CEO Profile: Jeffery Gardner of Windstream Corp.

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 11:06 am  

The ascension of Little Rock's Windstream Corp. to its current 110,000-mile fiber cable empire started with Jeff Gardner.

Gardner grew up in Chicago and studied finance and accounting at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. He almost immediately found himself in the telecom industry, and in the mid-1980s wireless was new. He worked for Centel Corp., a Chicago company later bought by Sprint.

"I was very fortunate," Gardner said. "I started in that business as a young finance guy. I was running a finance team; I was way over my head and I didn't know what I was doing, but I grew that business quite successfully."

Gardner later became mid-Atlantic president for Sprint's wireless business, where he had eight general managers reporting to him. At the same time, he also received his MBA from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

In 1998, Gardner came to Little Rock's Alltel Corp., where he became CFO.

"Alltel was a very well-run company," he said. "We were very operationally oriented."

When Alltel spun off its land line business in July 2006, Gardner was asked to be CEO of the company that was internally called Spinco and that became Windstream. He has remained in that position since.

In 2011, FierceTelecom called Gardner one of wireline's most powerful people.

(Click here for a sidebar on Gardner's compensation.)

Windstream didn't start out with that power, though. Gardner said the company's revenue started out declining by 5 percent each year, and investors predicted Windstream would pay its dividend for a while, then fizzle out.

What happened instead was innovation. Rather than relying only on land lines, Gardner brought Windstream into the realms of high-speed Internet services for businesses, rural broadband and managed data centers. Most recently, Windstream began a service called Merge that streams online videos through TV sets.

"Lots of companies pay dividends because they're not growing," Gardner said. "Our investors see not only an opportunity for growth, but the highest dividend in the S&P 500."



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