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.
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."
Windstream currently pays an annual dividend of $1 per share.
"It's very rewarding to see that we were able to go through that together, that from declining by 5 percent, we've gotten to where we want to be," Gardner said. "We go around, we talk to our investment analysts, and they say that we're a company that fights way above our weight class. Even though we're not the biggest telecom in the country, we're very influential."
It is, however, moving up in weight: Since 2006, the company has absorbed nine other businesses, including Valor Telecommunications Enterprises LLC, CT Communications, D&E Communications Inc., Lexcom, NuVox Inc., Iowa Telecommunication Services Inc., Hosted Solutions, Q-Comm Corp. and Paetec Holding Corp.
Of those, last year's $2.3 billion Paetec purchase proved the most notable, as it will propel Windstream into the Fortune 500.
The merger met some opposition from city groups in Rochester, N.Y., but was approved when Gardner agreed to continue the redevelopment of Midtown Tower, a venerable shopping mall in Rochester that was being turned into a headquarters for Paetec.
Gardner said the acquisition moved Windstream from its status as a regional company by adding $4.2 billion in revenue and granting thousands of miles of broadband cable across the country.
"I flew out there and I knew it was the right business to buy," Gardner said. "It said to the world, Windstream is really serious about getting into enterprise space. With that deal, we're a national player ... We're no small potatoes now. We're a Fortune 500 company selling to Fortune 500 companies."
Gardner said his leadership strategy at Windstream was to break down corporate barriers and push his workforce to better itself.
"From a leadership perspective, a big part of my job is to build that culture," he said. "The people I have working around me believe that stuff. These are not people who care about their titles, or if they have 2,000 or 3,000 people working for them. We're really just committed to making a difference every day."
Gardner said his team must have a sense of urgency as the telecom industry changes with each day. Now that Windstream has slowed down in acquisitions, Gardner said, he'll be focusing on execution of a business plan and integrating Paetec, as well as increasing the company's broadband reach.
In January, Windstream broke ground on a $340,000 broadband installation south of Harrison. The company is installing new broadband lines in 13 states using a $181.3 million grant fund from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Gardner said he felt 2011 was the company's greatest year yet.
"It really gave me great pride that this group was one of the few companies to go from one that was declining to one that's growing," he said. "It took a tremendous amount of effort over five years of strategic execution. That's what I feel proudest about."
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