St. Charles Tower, Chesterfield, Missouri, works case by case with wireless communications carriers for build-to-suit towers and sometimes builds spec towers on its own. The company owns sites in Missouri and Illinois
AGL Magazine, March 2016 — It all started for Chris Puricelli with a job offer from AT&T Wireless in 1995. “I was actually the second hire by the newly formed group at that time,” said Puricelli, who had answered a blind ad posted by AT&T to assist a company with zoning and leasing.
Now managing partner of St. Charles Tower (SCT), Chesterfield, Missouri, Puricelli said his background actually kicked off with a business degree from Lindenwood College in St. Louis. “Always interested in real estate as a young man, I obtained a broker license at age 25 and began working as a commercial real estate appraiser,” Puricelli said. “It was a very good education and included a three-year stint at the Missouri Department of Transportation to learn the ins and outs of easements, utilities and access rights.”
After being hired at AT&T, Puricelli worked three years through AT&T’s St. Louis build plan and then another three years for Bechtel on national AT&T projects, including one in Los Angeles. At Bechtel, the largest construction and civil engineering firm in the United States, he became involved in wireless networking services for the St. Louis major trading area (MTA). When AT&T signed a contract with Bechtel to do their national buildout, Puricelli transferred over to Bechtel, where he became involved in wireless networking services for the St. Louis MTA.
In 2002, Puricelli founded St. Charles Tower with his partner Bob Bell. “At the time, we had six employees, and everyone lived in about a three-mile radius of the office in St. Charles, thus explaining the origin of our name,” he said. Bell and Puricelli left their jobs network building in the St. Louis MTA to found their company in the suburban St. Louis city of Chesterfield — and then looked westward for more tower-site opportunities. SCT now has tower sites in seven states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Nevada, Kansas and Arizona.
These days, SCT works on case-by-case contracts with carriers, the primary ones being AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless. SCT maintains contracts with all of its carriers and has worked with all of them in the past. “We only build spec towers for ourselves,” Puricelli said. “In the past, we have provided RF services as well as construction management and site acquisition. It depends on the level of market activity any given year.”
The company maintains a large portfolio of sites in Missouri and Illinois, all available for collocation. “We are a build-to-suit tower and collocation provider,” Puricelli said. Over the years, SCT has established relationships with many municipalities, working with them on coverage needs for tower sites. The company usually maintains an inventory of about 40 towers with about the same number of billboards, which are held in a different name.
Taking Care of Business
Bob Bell acts as SCT’s business manager while Puricelli runs the office activities and client relationships. “It’s a good way to work together as partners as we do not get into each other’s way,” Puricelli said. “I value Bob Bell as a very important part of our company and meet with him several times a week.”
SCT divides work among its teammates in three categories. “Four of us are real estate agents and do the site acquisition,” Puricelli said. “My partner and Brian Foehl run the construction component; Greg Yocom is our RF engineer to help with design issues. And we all work on sales. So the work is divided depending on which discipline is required.”
The company also owns four office buildings, a subdivision, rental homes and a number of commercial sites. Everyone SCT employs in the real-estate section is licensed as a broker or salesperson. “I believe that real estate is relationship-based and requires years of knowledge in any given MTA,” Puricelli said. Meanwhile, SCT LLC, the deployment services arm of St. Charles Tower, formed in July 2008, provides services that include site acquisition, architecture and engineering, project and construction management as well as build-to-suit. These services are made available in-house by SCT staff, which has more than 75 years combined experience in the wireless communications industry.
SCT tends to specialize in concealed and disguised designs — church steeples and trees, for example — but that specialty comes from the company being able to work for long periods on single projects. “We’re not hampered by timelines to the same degree as a carrier or super vendor, so we can work closer and longer with government entities to place the best design,” Puricelli said. “In fact, in the next quarter, we have a pine tree planned as well as a clock tower in a city park and a stealth boulder on National Park Service land.”
SCT does most of its site acquisition in-house. “Most carriers do not have the ability to hire people with that level of experience, and super vendors change, as do their employees,” Puricelli said. “The end result is that SCT has a clear market niche and an advantage at acquiring and zoning sites. We also have our own RF engineering in-house to assist with tower placement.”
In 2010, SCT was the first company to sign leases on existing and future sites with LightSquared, the mobile satellite voice and data services provider that had plans to use its radio-frequency spectrum to compete as a wireless carrier with AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint. “At that time, LightSquared was poised to implement a national build out with satellite- and ground-based 4G wireless broadband services to compete with other national carriers,” Puricelli said. “There was a spectrum debate that ended LightSquared’s push to deploy a system, so SCT never saw the full potential value of those contracts.”
Puricelli has seen some changes since SCT started — the most dramatic ones probably being that there are only four carriers left in most metro areas and that future sites are planned in smaller design areas. “Small sites seem to be gaining steam for 2016,” he said. “As for capital, we have seen no change. SCT has been proficient at just running a credit line. Every year or two, we sell some towers and pay off the line of credit. Interest rates have been stable for years, and internal rates of return seem to vary little. Also, the value of communication towers shows a constant positive trend, and that is expected to continue through the next fiscal year.”
Business has been a little slow with Sprint and AT&T this year, and SCT’s current staff consists of only two people in Las Vegas, two in Dallas and five in St. Louis. An additional eight people work in SCT’s engineering and surveying department.
“Our business is driven by carrier growth and activity,” Puricelli said. “If there is more work in Texas or Nevada, we will certainly be there to work in those markets as we maintain a constant presence. St. Louis is our home office, so all things considered, we would maintain a larger presence in St. Louis, but one cannot predict the future. We will go where the business is active as long as it lies within the Midwest, Southwest and southern regions of the United States.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.