For me, it was trying to get that big company experience moving into a more entrepreneurial environment where I felt like I could have a bigger impact on the business. I have been able to take that opportunity with both hands and continue to grow the business that way. It’s a testament to understanding that if you are well-rounded in the business, it helps you be successful later in life. I was fortunate to have some great mentors and coaches along the way.
That’s the power of mentorship. You’ve got some great advice when you were younger. That’s one thing I’d love to speak on is mentorship being a mentor, as well as a mentee. You’ve touched every piece of telecom. I could see why you’re successful and you’re such a great leader. That’s awesome. Tell me about Everstream, your services, who are your customers, and a little bit about your office’s locations, and the markets that you serve?
We like to keep it simple. We are a fiber–based network service provider. We like to own, operate everything that we connect customers to. In 2020, 93% of every circuit that we sold to a customer was directly connected to our network. We believe that is how you win those customers, keep those customers and continue to grow. For us, it’s all–fiber all the time. The idea is how can we build more fiber than anyone else in the markets that we’re in because we believe that delivering ethernet, internet, some dark fiber is the key for us. Our business has shifted a little bit. We started out heavy on wholesale, then moved into enterprise. That was when we were in Ohio. When we brought in our initial funding in 2015 with MC, we acquired GLC Comm Link up in Michigan, and we also are at Lynx Network Group.
That took us from Ohio to Michigan. We picked up some other services along the way, but we’ve always kept our core and focusing on enterprise customers and the wholesale space, and not try to get away from marketing. We didn’t decide to become a data center company or get into voice or unified messaging or anything else. We want to build our own and operate as much fiber as possible. That has helped us well. We did a transaction in 2018 where we sold Everstream to AMP. The basic premise there was we’ve been successfully doing it in a couple of states. I like the Midwest, I like the work ethic of the people, the business community that’s here. For me, it was, “How can I find a partner that will allow us to continue to grow our business?”
We’re now in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, we’ll be closing on the Unity transaction, and that will take us into Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. With some win announcements, we’ll also be opening up Kentucky. The business has continued to evolve. We want to make certain that we are connecting as many people as possible to our fiber networks, and that we have robust networks that are there for our customers. The conversations of talking about 100 MB or 1 GB a day‘s past, customers are now asking for 10 GB like it wasn’t 1 GB or 100 MB. A few years ago, 40 GB or 100 GB. It’s about having the capacity and the assets to be able to keep your customers happy.
You keep your employees happy too. My company, Broadstaff, we place people with Everstream and we always hear that they are happy. I want to talk about that a bit. What is it like to work for Everstream? What’s the culture like there?
There are very few things in our organization that are top-down, but culture is one of them. To me, the culture has to start at the top and it has to be embodied by me and everyone on our executive team, and flow through everybody in the organization so that it’s clear, concise and consistent. When we started down this path, the idea was, “What are the key values and mantras? What can we have people internalize so that it can help them understand what we need to do every day?” The first one is, “Do what you say you will do.” The palindrome, “Do what you say you will do,” is everywhere in our office. It’s on the walls, on t-shirts, it’s everywhere. For us, that’s our golden rule. That the idea is whether it’s a co-worker, customer, partner, vendor, whomever, that we will do what we say we will do. It’s tattooed on my arm in Latin. It’s my own thing as well. From the standpoint of understanding that every day, whether that’s for work or my family, my kids, whatever that is, that I’m doing that as well. That’s the first one.
The second one is happy people, happy customers. There is not a chance in hell that your customers are going to have a positive experience if your employees do not enjoy their jobs. It’s not going to happen. We do a ton on developing our people. For the many years in a row, we’ve grown exponentially in size and promoted 20% of our staff every year. We are very focused and conscientious about giving people development plans that allow them to stay with us. We want to review those on a regular basis. I’ve been here for many years. We’ve got a lot of people that have been with me during that duration.
What’s great to me is having examples in the organization that other new people can come in and see, and understand that many years ago, they were the person that’s now the vice president of our customer engagement team. That person started in customer service, became a manager, then became a director and is now running a very large team with that organization. We have a gentleman that started in the NOC and then went into engineering and became a manager. He’s now VP of our Network Engineering team. We have multiple stories of people that have come in and stayed with us. They stayed with us because our feeling is different than what they’re used to. It’s different because we spend a lot of time talking about it, caring for our people.
The last one on that space is once people hit that magic five-year mark, I view those people at the highest risk. If you’ve been here for five years, and if you haven’t been promoted a couple of times, your compensation hasn’t changed dramatically over that period of time, you’re riding to get picked off. How do we do that? We do that one because every single employee in our company is an owner. Everyone in our organization has shares. Those people that have been with us before when we sold back in 2018, participated in, and they’ll pay it again whenever our next event is. The idea is that everyone needs to feel like they have ownership in what’s going on. Also that those people that have been here for five years, some people are comfortable doing what they’re doing. I may be a splicer and I love splicing them. That’s what I want to do every day. As long as that person is happy doing that, that’s great, but we want to make sure that people are there.
The last one is our no asshole policy. People joke and think that’s funny when I say it. It’s the one that I take the most pride in because it’s the one thing that if you say and you don’t live up to that rule, somebody is going to call you on it. The idea is we cannot have someone in our organization that is screaming at people, yelling at people, badgering them, that doesn’t work. We know that and it doesn’t keep people happy. If they’re not happy, then the customers aren’t happy.
We’ve had some instances where we’ve had some fairly high–up people in the organization who were assholes, and those people didn’t make it. We had a holiday party one time and the guy decided to show up, have too much to drink, break some people and pass out at the bar. On Monday, he was gone. I wrote a note to the team on Monday after we let the person go and told that team, “I want to make sure you understand that the ‘no asshole policy’ applies to all.” We want to make certain that people understand that they need to have a safe environment where they feel comfortable expressing their opinions and can challenge things. We do not serve ourselves or our customers well by having a bunch of people that all think the same. We have a very diverse work culture here, and 45% of our team are female. We’ve got every ethnic variety you can imagine within our organization. For us, we believe that having that difference of opinion allows for our business to be better and makes people want to stay here.
Did you say 45% of your team?
That’s the latest stat and it’s an all areas, permitting, construction, finance, HR, sales, all throughout the organization.
You wrote an article on LinkedIn about diversity. First of all, I love your realness. When you speak, I get what you’re saying. Let’s talk about that article briefly about diversity, about your passion around it, and also the new initiative you created because of that.
In 2020, it was hard for everybody. It was an odd feeling that our business grew exponentially during 2020 while other people were suffering. Businesses were suffering, but even more than that, you have the social injustice undertone that went out the entire year. I was struggling at trying to figure out how could I specifically make a difference as it relates to racism and diversity, and being able to have those conversations within our team. I was invited on a fly–fishing trip to Montana right around the same time that the racial unrest was at its peak. I went there with the idea of unplugging, and instead tried to focus on how can I help on this specific issue and ended up connecting with two African-American gentlemen that were on the trip with me.
I thought, “These guys are here. One is from Atlanta and one is from California. I can figure out how to ask them questions and learn something.” The most key thing that was shared with me was, “You need to listen more. You need to talk to people, ask questions, but also educate yourself about some of the issues.” What they recommended most was that I read the Letter from Birmingham Jail that was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. When you read them, you’re taken with the fact that this guy is such an amazing line. Take apart all of the challenges that he was facing at that time. The fact that you could sit inside of a jail and write one of the most eloquent things I’ve ever read, and be able to describe succinctly the challenges that we’re facing.
When you read it, you could replace Birmingham now with Detroit, Chicago, LA, any city in the US. You could read that and think, “This could have been written now, but how sad is it that it was written in 1968 and how little have we come in that period of time? It’s trying to address these issues and make it better.” The last thing that spoke to me, and I’m trying to get some of my peers to think about it more, is this idea that Martin Luther says it’s not the raging racist or the KKK that he’s concerned about. It’s the moderate white male, and that person wants the issue to go away. They want to like, “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but let’s move past it,” because they feel uncomfortable. They don’t want to raise their hand and talk about something. That makes other people feel uncomfortable because they somehow feel that’s not their role.
What he’s saying is that is wrong. Those are the people that we need to be helped with the most that your silence effectively is hurting us more than anything else. My challenge in the piece on LinkedIn was to create awareness and make sure that my team knew that I was thinking about it. Secondly is to try to get people in our space, which are predominantly white 50-year-old males to take a step forward and trying to do something beyond what’s good for our business or ourselves.
There’s something about you as a leader, and I’ve learned a lot from you from our brief conversations, and also what I hear about you as a leader from the people that we’ve placed there at Everstream, you’re involved, committed and passionate, but then you also empower people at the same time. You’re involved in the interview process and some follow–up post-interview with the growth and development of your team. Tell me a little bit about your involvement and also how you empower others and empower your leaders to lead effectively and powerfully?
The first thing I talked about for the business why people want to be here is because of our culture. I view myself as the final gatekeeper when somebody joins the business. People think it’s more altruistic like I can’t wait to talk to every single person that we’re interviewing, but it’s to make certain that we don’t bring the wrong person in our doors. We have an interview process depending on every person, no matter what level, between 3 to 5 people. I’m the final interview for every employee that we have. It’s a different type of conversation. I don’t spend time going through people’s resumes. They have barfed that up to five people before they get to me. I don’t need to ask them again how they got into telecom and their last job.
Instead, I use it as an opportunity to try to get to know them. My questions are, “Describe your life from birth until the end of high school. Are you 1 of 3? Did you play soccer? Did your parents go to divorce?” Whatever it is that makes that person into who they are. The second one is, “What do you do for fun? When you’re not working, how do you spend your time?” I learned more about people’s families, hobbies and things that I otherwise would not know for quite some time after somebody joined us. The last one is, “Why are you leaving where you are?” It’s sad and awesome for us at the same time. Sad that most people are leaving where they are because they don’t feel appreciated, because they don’t feel like the direction is truly shared with them, and that they don’t feel like they’re having an impact at the place where they are.
Those are things that we can solve for people. Those are the things that we’re doing it correctly. Those people will feel differently when they come to Everstream. The second that I do is once somebody is on board, we have an onboarding call 3 to 4 weeks after the person joins with us. My question is, “Did we do what we said we would do? Was your laptop sitting at your desk? Did you have access to all this stuff? Is there training that you need? What can I do to make certain that you are successful in this role with us?” The feedback that I constantly get from people is one, “I never thought I would talk to you during the interview process.” Second, “I never thought I’d probably talk to you again.”
Being able to talk to them again after they’ve been on board for that is key. The other thing is we believe that we have to be out in the market. The way that we operate our business is by having whoever touches the customer needs to be local in that specific area, which is different from a lot of telecom companies where everything keeps getting more and more centralized into the headquarter grand goofball location, which doesn’t work for us. The other thing that we’ve done, especially during COVID in 2020, which was a little dicey, but we were trying to travel to every market once a month through social distancing and everything else. They saw our faces because 2020 was a challenge for people, let’s be clear. It was difficult to try to keep people’s morale up.
We had a tremendous year and our own people felt guilty about it. We built over 10 million feet of fiber in 2020, we installed customers in every state that we now operate in. We opened new offices in every state. A lot took place in the midst of very difficult times for others. Our ability to try the best we could to communicate with people, have them see us, and make certain that they felt like they were connected to what we were trying to do with the business has helped us continue that culture.
Everstream is growing exponentially. It’s exciting to know. Let’s talk about hiring. What’s on your radar for 2021? Are you hiring? What types of roles? What are you looking at there?
We are hiring. Our expectation is we’ll add somewhere between 75 to 80 people. Some of those are also going to come through the acquisitions that were either scheduled to close or those that were in the process, but we will be staffing across the markets. We also have a team of what we call a national team. What they’re doing is tasked with going into some of the expansion markets where we have a contract. We have a customer in that area. We have the team now focused on doing the initial design engineering and permitting to get that market on its way. Once it started to start to construct fiber and we’re moving towards the solid customers, then we would bring in that director of field services and OSB manager, high-speed manager, and all the bodies that are required.
In any given market, you’re typically going to see 25 to 35 people managing everything from a local level. We want to be able to see those markets with more of a higher–up view, and then be able to hand them off to someone once it’s a little bit more mature. That’s a process that we’ve been evolving. We hired a gentleman, Drew Mullin from Crown Castle. It’s over our corporate development group and he’s leading that team. We’ve continued to add local talent at every as well as in the organization, and Cleveland is there too.
For us, outside plan, inside plan, sales, anything and everything that you can imagine that we need for our business, we are not planning on slowing down from the standpoint of what we construct or install. For us, it’s making certain that we’ve got X in the backlog and we’re going to install Y each quarter, how many bodies need to be in our shop to be able to make that happen. I feel like we figured out our machine, and we know exactly each quarter what needs to come in to make sure that we deliver on our promises to customers.
What’s your vision for the next five years? Where’s Everstream going to be?
I‘m not sure that I can answer that. If you’d asked me many years ago, I would have not given the answer of where we are now for sure. I wouldn’t want to be limiting in where I think we’ll be. If we keep doing what we have been doing, our work will continue to come. We have been opportunistic at looking at acquisitions that made sense where we could find fiber–rich assets with products that aligned with ours, with smart people that we could bring into the business. We will keep doing that. We will continue to grow organically in every one of these markets. We’re not interested in being competitors to a lot of our peers. It doesn’t make sense for me to move towards great plains because, with the way that we view it, and it sounds like an odd thing to say, we want to be in the third place.
AT&T, because of market share and the fact that they’ve been here for hundred–plus years, is going to be first in market share in the market. The second is going to be the MSO, whether that’s Comcast or Charter or whoever that is. Then we want to be the one that is deploying the most fiber that’s adding the most customers and is taking market share on this market. If you consider that we’ve gone from two states to where we are now and the availability of business in those areas, we have plenty to do for the next several years. When we marry our carrier wholesale wireless business and everything that’s happening in 5G, which is pushing us hard, and then our enterprise demand, which is continuing to hammer us for more bandwidth organically, more services, everything that they need. If we stick to our knitting, we’ll be fine five years from now.
Many times when companies grow and they grow fast through acquisitions, as well as organically, the culture changes, things change. We hear this quite a bit from candidates. They say, “Things have changed since X happened. The company is different since X happened.” It sounds to me like that is not going to be the story of Everstream. How do you maintain a cohesive culture through all the growth and acquisitions?
It’s a shit ton of work. The challenge is trying to get the people that you bring on board. You ask the question about how do you empower your people? This is how we keep our culture growing. We view the directors in the market. In every large market, we have a director of field services and a director of sales, and they manage 90% of the bodies that are in that market. If that market is not succeeding, it isn’t because somebody in Cleveland didn’t do what they needed to do. It’s because we failed at the local level to make those people feel supported, involved and had the tools that they needed to be successful. For us, we have spent a ton of time and we did this thoughtfully.
Back in 2019, we engaged with AMP. We looked at a number of acquisitions and these things are priced so high, we don’t feel like we’re getting what we want. We kicked off a $300 million capital campaign to build all these markets out. The idea was while we’re doing that, what has to happen is that you have to feel like you’re working for Everstream no matter what city you’re in, and how that manifests itself. When you walk in, the offices look exactly the same, same paint on the walls, same furniture, same sayings on the walls, everything, same snacks. Thinking of the things that make people feel like Cleveland is not the epicenter of the world. Cleveland happens to be one office where a number of us sit, and it should feel the same in St. Louis or Indianapolis or Milwaukee.
The office is important. It’s going to sound like a small thing, but it’s something in years past people started to get rid of. We have an office manager in every single office. That person is there to make certain that we have visibility to what’s going on, not in a Big Brother watch you mode, but understanding what is the culture feeling? How are people feeling? Are they overwhelmed? What’s the morale like? That way, we can also use those office managers as advocates for the business. They run all of that. If we have a chili cook-off in Cleveland, we have a chili cook–off in every market at the same time. Those office managers are helping make that happen. That’s the difference.
The other piece is people want to build. So much of our team are on the construction site. If you’ve been at some of the big companies out there, especially Windstream or CenturyLink or Lumen, the amount of building fiber at the local level has gone down dramatically over the last several years. They’ve gotten bigger, they’ve got different products, they’ve got different mindsets. When they know that we’re coming in to impact the local market, to build as much fiber as possible, they get to do that. People get geeked up about the fact that they’re building something from scratch in that city. Capitalizing on that, making certain that it feels consistent across all the markets, and then giving people a culture that feels different from where they are is the best compliment that one of our team members can make to me is it feels different here. If it feels the same, then we’ve lost. It has to feel different here than anywhere else that they’ve been in the past, or we will not be able to replicate the success that we’ve had up to this point.
There are some rich golden nuggets here in this conversation. I thank you so much for being on the show. I know I’ve learned a lot and I’m honored to support Everstream with Broadstaff. I’m honored to have this conversation with you. Where can our audience learn about Everstream, the careers and everything that you have to offer?
Thank you for having me on. Everstream.net is our website. We have a built–out section for people that are seeking employment. It has all kinds of information, videos about the business, all of the postings are there as well. About anything that you need to know to find a position at Everstream is available online.
Brett, thank you so much for being on the show. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you very much.
About Brett Lindsey
Brett Lindsey was named President and CEO of Everstream in 2014. In 2018, Brett facilitated the sale of Everstream to AMP Capital, a global investment manager headquartered in London. With this investment, Everstream has expanded its network into new markets, including Chicago, Columbus, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, and announced strategic acquisitions in Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
In 2016-2017, Brett more than tripled the size of the organization within less than 12 months with two Michigan-based acquisitions. Previously as Chief Operations Officer of OneCommunity, Brett oversaw the $100 million expansion of the network that became Everstream. Brett brings more than 25 years of experience in successful operations management and business development efforts for venture-backed organizations to the Fortune 500. He has extensive experience in the telecom industry, having served as President of Elantic Telecom and Chief Operations Officer of Vox Mobile. Brett also held management positions with City Signal Communications, Qwest Communications, XO Communications and Williams Communication Systems.
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