Centerline Solutions CEO Ben Little likes to call his company the easy button for all things wireless.
Recognized as one of Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies, Golden, Colorado-based Centerline designs, builds, modifies and maintains wireless telecommunications network infrastructure. The company specializes in integrated services aimed to alleviate the biggest pain points of major wireless providers, equipment manufacturers, tower owners, government entities and private enterprises. And, through organic growth and acquisitions, it has experienced nearly triple-digit growth over the past three years.
“Clients just need to hit the easy button, and we will take care of everything from there, giving them the peace of mind that everything is being done by a single, integrated team,” Little said. “That’s been a huge factor in our success, especially given the types of problems that typically occur when companies subcontract so many tasks in a way that creates opportunities for confusion, safety problems, inconsistency, poor quality, delays and other headaches.”
Centerline has acquired five wireless companies — including Colorado-based Wireless Limited, Idaho-based K bar M Consulting and Washington-based Cascadia PM — during the past two years, solidifying Centerline’s position as a major U.S. wireless services provider and allowing the company to deliver a broader set of services. The acquisitions have further grown Centerline’s global staff to nearly 500, making it one of the wireless industry’s largest companies.
Little credits in-house staffing and an innovative company culture for much of Centerline’s continuing growth. Centerline relies on its own employees instead of a network of subcontractors, which makes it easier to complete large projects on time and on budget without compromising quality or safety. And the company’s innovative culture encourages strategic thinking and creative problem solving.
“The companies we work with are trying to stay ahead of constantly growing demand, and I am really proud of the strategic role we play in working with them on these issues,” Little said. “In some cases, new infrastructure is the answer. In other cases, it is more about how to get the most out of existing wireless infrastructure, which is often the more interesting project because it taps into the creativity and know-how of our talented staff, which I think is unmatched in the industry.”
But it’s a thriving customer base that’s really driving the increased demand for Centerline’s services. “They are continually asking us to do more and more work across the country, and even to expand our model internationally,” he said. “They love our experienced people and our streamlined, comprehensive process. All of that has driven our organic growth, much more so than our acquisitions.”
Edited for length and style, what follows is an interview with Little.
AGL Magazine: How did Centerline get started? And can you walk us through Centerline’s growth up to and including the company’s recent acquisitions?
Little: Centerline officially formed in 2011, but the company really originated when a professional service company and a construction company partnered on a turnkey wireless tower project with remarkable results. Those two firms were peanut butter and chocolate: great on their own, but magical together. It was obvious that there was tremendous potential in joining the expertise of those two different teams.
Centerline’s customers were so pleased with the quality of work performed that they spread the word, and that sparked many of the relationships we have today. Of course, in an effort to supplement our organic growth, we’ve found that acquiring firms whose philosophies and business practices align with our own is one of the best ways to grow our talent pool and increase our geographic reach.
The most recent of our acquisitions is Florida-based UCI, an established company that brings great talent to Centerline Solutions while also expanding our capabilities in the southeastern United States. Now, in addition to our Colorado headquarters, Centerline has offices in Phoenix; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Olympia, Washington; Rochester, New York; Tampa, Florida; and Honolulu. We work in North America and Mexico, and we’ve completed some projects abroad as well.
AGL Magazine: Have you been with Centerline since the start?
Little: Yes, I’ve been with Centerline Solutions since the beginning. Dan McVaugh, Mike Mackiewicz and I cofounded the company five years ago with a shared vision: The wireless industry needed to evolve to meet the demands and challenges that were emerging with the proliferation of wireless devices. Our idea was a simple one, but simple ideas are often the best. And so we set out to assemble a team of wireless professionals with expertise in each of the disciplines vital to network design and implementation.
When you consider that many wireless services companies have only a handful of employees, our size of nearly 500 employees is unique. And it is also a major strength. Our size allows us to do anything our clients want, anywhere that they want it. We are an agile, capable organization, and it seems as though professionals are drawn to our engaging culture and pursuit of ingenuity. We also place a major focus on safety, which is a moral imperative in our industry. People want to work at Centerline Solutions, and that speaks volumes. It’s a point of pride for our team.
AGL Magazine: What makes Centerline’s services comprehensive?
Little: Centerline handles everything from site selection and acquisition to construction and ongoing network and infrastructure upgrades to ensure that every detail meets the evolving needs of our clients. We give clients the expertise and services they need for the entire wireless life cycle, under one roof, which is unique in the industry.
AGL Magazine: Who is the typical Centerline customer? And with what kind of challenges does the typical customer look to you for help?
Little: Our customers include national and regional wireless carriers, the federal government, local governments and private-sector organizations that maintain their own wireless infrastructure. All of these groups face common challenges: meeting capacity and coverage demands, optimizing their networks, and determining how to design and build next-generation networks.
AGL Magazine: Does your firm have contracts with each of the big carriers? And what are the key things you do for them?
Little: Yes, we have contracts with all of the leading wireless carriers, and I view each of those relationships as a strategic partnership. Their work with us isn’t simply about towers. We help them with their topline business objectives, including reducing churn and increasing customer retention. The work we do at the network level has a direct effect on customer satisfaction and on the carriers’ bottom lines.
AGL Magazine: Does your company build towers for carriers?
Little: Absolutely. Our turnkey service is the reason people love to partner with us. We can design and build it. We can maintain it. And we can modify it as needed. We provide all aspects involved in building and maintaining networks under one roof. We provide end-to-end efficiency and accuracy, which is a unique model in the tower services business. And it’s our volume of in-house expertise and our expansive geographic reach that makes it possible. Our industry has traditionally been comprised of small, local shops with limited services and limited resources. Centerline is changing industry perceptions — both regarding the way wireless projects are handled and regarding the strategic role a multifaceted service partner plays in their success.
AGL Magazine: You mentioned government customers. What you are doing for them?
Little: We work with government entities at every level, and I am especially proud of what Centerline is doing with local and state governments for emergency communications.
An example is the network project we’re doing for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). It’s focused on building a public safety network that facilitates emergency communications at times when first responders and other authorities most need it. Centerline built the first series of FirstNet sites in the country. We did this work for Adams County in our home state of Colorado. Adams County is one of the largest and most populous parts of Colorado, and it has been ahead of the curve in its efforts to achieve the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations, which call for improved communications among public safety organizations during emergencies.
Centerline is helping FirstNet establish a next-generation wireless communications network that covers 1,400 square miles of Adams County and metropolitan Denver. This project is proving to be a model for counties across the United States, and that is a testament to our team and the kind of collaborative approach we take with local government.
AGL Magazine: Centerline doesn’t subcontract any work. Is this a unique arrangement in the industry? What are some of the advantages of performing all work in-house?
Little: Most companies farm out RF design, site acquisition, architecture and engineering, and construction, managing the overall project rather than each of the steps along the way. By electing not to use subcontractors, Centerline can achieve streamlined communication among work groups and yield far greater efficiency and quality in the process. In-house teams give us control over all aspects of every project from start to finish. And this allows us to offer the highest-quality product and a single point of contact for all our clients.
AGL Magazine: What kind of growth do you envision for Centerline in the next few years?
Little: We’ve seen 1,933 percent growth since we started just five years ago, and this is just the beginning. When you stay ahead of the curve — and you don’t compare yourself to the average — there are no limits. We’ve been named among Inc.’s 5,000 Fastest Growing Companies for the past three years, and I credit our outstanding employees for the honor. My goal is to make sure Centerline continues to attract and retain the smartest, most creative, hardest-working, most customer-focused team in the industry. Having a great team translates into happy customers, and the growth is a byproduct of that.
AGL Magazine: What’s the biggest challenge now facing the tower industry? What about the biggest opportunity?
Little: They are one and the same: managing growth and deployments. The country needs more wireless infrastructure to support the insatiable consumer demand for anywhere-anytime connectivity. So, how do we meet this demand in a responsible manner? We need to ensure people are not risking their lives to put this infrastructure in place. Timelines are important, but we should never sacrifice safety or quality for speed.
AGL Magazine: Analysts predict continued growth for wireless, even though we are nearly two decades into the wireless era that began with the initial proliferation of cell phones. Do those predictions align with what you are seeing?
Little: I don’t think those projections are overblown, and for one simple reason: The demand for wireless is not being driven by any single factor. It is being driven by multiple factors, none of which shows signs of slowing in the coming years.
One factor is the rising number of smartphones and wireless devices. You would think by now that we would be reaching a saturation point with smartphones, but the number continues to grow — particularly as those devices are used to facilitate work, education and other functions. Wireless devices are finding their way into more functions every month, and because of that we are far from reaching a saturation point. Further, the data demand for all of these devices grows each year to power high-bandwidth functions such as video streaming and gaming.
Added to that are overarching trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT) — the wireless empowerment of machines and devices (such as washers and dryers) not previously enabled by tech — that will put further demands on wireless infrastructure. This connectivity will turn those machines and devices into smart products, and even the most conservative predictions foresee billions of these devices around the world in the coming years.
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.