Cover Story

Jennifer Spaude–Consolidated Communications

Photo by Jonathan Smith

Wonder Woman

Jennifer Spaude talks about balancing family, career and community.

“Never too young to lead and never too old to learn.”

This belief has helped Jennifer Spaude stay grounded in an industry that is explosive in its growth. She started in the telecommunications industry just as it was on the cusp of unfurling…and as it has grown, so has Spaude.

It was in 1998 when Spaude joined a local telephone company, Mankato Citizens Telephone Company (MCTC), as a marketing analyst. She had a front row seat to view the transformation of an industry that would greatly impact the future of people, businesses and communications in general.

“The 1996 Telecommunications Act paved the way for major change in our industry,” Spaude explains. “It opened the doors for everyone to compete. What began as a telephone company was evolving into a diversified and growing communications company. We were rapidly deploying broadband services and building infrastructure in neighboring communities, competing with companies, such as Qwest and cable provid-ers. We were also building our operations and network in Iowa, growing our Des Moines market. When I came on board, we had just made an acquisition in northwest Iowa. It was an exciting time to join the company.”

For the last two decades, Spaude has ridden the waves of the industry with a telecom-munications firm that has changed ownership and names several times. One thing, though, has remained constant: its commitment to the greater Mankato community.

“One of our company values is building a stronger community, which is really important to us. We do this through company giving, through employee volunteerism, and through broadband infrastructure investments. Here in Mankato, we are so fortu-nate to have our CCI Community Fund. In the last five years, we’ve given more than a million dollars from that fund, which was set up from our legacy HickoryTech Founda-tion in the early 60s. We are so proud to be able to give these gifts and support nonprofit organizations right here in the greater Mankato area, where we were founded. Addition-ally, our employees are so generous of their time, whether it’s rallying for a cause or serving on committees, supporting the community is an important part of our culture.”

And that aligns with Spaude’s personal values as well. She is a mom of two active teens, wife to Ryan (another busy professional) and vice president of a company at the forefront of the telecommunications industry on a national level. She is a very active community member, serving on several nonprofit boards and lending her time and talents to programs she is passionate about. More on that later. For now, suffice to say, she learned her compassion and collaborative spirit from her upbringing.

“I grew up on a farm between Arlington and Henderson where my parents taught us at an early age the importance of a strong worth ethic and giving back to the community. I have three brothers and three sisters and we are a close family still today. We see each other often. Family is really important to me.”

Now serving as Vice President of Corporate Communications for Consolidated Communications, we spoke with Spaude about the changes she’s seen in the industry over the years and where she sees it headed in the future.

We’ve established that you have been with this organization for the bulk of your 20+ year career. But how did you land here?
After graduating from Minnesota State Mankato with a degree in Mass Communications, my first job was at Taylor Corporation in corporate marketing. I thoroughly enjoyed what I did there. I was responsible for several direct-mail catalogues and public relations initiatives. I learned a lot while there. But then, in 1998, an opportunity opened up at the then-telephone company, Mankato Citizens Telephone Company (MCTC), which was growing by leaps and bounds.

So, I started in 1998 as a marketing analyst at MCTC. It was really an opportune time to get into the industry. We had just become a CLEC, which is a competitive local exchange company, and it was on the cusp of big growth having a metro fiber ring. After a few years, I moved into a product management role. I spent six years in product management and was responsible for our data, internet, broadband products, as well as our digital TV.

That was an important role for me as having that opportunity to learn the technical side has really helped me in my career as I moved into other roles within the company. After being in product management, I moved into a corporate role in 2006, and headed up investor relations, public relations and eventually marketing.

Again, you were making a move at a very opportune time.
Yes. At that time, we were growing throughout the Midwest. In 2000, we took our holding company name of HickoryTech. Prior to this, we had acquired and assembled a number of companies and brands through our growth. Over the years, we were in a lot of different lines of business, some that we divested of to refine our focus on broadband and business services. There was a time we were MCTC, Mid-COM, Crystal Communications, Heartland Communications, etc. We had all these different brands out there. So we took the leap in 2000 to unify the brand and put all those individual brands under one: HickoryTech, which was also our holding company.

But that was just the beginning of renaming/branding.
We were growing as HickoryTech. As part of that growth, we made a noteworthy acquisition in 2005: Enventis. This acquisition further diversified us as a business and a broadband company, not just a telephone company, and our service area expanded throughout the Midwest. Enventis became a bigger part of our business. We were growing as Enventis in the Twin Cities, northern Minnesota, Iowa, and we acquired another company in Fargo. In conducting brand perception studies, we were confident Enventis was a brand we could grow with. It was reflective of the business and broadband communications company that we were and helped us shake the stigma of being known as just a telephone company.

We made a strategic branding decision in 2013. After much thought, deliberation and study, we decided to change our name and brand to Enventis. In my corporate role at that time, I took on heading up marketing and that rebranding process. Then shortly after our rebranding, in 2014, being a public company, there was a suitor. Enventis had been successful with its growth initiatives and that created an opportunity to merge with a larger company. The offer was presented to our shareholders which they approved, and we merged with Consolidated Communications. That became our new name and brand and that led me into my next chapter. I took on a role of heading up corporate communications.

Today my role is vice president of corporate communications. Within my role, there are a number of different elements including: public relations and media relations, crisis communications, brand identity, employee communications, company giving programs, and I also spend time on investor relations and regulatory affairs. It’s a hybrid role. Being a part of the senior leadership team, I get involved in mergers and acquisitions and, generally all things affecting the company.

It’s probably fun, you get to do a little bit of everything.
Yes, it is fun and it’s certainly been an interesting route to travel. It’s helped to have the background in some of the areas that I have. Some may not realize Consolidated’s footprint is now in 23 states.

Since 2004, Consolidated has made five to six notable acquisitions including: TXU in Texas in 2004, North Pittsburgh in 2007, SureWest with operations in California and Kansas in 2012, Enventis in 2014, and the largest and most recent being FairPoint in 2017 which was transformative for the company. This acquisition added 14 states with significant operations in northern New England. This jump doubled the size of the company and our fiber network. We became a top 10 fiber provider in the United States. While based here, many of us are also focused locally, regionally and nationally and we have more resources to leverage.

The constant changes in the industry must be hard to keep up with!
Absolutely. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’re never too young to lead, and you’re never too old to learn. Being in this industry, the pace of change and transformation is so quick, I’m learning every single day. We have a really diverse customer base, which ranges from rural consumers to Fortune 500 companies, to social media providers who I can’t name, but you know them – to national healthcare providers, as well as national wireless carriers. We provide the network that wireless carriers operate on.

In your role, you have to be well versed in all aspects of the operation. How do you keep up with it all?
We have a great team of experienced people who are absolutely dedicated to expanding broadband services and serving our customers. We’re constantly working to improve, and that’s something we are proud of. Being in such a highly competitive industry, the consumer has a lot of options out there. No one can rest on their laurels and hope for the best. Everyone has to compete for business every day.

The pace is incredibly fast. We’re buying, building, and partnering to meet our customers’ needs. We’ve got to be innovative in our industry to stay competitive. We’re always building, and at times, we’ve bought companies and have a successful track record of integrating them. And, we’ll partner where it makes sense. It really is a combination of things. Scale is important in our industry to offer our customers competitive solutions.

How many employees do you have locally here?
We have 250 employees in Mankato and approximately 315 in Minnesota. We have two offices in Mankato, an office in Edina, Duluth, and a small office in Rochester. We have 3,600 employees across the country.

Wow! Do you have to travel a lot?
I travel when necessary, but we have very good video and communication tools. Every day, I’m on a video conference with people across the country. I have a virtual team spread out across the country who I talk to every day. But, still, travel is a part of it, too.

If you could look into your crystal ball, what do you see? You’ve seen so much change up until now. What do you think is coming next in your industry?
Certainly, the industry is becoming more and more competitive, and the demand for bandwidth is constantly increasing. The “Internet of Things” is driving bandwidth needs across all consumers and businesses, any device, any network. Conservative estimates forecast five times the growth in demand for speeds. U.S. internet traffic will triple in the next five years. While internet traffic is tripling, the number of connected devices – which is really what drives bandwidth – is also increasing. The average household is estimated to have 10 connected devices right now and increasing!

Gosh, I believe it, though.
Yes, the number of connected devices already far exceeds the number of humans. Telecom providers really need to be lean and agile. It is a race to improve profitability. There’s a great deal of competition. What that means is that we have to continue to improve processes and work to improve the customer experience. Like I said, we build, buy, and partner, and we’re doing that to meet our customers’ growing needs.

Here at Consolidated, we definitely have a track record of investing. We also have a really good track record of mergers and acquisitions, and we partner where it makes sense. That’s something I think we’ll continue to see in the industry.
Everybody hears about 5G and fiber networks, and how it will impact the internet and consumers.

90% of 5G traffic is said to be video. 5G is driving bandwidth demands, and that is especially true right here. We have added over 200 fiber miles in southern Minnesota in the last five years. We have about 3,000 miles in Minnesota and 37,000 fiber-route miles across the country with more than 2 million total miles of fiber.

In the last five years, we’ve invested about $39 million in infrastructure and core network upgrades in southern Minnesota. We’ve been working hard on our broadband speed upgrades. We’re about 85% complete with upgrading approximately 4,300 locations. When it gets back to trends, everybody is building, and adding capacity. It’s an exciting time. The complete change of the Telecommunications Act in ‘96 is still having ripple effects. We’ve seen consolidation, we’re seeing new competition enter markets. Again, it’s all really good for the consumer. It’s always challenging for the providers to serve all customers, invest and compete.

I’m sure that also means innovating as far as new products.
Yes, while we’ve been expanding our service area, we’ve also been rolling out new products. For instance, we’ve been upgrading speeds. More recently, we’ve been upgrading to either 80 Mbps or 1 gig in select markets in southern Minnesota. We’ve rolled out many new products like Cloud services, and security solutions. On the consumer front, the big trend in the industry is moving higher broadband speeds and over-the-top content.

What do you mean over-the-top, like outrageous?
Sometimes. (laughter) The industry refers to over-the-top as providing content options over the Internet versus linear cable. It’s on-demand, when you want it and how you want it. We have been partnering with lots of different content providers and have really been working hard to increase our on-demand, streaming offering.

As far as employees go, and as you grow, do you find it a challenge to find employees? Workforce shortage is a big concern in our area.
In the last year, we have added 50 people here in Mankato, which has become one of two major consumer call centers for Consolidated across the country. It can be hard to find people, especially with a low unemployment. Kari Juni, our senior director of customer service, is always working to fill those agent positions. I think the one misconception here is since we are no longer headquartered here, we’re not growing when in fact we are.

How many employees do you manage yourself, would you say?
My direct team is relatively small with six team members across the country.

How do you describe your leadership style?
I would say that I am a collaborative leader, with more of a coaching style. I really enjoy building teams, and I’ve got a lot of high performers on my team. Over the years I’ve been lucky to work with some exceptional leaders who I’ve learned a lot from. My team is empowered, and deals with a lot of different situations. There’s not a piece of the organization that we’re not working with or touching. Crisis communications is something we’ve dealt a lot with in recent years.

We’ve had Hurricane Michael take out significant portions of our Florida panhandle area. And, Hurricane Harvey impacted our Houston-based operations. I have a team that I can trust and guide. I feel like providing clear direction is really important. And we are always striving for constant improvement, for raising the bar. We debrief and talk about “failing forward.” It’s okay to fail sometimes or for things to not go perfectly, as long as we learn from the experience.

There are different types of leadership needed in different types of situations. For instance, as we have been putting companies together, it can be a challenging time for employees and for teams. Sometimes employees and even leaders may not see the path clearly. So, communication is really important and critical to the process.

One thing that strikes me is that although Consolidated is a huge organization, it is still very community minded. I know you contribute a lot here locally.
Yes, the communities we serve are very important to us. The values, I would say, of Consolidated compared to who we were as Enventis and HickoryTech aligned really well. Culture and values are so important when you’re merging companies. You’ve got to have values that align and work toward a common culture.

Let’s talk a little bit more about that, since we’re on the topic. I know you are very active in different organizations. Let’s talk a little bit about your community volunteering.
Currently, I serve on the Greater Mankato Growth board and the executive committee. I also serve on the Minnesota State University Foundation. I have served on a number of other community boards throughout the years, often taking the role of board chair including Junior Achievement and Educare. I have also served on the YWCA and South Central College Foundation boards. Within our industry, I am currently serving on a USTelecom committee.

I find it’s easy to volunteer when you’re passionate about the cause. I think that’s where I’ve really tried to align my time and focus around causes and organizations I’m passionate about.

I know that you probably get asked for everything! So it’s important to set some boundaries.
Yes. I’ve gotten a lot better, I won’t say, “yes” on the spot. I do like to think about it and be really thoughtful. There’s 168 hours in a week. You think about how much you work, and then you’ve got to sleep, and then you have to think about how you want to spend the time that’s left. That’s why I try to be really thoughtful, our time is limited. Everyone is busy.

I gain so much by serving in the community. I’ve had really good experiences, and I’ve learned so much on the boards that I served on. I think looking back in the last 20-plus years being in the community, just learning from others and learning from various leadership styles. You can deal with some big issues, too. It’s been really rewarding to contribute and be a part of these community organizations. That’s been a really important part for me.

For me personally, I always admired all you do and I’ve never quite understood how you get it all done…and do it so well! You have two active kids, a husband who is also a busy professional, plus your work and community involvement. What’s your secret?
I think work-life balance is probably one of the most challenging things for any busy person. I really try to be mindful, like I said, of how I’m spending my time, where I’m spending my time, and what that return is. It’s a challenge for me. It’s a struggle. Some days, you feel like you’ve got it all in check. Other days, sometimes, it can feel a little bit like, are the wheels falling off? I try to be really organized and plan ahead. I’m definitely more of a planner. I’ve gotten better about being more intentional with my time.

That’s probably something you have had to learn over the years, how to find that balance.
Yes, it’s been one of the most challenging things for me. I don’t have the secret or the answers, that’s for sure.

Some days are better than others, right?
Exactly. I think the always-connected-world that we live in is both a blessing and a challenge: we’re always clicking, we’re always checking, we’re always online, and we’re always reachable. So in theory, there’s really not a time I’m not working. But on the plus side, it offers flexibility. It gives you the ability to head out early to catch a game because you know you’ll log on later that night. I would say 10 or 15 years ago, I might not have been able to do that. Having that flexibility is great, but it also means, as I said, you are always on call. Last night for instance, we had a service outage in California. So, my plans for the night changed a bit! (she smiles.)

Support at Home

Spaude admits, her success has only been achievable because of the support network around her: her family. “Family is the most important thing to me,” she says. “I’m really fortunate to have a very supportive husband, Ryan. He is very busy, too, but he has always been my rock and supportive of the kids and I. Our kids are very active. Sports is a big part of our life right now and a passion for them. Spencer is a senior at West and is 18. Alaina is 15 and a sophomore. It’s a balance trying to get it all done, but together we all work it out.”

Spaude Outside of Work

“Outside of work, I love to stay active. I think for me, being active, really fuels me and energizes me. I love to walk, hike, bike, play volleyball. I like to golf, but I have trouble finding the time to play.
“As a family, we are pretty busy. We love to be outdoors and explore local and state trails, whether it’s bike trails or hiking trails. I walk my dog at night, just that time to decompress is really important. I also enjoy traveling when I can get away.”

Travel Tales

“Alaina and I went to Sweden this summer where she played in the Gothia Cup, which was a great experience. This was a whole new adventure for her and for mom,” Spaude laughs. “It was a great trip. This spring, I took a short trip to Amsterdam when the tulips were in full bloom.”

The Essentials

Consolidated Communications
221 East Hickory Street
Mankato, MN 56001
Phone: 507-387-1151

Lisa Cownie

Editor of Connect Business Magazine