For a tower company to be meaningful and to be at scale, it has to stay private and be permanent. Most of all, it has to partner with the customers, not squeeze them. One such tower company is Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner and operator of wireless communications infrastructure in the US. Alex Gellman, its CEO and Cofounder, joins Carrie Charles on today’s show to share what Vertical Bridge is all about and what makes them different from everyone else. Alex also touches on his personal and professional journey to becoming the leader of Vertical Bridge.
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Vertical Bridge’s Generosity Fuels Innovation With Alex Gellman
I am super excited to have with me, Alex Gellman. He is the CEO of Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner and operator of wireless communications infrastructure in the US. Alex, thank you so much for joining me.
Carrie, thanks for having me.
Tell us more about Vertical Bridge.
Vertical Bridge is the largest private tower company in the US. We’re a pure play, and that we’re only towers and we’re only US. That’s by design. We’re a few years old. We were founded by a group of people who came out of Global Towers.
There are many tower companies in the US. We know that. I want to know what makes you different than everyone else.
What makes us different is we’re in a unique spot where we’re private, we’re at scale and we’re permanent. What I mean by that is we’re privately owned. We’re not publicly traded. The big three companies in the US are publicly traded. What that means is I get to know a lot of information about what they’re doing. We’re private, so they don’t get to know a lot of information about what we’re doing and I like that.
We’re at scale is important because you have to be big enough to be a meaningful partner for T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, iHeart, etc. That’s what we want to do. We want to be the tower company that partners with our customers, not squeezes them. To be meaningful, you have to be at scale. That’s the second thing. The last thing is you have to be permanent. You have to be around. That’s the trick, get to scale, stay private and be permanent. We’re there and we’re the only one.
I want to back up a little bit because I’d love to hear your personal story, your professional journey. How did you get to where you are? You’ve got an enormous depth of experience behind you with this.
I’ve been super lucky. Life’s a journey. I didn’t go to school. What I tell my sons all the time is you don’t have to have it all planned out. I know a lot of people make you feel like you do. The internet exacerbates that because you’ll only see the perfection of everything. The reality is life is a journey. You’re fortunate if you notice the moments that are big moments in your life. You’re fortunate if you notice the moments that are big opportunities in your life. I’ve missed a few, but I said yes enough times to be very fortunate to be where I am. I was always more entrepreneurial.
Right out of business school, I had a choice. I could join a startup wireless company and get paid nothing or I could take my expensive degree and work for a giant company as a financial analyst in a cube somewhere. Guess which one I chose? That was it. That was probably the single most important decision that set me on the path that I’m on. The key for me is it matters who you work with. It matters who your partners are, who your colleagues are.
If you have the right people in a group, I like team sports. This is my sport. I wasn’t good enough to play professionally, but I consider this a sport in a way because we keep score. It’s very important to me to have good teammates. It’s always been important to me that everybody knows what position they’re playing. You can’t all play each other’s position. That has always guided me in business. If you have good people and you talk 1 plus 1 equals 3 in terms of ideas and opportunity. I’ve been lucky. Luck helps.
I would consider you one of my mentors. I look up to you as a leader. When I took over this role as CEO of BroadStaff, you were one of the first people I reached out to. I would like to know, what are some secrets of your leadership style?
My philosophy is you can’t ask people to do something that you won’t do yourself. Nobody respects somebody who won’t roll up their sleeves and do it. You’ve got to earn your stripes. They’re not given to you. People don’t respect leaders who will do the dirty work themselves. That’s one, set an example. Two, you’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to be who you are. You can’t be phony. People don’t like phony. They don’t follow phony. That’s important.
Three, you’ve got to have the hard conversations. That’s the hardest part for me. Some people are easy at it than others, but you’ve got to be able to have the tough conversations. I have a good friend who calls it like you’ve got to be able to go below the belt. You’ve got to be able to say, “We’re going to have it out here. You’re not going to like what I’m going to say. I hope it doesn’t change our relationship or how I feel about you. I don’t like what’s going on or what’s going on?” You’ve got to have that honest conversation. If you can’t do that at work, you’re not a team. You’re not a family. It’s very easy to avoid it. I’ve learned over the years that guys don’t like to talk about their feelings very much. It’s true. I qualify, but you have to because you can’t work intensely and achieve things as a team unless you do. That’s been the hardest part.
It reminds me of all the books of Brené Brown. She’s written some leadership books on vulnerability. Thanks for sharing that because I look up to you as a leader. Also, as a leader of Vertical Bridge, the company has announced something that is incredible. Vertical Bridge is now the first carbon neutral tower company in the world. This is incredible to me. What prompted this and how did this happen? What was the journey?
What happened is outside of the US in particular, ESG is a very important thing for investors, Environmental Safety and Governance. I saw GTP when we had an Australian investor. I’m seeing it second hand through all the digital bridge, digital colony companies, and the investors who are interested in ESG. The US investors are but to a lesser extent. I saw it coming. I said, “We have VBCN, our charitable effort, which is great and sets us apart, but what else can we do? We’re doing that for a few years. That’s great. We’re going to keep doing it, but what else can we do?”
I realized that there’s no carbon neutral tower company that we could find anywhere in the world. Why don’t we be the first? I put my partner and friend, Bernard Borghei on it, who is incredibly detailed. He’s the perfect guy for something like this. He researched it and he looked into what do we have to do to get there. In three months, he figured everything out. He said, “Here’s what we have to do to get there.” We said, “Let’s do it.” Our board was very supportive. It’s a first step of a journey because one is you neutralize the carbon that you use, but you also then have to start reducing how much carbon you use. It’s both.
The reduction is a longer-term program around, what kind of fuel are we using? How efficiently are we using energy? That’s going to be next. The first step was how do we offset what we’re using? That’s what we did. There’s a whole industry around this. I’m now going to do it personally. They have a website. They’re developing this company where you can punch in how much do you drive, how do you travel, where do you live, what’s your average utility bill at home? It will show you how much carbon you’re burning as a family, as a person and offset it. We either get serious about this stuff or we don’t. I’d say the trigger was my wife got an electric car. I was like, “What?” She loves it. I’m like, “This is the right thing to do.” I try to learn from the people around me. I don’t always do it, but once in a while. Kudos to Bernard for executing it.
I wonder if other tower companies are going to follow in your footsteps.
They will. I was shocked that nobody had done it. I would expect others will. I hope they do.
Tower companies seemed to be the hottest play in 5G right now. Why is that? Is this going to change once 5G is rolled out?
Tower companies are hot right now because it’s driven by carrier investment. What drives tower company growth is capital investments by our customers where they need to deploy more electronics and equipment on our locations. A lot of people look at 5G at the simplest level and say, “It’s going to be a lot of investment by carriers. The tower companies are going to benefit.” That’s the big picture. What’s happening right now is the investment that’s being made isn’t 5G. It’s an infill of 4G, but everything’s going to be called 5G from now on.
The reality is there are only two handsets that are 5G. The marketing 5G is way out ahead of the physical 5G. As you look at any roll-out in our industry, the first thing that carriers do was upgrade the sites they already have. That will hit the macro towers predominantly where carriers are already present, the hundreds of thousands of sites they already have. They’re going to upgrade and that’s an opportunity for tower companies. As 5G takes off, we’ll see more infill and the spread of that investment beyond macros to small cells and in building, potentially bringing in new frequencies like CBRS. That’s a little down the road. Towers are at the front end of all of this.
We were talking several months ago about the plans that were being made by the carriers. Do you think that any of that has changed with COVID-19? Do you think that this is going to impact 5G going forward the next 12, 24, 36 months?
The first question, yes. In the short run, my personal expectation for carrier spend for 2020, whether you call it 4G or 5G, will be lower now than I expected in 2019. You have to point out coming into 2020. We didn’t know whether Sprint and T-Mobile would merge. It wasn’t until COVID started and then April 1st, it closed, that happened. That bodes well for the future. I do think that 2020 will be a bit of a down year for everybody because of the impacts of COVID, more carrier spending will be muted. The new T-Mobile has to do a lot of things to get started. It’s the last opportunity, in my opinion, for AT&T and Verizon to spend money in other parts of their business instead of in wireless. Once new T-Mobile is rocking and rolling, which I hope is soon, they’ll keep going. They’re never going to stop because they’re all wireless. That will put a lot of pressure potentially on the competitors to be more consistent in their spend on wireless, specifically because they have a lot of choices. They’re big companies.
The other thing is a new T-Mobile is going to have a lot more free cash. They’ll be a lot bigger so they can invest more. What I would say is 2020, my view, is less spending than I would have thought in 2019. In the long run, it hasn’t changed. The wildcard is, what is 5G going to be? What are you and I going to spend money on? What are companies going to spend money on that’s 5G? The sooner we get clarity on that, the faster the 5G deployment will go. We could have a steady 5G spend for a decade or we could have a takeoff. It will take off if there’s visibility to a revenue model that works for the carriers. We don’t know what it is now.
I don’t think anybody knows but I like your thoughts. I like that plan. Let’s talk a little bit more about Vertical Bridge. You have such an amazing company culture. I know that firsthand. I know your leaders and employees. You’re easy to staff for and people want to work at Vertical Bridge. People will call me and say, “Can you get me into Vertical Bridge?” You’ve done a great job there, and your leadership has as well. Tell us about your culture and what makes you different there.
It embodies the work hard, play hard culture. It’s adopted that from GTP. We carried that over from GTP. When we started the company, Bernard Borghei, Mike Belski, Marc Ganzi and I were friends but also colleagues. We said we’re going to start this business. The first money into the company was our own. We said we want to have a culture that is always positive. We don’t want to have a lot of the negativity that can develop in companies. We want to minimize that. We wanted to have a positive culture from day one all the way across. That’s always been our mission.
We did a couple of things. One, I interview every person before they can start. I will not allow us to hire anybody I haven’t interviewed. Now it’s this, but it’s been face-to-face until now. Two, we do a personality profile on everybody we interview. I won’t interview anybody unless I have that profile on my desk and gradually that’s led to everybody using it themselves. To me, it’s very important to know who’s joining the company. What are their strengths and weaknesses personality-wise? What motivates them? What demotivates them and who are they? Give me some insight into who are they.
I can read their resume and I can see what they’ve done, but I need to know who they are, what kind of person they are so I know where they’re going to fit and how they’re going to fit with other people. We’ll pull that out later if there’s ever conflict, which there is. Families have conflict. Why is this conflict occurring? I can look at this personality profile for both people involved. It’s usually good insight and it will tell me why. Frequently it’s because they have the same personality. It happens.
That was important. We try to have fun. We try to incorporate fun in what we’re doing. We recognize that we’re here a lot. We work a lot. If it’s fun, it’s not debilitating. It’s hard to work at a place that’s not fun. Worse to me, it’s physically impossible to work very long at a place you hate. If you force yourself to do that, I believe that shortens your life. We don’t want anybody ever coming into our office hating to be there. If that’s what’s going on, tell us and we’ll figure out how to change it or go. If we can’t fix it, go. That’s important. We’re lucky this business is small. We’re still under 200 employees. We can know everybody in the company.
Vertical Bridge is the most generous company that I know. I know so much about your philanthropic efforts and what you give and your heart and the heart of Vertical Bridge. Tell me a little bit more about the why behind that.
It comes from the team, the people. The Vertical Bridge Charitable Network is completely employee run. People volunteer and there’s a committee that runs it. It’s driven by what’s nominated by our team members. That’s important. It’s philanthropic but it’s good for the business. I make the argument now to all the investors and anybody I can, this is something that every company should do. I feel like it’s a secret weapon for a lot of reasons. Number one, it allows us to support the causes that are important to our customer. You go back many years ago, you have customers or sales guy would come in and go, “They hit me up for this or that.” It’s never budgeted. Now we’re like, “Go platinum.” If it’s important to our customer, we support it, which is meaningful too and more important.
Anything that’s important to somebody who works for us, anybody who gives time or money or both to a cause, we support that. For example, we have an employee who gives his vacation time to go to the Caribbean to help participate in surgeries for people. They are cranial surgeries. Things that people need that affects their life that they can’t get. They go down there for two weeks and he literally is a volunteer for his vacation time. What a person, what a human. We give him a check. Every time he goes, he takes a $5,000 or $10,000 check.
It’s huge and it makes him feel good about where he works. It makes him feel connected to the company and not want to leave. That’s what I want. I want to grow this company. I don’t want to have to replace people who leave. That’s super important. We’ve shifted the emphasis also to doing things together. That’s what’s under pressure right now. In 2019, we got to 100% participation on our hours. Everybody got eight hours to volunteer. We’re missing that right now. We can’t do that. It was bonding for us, both in Florida at headquarters, but around the country we had events.
That’s super important. That was another why. We’re such a lucky business. In the middle of COVID, we haven’t had to furlough anybody. We haven’t had to cut anybody’s pay. We have not reduced one benefit. We haven’t reduced 401(k) or 401(k) match. We haven’t had to do any of that. To me, we’re all lucky that we’re in this industry, however we got here, that we’re with a company that can afford to do that. It’s good that we all recognize that and are reminded of that. VBCN in a lot of ways is our way of reminding each other of that regularly. That’s not bad.
You’ve said family twice, the Vertical Bridge family. I can tell that every single leader, including yourself in Vertical Bridge, you care. You care about people. You care about your customers. You care about your employees. You really do. It comes from the heart. It’s not just a business strategy. It is part of your DNA.
It’s fun. This is my family. It’s important. We celebrate. I’ll give you one example. We do a birth announcement for every tower that we built. The birth announcement and a picture of the tower and some stats about the tower, who we built it for and where it is. When it’s released, we ring cowbells. We also do a similar looking birth announcement for every baby. That’s my favorite birth announcement. Anybody who works for the company and has a baby, we do a little birth announcement like that. It’s a way of us celebrating our life moves on. The main thing that I’m focused on is how do we bring in twenty somethings into Vertical Bridge and teach them our industry, and then let them take the business forward for the next few decades because we want it to be permanent.
That means that all the 50-somethings that run the company, and our whole industry is run by 50-somethings. How do we train and bring along the young, bright people who also are excited about it? We all learn by the seat of our pants. Belski and I joke about this all the time. We have no idea what we were doing in the early days. Some people might argue that we still do. How do we give the younger people that opportunity so we can bring up that next generation in the business? That gets me super excited about the next few years of finding those people. I know you’ll help and bring them in and train them. The hard part is let them implement their ideas. Our industry is very old-school in a lot of ways. We can do it better.
Let’s talk about hiring. Are you going to hire over the next twelve months? What is the outlook look like for you? Are you hiring now? I knew that unemployment is at an all-time high.
We’re hiring. We’ve been hiring pretty steadily through COVID. We’re fairly small. We’re still under 200 employees, but we’ve been probably hiring at least somebody every other week, if not every week through this. During COVID, we’ve raised $1.1 billion in new debt. About half of that was refinancing existing debt. The other half was new. We have a lot of dry powder to invest. We think that the carrier partners are going to need us more and more in the future. We want to hire ahead of the curve. We’re taking COVID as an opportunity to grab some experienced people who for whatever circumstance are available, that wouldn’t normally be available and bring them in. We’re also trying to grab kids. There are some incredible kids out there who graduated college or a year out and they’re on the street. It’s like, “We’re never going to have this opportunity to get that talent and get them to move to Boca.” We will hire to match the demand that we see from our customers. We haven’t let anybody go. We’re continuing to hire and we’re ready to scale up to meet the demand as it hits.
Where can people find out more about Vertical Bridge, about your jobs, the career pages?
There’s a link on our website with an app. The main thing for us is if it’s someone who cares about their job and wants to accomplish something and likes a team approach, I would say played sports or like sports, but likes teamwork or have been in the military, this is a great place to be because that’s our philosophy. That’s what we’re looking for. There are a lot of people who look at it and say, “My job is not a priority in my life. I have other things that are much more important to me. My job is a way to pay the bills.” That’s fine. I respect that, but that person won’t be happy at Vertical Bridge because that’s not how we view it. Family is super important. Family is first always, but you’ve got to care. You’ve got to give a crap and you’ve got to care about our mission together that we’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t, you’re not going to have a good experience with all the other people there because they’re going to be like, “This person isn’t on the team.” It’s not a fit for everybody.
That is true with every company. I wanted to ask you this. You mentioned a little bit about it. What would you say you’re looking for in the way of soft skills? I’m curious because people have to have experience and the skills necessary to do the job, the resume, this, that and the other. What about soft skills? What’s important to you?
It depends on the job, the role. A lot of it depends on the company and the culture. This is something I know you understand very well, which is why you were so good at what you do. The most important thing is you’ve got to care. You have to give a crap because I don’t have a lot of tolerance and none of us do for somebody who’s just putting in the time. Go work somewhere else. The most important soft skill is you’ve got to be able to communicate. You have to be able to verbally communicate and communicate in writing at some pretty high level because we go fast, a lot of emails, a lot of communications. I want to say it doesn’t mean you have to speak English the way I speak English at all. It means you have to be able to communicate what you’re trying to convey. That’s everything. If we don’t communicate and if you’re not good at that, and you’re not good at informing your team, it becomes tough. That’s the most important soft skill.
Communication to me is everything. Alex, this has been tremendous. I appreciate you coming on the show. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Thank you.
Thanks for having me.
About Alex Gellman
Alex Gellman is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner and operator of wireless communications infrastructure in the US. As CEO, he is responsible for developing and leading the firm’s overall strategy and growth. Mr. Gellman is also a co-founder of Digital Bridge Holdings, a leading global investor and owner of mobile and internet infrastructure, which was acquired by Colony Capital, Inc (NYSE: CLNY) in 2019. Prior to co-founding Vertical Bridge, Mr. Gellman was President and COO of Global Tower Partners. Mr. Gellman was instrumental in growing the company into what was the largest privately-held tower company in the United States at the time of its sale to American Tower Corporation in 2013 for over $4.8 billion. Previously, Mr. Gellman served as President and COO of Sonitrol Corporation, a leading provider of verified electronic security in North America, which was sold to Stanley Works (NYSE: SWK) in 2008. Earlier in his career, Mr. Gellman co-founded Apex Site Management, the largest third-party manager of wireless and wireline communications sites in the U.S., which merged with SpectraSite Communications in 2000 to create the largest telecommunications site portfolio in the country. Mr. Gellman also co-founded and was VP of Development of Horizon Cellular Group, a McCaw Cellular-backed company that acquired, developed and operated rural cellular franchises in the eastern United States. Mr. Gellman received an MBA in Finance and Accounting from The Wharton School of Business and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Tufts University. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, serving as Treasurer, and is also on the Boards of Directors of the FreshWave Group and Highline do Brasil.
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