August 11, 2016 — Grant Phillips is a young man on a mission. The 29-year-old business wunderkind and self-described serial entrepreneur says that he’s cut from the same cloth as his father, the man who ignited his passion for the tower business.
Phillips became CEO of Defiance, Ohio-based TowerKing in 2015, when his father, Jim Phillips, transferred control of the company to him. “My father began to cruise into retirement and to enjoy managing his radio stations for fun,” Phillips said. Phillips has hit the ground running since then, taking a hands-on, proactive approach and building business through word of mouth from his customers. “When you do something really well and you really care about your business, business will find you,” he said.
When asked about his company’s focus on build-to-suit towers, Phillips said: “We build dang good towers and build them fast. We build towers for a variety of customers. Everything depends on the needs of our customers.”
In Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, TowerKing has 60 towers and intends to have 72 by the end of the year. Phillips said that his firm works for wireless carriers, Internet service providers, private network operators and government emergency communications users. TowerKing clients include T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, AT&T Mobility, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Coast Guard and the highway patrol.
TowerKing nearly evenly splits its work between commercial towers and government emergency communications towers. “Many states have upgraded their emergency communications networks, converting radios to all digital,” Phillips said. “In one state, we built 12 towers for an interoperability network. That was a lot of fun. Working with emergency responders is very satisfying. It is nice to know that the work we are doing is saving lives.”
Phillips said the tower business is a wonderful industry to work in. “We are fortunate to work with so many people who are professionals and who are always willing to help,” he said. “Adding up all of the subcontractors brings the total to 23 wonderful people working for us on each one of our projects.”
Phillips and his father own the company and oversee its finances and business direction. The father-and-son partners work closely with the company’s in-house site-acquisition specialists for site selection. Subcontractors handle architectural and engineering work, FAA and FCC compliance, environmental compliance, tower erection and maintenance. TowerKing contracts site-acquisition specialists to assist with larger projects. The company recently teamed with a site acquisition group that Phillips said has helped the company increase its efficiency.
“I am proud to say that my father and I really know the ins and outs of towers,” Phillips said. “It’s this knowledge and experience that ensures that our company is always moving in the right direction.”
Phillips says that nothing beats knocking on a landowner’s door and shaking the owner’s hand. “This builds a lot of trust and confidence in our business,” he said. “We are very transparent with our landowners, and I think this is easy to see when the owner of the company is the person out making first contact.”
The TowerKing Story
The tower company started to emerge from the development of an Ohio radio station in 1987, the company’s website explains. For 22 years, founder Jim Phillips worked for a large financial institution where he specialized in insurance and investments. His financial experience provides TowerKing with the ability to internally generate capital to fund tower projects.
“My father always had a passion for radio,” Phillips said. “When he was 14 years old, he worked for a radio station to help make money, as his mother was sick and his father was deceased. During the night shift, he would step into the disc jockey booth. Jim went on to attend school for electronics and RF engineering, fostering his passion for radio, (especially amateur radio), which followed him for many years.”
In 1988, Jim Phillips built his first FM station and tower. At that time, two-way radio operators and paging companies showed interest in renting space on the tower. The elder Phillips established relationships with early cellular and paging companies and emergency responders. When he started building towers, he built one or two per year. As cell phones became more popular, he began building more towers and began leasing ground to the carriers.
“Ever since I was a young boy, I followed my father around,” Phillips said. “I was always amazed with his success and business smarts. He taught me a lot, especially how to communicate with people and the art of salesmanship. My father and I make an excellent team; we really are best friends. My mom has to be tired of hearing the phone ring. I bet my dad and I call each other at least 10 times a day. We always talk about towers and new ideas that we want to bounce off of each other. There are times when we take lengthy road trips, and we won’t even turn the radio on. We just talk about towers and the industry. I am truly blessed to be able to work every day with my best friend.”
A Serial Entrepreneur
An innate budding entrepreneur, Phillips formed his first limited liability corporation when he was a junior in high school when a large tower company was liquidating tower assets. “With money that I saved from selling computers and audio equipment and from deejaying weddings on the weekends, I purchased three towers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana,” he said. “These sites were overgrown with vegetation, but with a little work, they were ready to take to market.”
As an 18 year old, he attended a meeting of a new state wireless association, where he met people who have helped him along the way. During the following year, he obtained collocation tenants on his towers. “This is when my career in towers took off,” he said.
Phillips’ career accelerated a few years later, just after the tech bubble burst. “TowerKing has changed, and we have learned a lot since its inception,” he said. “We used to build a tower or two per year, and now we are building 10 to 12 towers per year. For a small company such as ours, this is a really nice build size. This allows us to keep a close eye on all of our projects, ensuring that everything is moving along as quickly as possible and that our customers are 100 percent happy.”
Phillips said that making money has always been a hobby of his — that is, he happens to enjoy doing things that make money. “They always say if you do something you like, you will never work a day in your life,” he said. “I don’t think I have ever worked one day.” Phillips owns a large portfolio of towers in eight states, owns and operates an FM radio station, and manages three others. He also brokers high-end vintage audio equipment overseas and actively trades in the stock market. At one point, when he wasn’t so busy, he taught capstone business classes at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, his alma mater.
Phillips received a master’s degree in business administration with a focus on leadership from Defiance College and, although he doesn’t have a formal technical background, Phillips says that he has absorbed plenty of technical information in his 29 years and can talk the talk with RF engineers. “This past year, I built three FM stations from the ground up,” he said.
Phillips also doesn’t have a formal education in real estate, but after years of working in the tower industry doing site acquisition and site development, he says he’s learned much about the business. “I think that by the end of a career in the tower industry, everyone becomes a real estate pro,” he said.
When asked what he thought was the biggest challenge facing the tower business, Phillips said that, for many years, the business saw the number of new towers grow rapidly, which generated many good jobs and fueled industry growth. “Recently, it seems that the development of new macro towers is significantly less than in previous years,” he said. “At one time, so many new towers were being built that everyone got a piece of the pie. Now that the pie is smaller, fewer new towers are spread among several tower companies.”
The biggest challenge now facing TowerKing? Phillips said: “Getting some sleep — just kidding. Everyone at TowerKing is extremely busy, and we get a lot of windshield time. We are truly grateful for being busy, but it also means that we aren’t home much. We put our hearts and souls into every project. When something goes wrong on a project, it bothers me. These towers are my future, and I take my job — my hobby — very seriously.”
Praising the people who work for his company, Phillips said: “At TowerKing, we like to think of ourselves as managers, really good managers. Our experience, professionalism, commitment to our customers, and relationships with fine vendors make us one of the best tower companies in the industry. When we build a tower, it’s our tower. We don’t have a board to report to or investors to please. These towers keep our lights on. My father and I have been truly blessed by being able to work together, doing something we love.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.