January 8, 2018
On the record

Otelco CEO Rob Souza talks about company's ambitious agenda for 2018

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Rob Souza, president and CEO of the telecommunications firm Otelco, with a fiber-optic display board at his office in New Gloucester.

Rob Souza is president and CEO of Otelco, a telecommunications firm (Nasdaq: OTEL) previously known as OTT Communications in New England, which has operations in several states.

Souza, who has been in the industry for more than four decades, sat down with Mainebiz in New Gloucester to talk about Otelco's corporate rebranding and his expectations for 2018. Between questions, he used a fiber-optic display board to show a typical set-up for Internet and voice communications, and chat about his avocation as a private pilot and the plane he's building in his home basement.

Mainebiz: What are the unique challenges of serving rural areas?

Rob Souza: The primary issue is densities — the number of homes you pass per mile of fiber that's built. Whether you're building in a location where you're passing 20 or 30 homes per mile or two or three homes per mile the cost per mile is relatively the same. It makes it a difficult business proposition if it's much less dense.

MB: How does Maine compare to its New England peers?

RS: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine probably have many similar characteristics from the standpoint of population densities, and certainly when you get into the western part of Massachusetts the same thing would apply.

MB: Are there any initiatives that are encouraging?

RS: Recently the FCC [the U.S. Federal Communications Commission] came out with the Alternative Connect America Model Fund, which provided us a stable revenue stream for 10 years. The goal of that is to invest in broadband, to get closer and closer to more rural customers so that they can have speeds equivalent to those that live in Portland or Lewiston or Bangor.

MB: What can you say about Otelco's rebranding?

RS: Traditionally as a company we had been managed on a regional or divisional level. In the past year we decided to change from a regional management to a functional management. And from a messaging side, we believe we really need to be known by the corporate name, which is Otelco. That also builds a strong internal team.

MB: Is there one corporate culture or does it vary by state?

RS: It varies. The rebrand is unification, and what we're trying to do is have a common culture that places a high value on our customers and places a very high value on our employees as well. Without good employees, customers are not going to be happy.

MB: How did you get into this business?

RS: I happened to be out of school looking for a summer job, and my dad knew somebody who worked for New England Telephone. I went to work for them full-time in 1973. I started in a craft position working in a manhole, and once I learned enough I went out onto the pole line by myself. I was fortunate enough to work my way through the industry until you find me sitting before you today.

MB: Do you think your experience makes you a better manager?

RS: It gives me an interesting perspective, and I think that is helpful. When you realize in an ice storm what those guys on the outside are going through because you've been there and done that, I think it does make you a better manager. It keeps you grounded and it's easier to be empathetic with the folks that you're managing and understanding the challenges they face.

MB: What's ahead for Otelco in 2018?

RS: The first quarter is going to be very busy for us for a number of reasons as we continue to work on this unification, the whole branding project, all of the pieces coming together. We are also certainly continuing to push fiber aggressively, so we have a lot ahead of us for 2018 and we're positive. We recognize that there's competition out there, the Time Warner and Spectrum guys have been beating their drums pretty heavily. We have our work cut out for us, but we think the steps that we're taking today put us in a good position to be a viable contender for many years to come.


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