June 1, 2017 —
Seizing opportunities seems to be the secret to James Kramer’s success.
Kramer, president of Legacy Wireless Services in Clackamas, Oregon, started the wireless construction company in 2002. Only two years previously, the Trinity Wireless Services division of Trintel Communications had hired him to manage its West Coast region and make it grow. Trintel’s other business units were its Professional Services and Tower Ownership divisions.
When Kramer concluded that Trinity wasn’t fully committed to wireless construction services, he negotiated an agreement with Trinity’s clients and staff, and purchased its assets. The winding down of Trinity’s business provided a natural transition for starting Legacy Wireless Services.
Three years later, as Qwest Wireless exited the carrier market in 2005, Kramer formed Legacy Wireless Towers to purchase many of Qwest’s sites. Along with maintaining the acquired Qwest sites, Legacy Wireless Services constructed build-to-suit cell sites. Later, a public tower company bought Legacy Wireless Towers. Today, Legacy Wireless Services maintains sites for every major wireless carrier. It also serves other telecommunications, wireless and broadband system operators in the West, with a concentration in the Northwest.
Legacy Wireless Services has become the largest privately held wireless services and tower construction firm in the Northwest. With cyclical fluctuations, the company employs 60 to 100 people, with the head count near the high end of the range these days. Kramer said his three main managers have worked at the company for an average of 14 years.
From 1994 to 1996, Kramer worked for the Bentley Company, an engineering firm that at the time was responsible for utility coordination and electrical design for AT&T Wireless in the Northwest. When a project manager at AT&T Wireless left, inquired about the job and started to work as a project manager at AT&T in 1996.
A competitive cyclist at a national level in both road and track cycling, Kramer launched Faster in 2011. Faster, located in Scottsdale, Arizona, is a performance center for cyclists and triathletes. The center has a wind tunnel used by cyclists and cycling manufacturers. At the Interbike Awards during the Interbike International Bicycle Exposition in September 2014, Faster was voted the best pro road bike shop in America. Kramer sold Faster to the U.S. branch of Edouard Dublied & Company in 2016. Kramer has also filed for patents in the golf industry, and he does life coaching for entrepreneurs and athletes.
Legacy Wireless has purposefully kept its operation centralized in one office, a 20,000-square-foot facility in Clackamas, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. “Ninety percent of the work we do is between Seattle and the Oregon-California border,” Kramer said. “Almost all of the work we do is frequency adds, upgrades, mods, repair and maintenance.”
All too often, Kramer said, he has seen companies become nomadic to chase work around the country or start new field offices. “Inevitably, they struggle to keep their business practices standardized and to maintain the safety and quality of the work performed,” he said. Nevertheless, Legacy Wireless Services has business licenses in Washington, Oregon, California, Montana and Idaho, and the firm has handled projects as far from its headquarters as Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona and the Dakotas.
Legacy Wireless Services crew members are certified through Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-approved fall-protection, competent climbing and tower rescue classes. They receive training in RF safety awareness and first aid/CPR. They also have aerial lift certifications. Vendor-related training includes training in Andrew, CommScope, RFS and Cablewave products, along with formal sweep testing and any client-specific equipment requirements. Legacy was previously selected provide authorized service in the Northwest for connector manufacturer PPC (now JMA Wireless) in the company’s customer alliance program. Legacy employees who drive also undergo state department of transportation physical examinations.
For Legacy Wireless Services, tower construction work has declined every year since the company started and now comprises 15 percent of its business. Kramer estimated that Legacy Wireless Services has built about 300 towers. The company builds a variety of wireless communications sites, including raw land, collocation, rooftop, repeater, broadband, switching and fiber-optic sites, along with tenant improvements. “We do microwave and broadband work for clients on structures in addition to typical wireless, but we do not do high-power transmission lines or wind farm turbines,” Kramer said.
Legacy has worked on several municipal, state and federal emergency communications systems. The company just finished a statewide Oregon emergency radio project for which it provided technical staff, including project managers, construction managers and administrators. But typically, the company subcontracts professional services. In the field, company employees perform civil construction, tower and electrical work, and radio installation.
The company doesn’t rely on working primarily for one wireless carrier. “One thing I witnessed early in my wireless career was competitors putting all their eggs in one basket and working principally for one company,” Kramer said. “We have always held the philosophy that we want to work for all possible customers and never have more than 40 percent of our workload for one customer.”
For Kramer, staffing remains the biggest challenge facing the tower industry. “It is a very challenging environment in which to find competent, responsible, long-term employees,” he said. “We try to offer the most competitive compensation. We have always provided full medical, dental, vision and life insurance benefits for our employees, along with generous vacation time, sick and holiday pay, discretionary 401(k) employer-matching and holiday bonuses.”
Kramer said the problem is finding competent, reliable employees who want to work at height on towers. “Technology really isn’t an issue, because if you find quality people, then it’s just a matter of logistics to pay them to go get trained,” he said. The company provides OSHA safety, climbing and fall-protection training. Sometimes, it sends workers to school for training.
“We’re as competitive as anyone, and we offer all the benefits, but it’s hard to find a person who wants to climb towers,” Kramer said. “The biggest challenge is finding capable, reliable, competent, trustworthy employees in the volume we need. Supply and demand, as well as wages, are factors.”
It’s in Kramer’s nature to embrace change and new technologies, but he said he’s worried about the size of staff needed to handle the workload if 5G wireless communications and other technology enhancements soon come to pass. However, Kramer remains optimistic. “If 5G becomes what everyone says it’s going to be, it’s going to be interesting,” he said. “It appears that 5G is going to have a massive increase in data speed. As a result, people will use more data, which will lead to developers having new phones do more things, which is going to lead to more demand for networks, and hopefully that means 6G. It seems that has been the cycle since 2.5G launched.”
Kramer said he provides consulting service to Wall Street firms, and their most recent concern has been about the skilled construction worker shortage. “They always ask me, ‘Is it not going to get done?’ And I answer, “It will get done because where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and there have been plenty of other times when there’s been doubt. And then the market comes up with the initiative, money, overtime and incentives. That’s the beauty of a free market — it just happens.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.