Using contractors helps to keep costs low. Education, dedication and determination contribute to overcoming obstacles.
Dorothy Brunetti, CEO of Clear Signal Towers (CST), Richmond, Virginia, isn’t the only woman in America who runs a tower company. As it turns out, at least one or two other women head firms among the top 100 U.S. cell-tower companies.
However, it is possible that Brunetti — who founded her own firm from scratch (itself a rarity) — may be the only woman tower-company CEO to employ another woman (Tootie Hudgins) as her second-in-command chief of operations. Before founding CST, Brunetti prepared for the tower business by learning from another woman, Jackie Horvath, an industry pioneer who’s built and sold hundreds of cell towers over the years. Horvath, perhaps the only other woman in America to found a cell-tower company, started Horvath Communications of South Bend, Indiana, in 1996.
Brunetti has seen the landscape change for women through the years and especially in the past five, but said she would like to see the playing field level a little more in other disciplines. “For years I sat in the Independent Developers Forum at PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, and was the only female CEO in the room,” she said.
In spite of advances for women in the industry over the years, Brunetti said she still believes that there are some obstacles for women running tower companies and in many disciplines throughout the wireless industry.
“For example, in the areas of management, zoning and legal/real estate, I believe great strides have been made, but not so much in the areas of engineering, construction and executive-level positions/small business owners,” she said. “I believe the numbers speak for themselves regarding this issue. I also believe that any obstacle can be overcome with education, dedication and determination.”
Working alongside Brunetti, CST Director of Operations Tootie Hudgins has a varied background with wireless carriers PrimeCo, Ntelos, Nextel and AT&T Mobility, garnering skills ranging from construction to leasing/colocation and zoning to project management. Brunetti and Hudgins have 30 years of combined telecom experience.
“Tootie has only been with me for about two years,” Brunetti said. “In CST’s infancy, I tried to get by with administrative help, and as the business grew, I realized we needed an individual with industry knowledge that complemented my weaknesses and strengths. Tootie is very detail-oriented and is great with leasing, billing and day-to-day project management. I am more of a people person and big-picture type individual dealing with all aspects of marketing and fulfilling the needs of our investors.”
Secrets to Her Success
Before taking the leap into the cell-tower building and management business, Brunetti spent many years in the wireless industry, spanning a wide range of responsibilities mainly focusing on tower development and operations. Her cellular business career began when she started selling cellphones and pagers in Indianapolis in 1997.
“I moved to Virginia in 1998 to help my mother with the family restaurant business after my father passed away unexpectedly,” she said. “We sold the restaurant in 1999, and I wanted to get back into the wireless industry, and I was offered a position with a small company that consulted with counties reviewing cell tower applications, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The secret to Brunetti’s success seems simple enough: She displays a remarkably positive attitude, a hard-work ethic, a confident, easy-going disposition and an aptitude for getting things done. A graduate of Penn State University who, in 2009, earned an MBA from Strayer University, Brunetti said she inherited her entrepreneurial work ethic from her father, Joseph, who founded the family-owned and -operated business, Brunetti’s Italian Restaurant, in West Virginia.
Although Brunetti credits her dad, the chef and business owner, for her entrepreneurial spirit, she said she believes her determination and business acumen actually came from her mom. “My drive came from within, obviously, but watching my mother run the guts of a business and raise four children was something to behold,” she said. “Also, I believe the fact that I have three older brothers gave me the thick skin and competitive edge to work in our industry and be a business owner.”
In 2000, Brunetti went to work for American Tower as a zoning manager. “I received crash courses in zoning, sales and project management,” she said. “I worked on projects for Alltel and Nextel, and then eventually the development of raw land sites. In 2004, I needed a change and decided to try my hand at consulting and working with the carriers. I did leasing and zoning for Verizon’s EVDO project and AT&T’s 3G.”
In 2006, Virginia Capital Partners, a private equity group, called Brunetti about an opportunity: The company was interested in building a small portfolio of towers with someone with Brunetti’s background. “I jumped at the opportunity, and in 2007 I became the CEO of Clear Signal Towers,” Brunetti said. “I have always believed that growing up in the restaurant business provided me the right mindset to build a small company.”
Customers and Cell Sites
Clear Signal Tower hires site-acquisition specialists on a contract basis to find possible sites for new tower development. “I find local people with a few years’ experience are the best and worth their weight in gold,” Brunetti said. “They know the local jurisdictions and what it takes to build a good site in that jurisdiction. A seasoned site-acquisition specialist knows that in Virginia, we avoid water and Civil War placards. Nobody wants to have $50,000 in development cost and eight months of your time invested in a site only to find it is in the middle of wetlands.”
According to CST’s website, “Our staff puts the needs of the customer as the top priority. Our ultimate goal is to understand the unique issues of our clients and deliver a turnkey success story every time.” However, finding customers is perhaps a tad easier than finding cell sites in the cell-tower business, according to Brunetti. That’s because the tower industry is unique in that it has a captive audience.
So far, the top two wireless carriers, AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless, have been CST’s biggest customers. “Each tower company determines how much geography it wants to cover or how big it wants to be,” Brunetti said. “Meanwhile, each carrier has delineated lines or licensed spectrum areas in which they operate. For example, in the Richmond, Virginia, basic trading area, several carriers that hold spectrum licenses. You need to market your sites to those folks.”
According to Brunetti, developing a business model prior to starting the company was the key to her firm’s success. “A business model serves as a road map to your final destination, which is, hopefully, success,” she said. “When I first started out, a couple of folks wanted CST to manage and market their buildings or rooftops for antenna placement. I became really excited at first, and later it just became a hindrance. Managing rooftops was not in our original business model, and it was taking time and energy that should have been placed on building sites that fell within the original CST business model.”
Similarly, although building towers for municipalities falls outside of Brunetti’s business model, her company has provided space for local government to put E-911 equipment on several sites in the CST portfolio. “I believe that developing infrastructure for municipalities is a niche business, and I know a few folks who have capitalized on it and done it well,” she said. “However, it was just never part of CST’s original business model.”
In addition to sticking to her niche, Brunetti has found that keeping her business lean keeps her firm successful. “The most employees I have ever had is two,” she said. “I have always tried to keep overhead low, and using contractors on an as-needed basis helped me consistently keep my operating cost lean.” CST uses maintenance subcontractors for lawn care and for towers that have to be lighted per FAA regulations.
When asked whether she runs any side businesses — such as the other real-estate, motel or self-storage-unit businesses common to tower company owners, Brunetti said: “No. I cannot imagine running more than one company at a time, but I have learned to never say never.”
CST sold its first batch of towers to SBA Communications in October 2015. “The sale process was an amazing experience, and I continue to learn so much every day,” Brunetti said. “At this point, I am not sure what the future holds for CST, but the possibilities are endless, and I am excited to see how the next chapter in my book will read.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas. This article ran in the February, 2016, issue of AGL Magazine.