Creating a Culture to Disrupt and Innovate with Chris Hillabrant of Tillman
Would you choose to join a startup that’s still developing its culture over the well-established company? Christian Hillabrant picked Tillman Infrastructure over other massive opportunities, and it’s paying off big time. In this episode, your host Carrie Charles sits down with the Chief Operating Officer of Tillman as they talk about all things culture development, having a customer-first mentality, and what it takes to nurture talent for the future of the industry.
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Creating a Culture to Disrupt and Innovate with Chris Hillabrant of Tillman
I am thrilled to have with me the COO of Tillman Infrastructure, Chris Hillabrant. Thanks so much for coming to the show.
It is a wonderful chance to be here with you. Thank you so much.
I’m excited you are here. I believe I heard you speak at Metro Connect. I said, “I have got to get this man on my show and hear more about Tillman.” Chris, tell us about the path that brought you here in your career.
My journey here in telecom has been several years in the industry. It started back in 1993. I entered a venture capital startup funded by Columbia Capital in Northern Virginia. After a few years of working on Capitol Hill, working in politics, and working on a couple of presidential campaigns, it was my full first time in telecom. It was an incredibly exciting time in the industry. There was explosive growth. There were new entrants. There was a lot of spectrum being put to use for the first time, the Wild Wild West or golden era of telecom, as I like to think of it.
I came in right here on the ground floor in a role where I was negotiating spectrum deals on behalf of our customers with utilities and microwave incumbents. From there, that led shortly to an opportunity to work at a Verizon predecessor PrimeCo. I spent a couple of years working in program management and retail sales. I had moved my family down to South Florida. It was an exciting time in the industry.
PrimeCo was part of a joint venture of a bunch of different US-based telecoms and they were building out coverage. I was right there at the beginning stages of building out those networks and launching them. It was an exciting time. After several years, I got a call from a recruiter that there was this new startup company, one that I had worked briefly in my earlier career. This company is called Western Wireless, which was based out of Seattle. It was led by a legendary figure in the industry who was their CEO. They were a scrappy startup and they were interested in finding people that understood how to do market buildouts.
I got recruited to go run the buildout in Austin, San Antonio, a pretty small market with a little over 200 cell sites at the time. Went down there, inherited a small team, and built that market out. I have launched it ahead of time and under budget. That led to a series of progressive promotions over several years of a career at T-Mobile.
I was in Texas. I oversaw Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Louisiana, and Virginia. I got selected by current Chief Network Officer Neville Ray to come work for him in the New York Metro area. I rebuilt, integrated the OmniPoint acquisition, built that network up, and eventually got promoted to run both the West and later the East Coast. It was a great time and a great run. It was a fantastic company. I certainly learned a lot, particularly on how to put together small companies and form one large one.
After several years, I had an amazing opportunity to go join one of our vendors, Ericsson, a Swedish telecommunications company that has both hardware and services. I had a series of progressively larger roles over several years. First, I ran operations across North America and later had the opportunity to do the same in Western-Central Europe. I worked later at Samsung, where I was in charge of device sales in Verizon and AT&T, a huge $5 billion P&L account.
Finally, another recruiter called me and told me about this great little company, this startup that was taking on the big players in the industry. To me, it sounded like the old voice stream T-Mobile type of scenario, David versus Goliath. Here I am now, leading operations at Tillman Infrastructure. I have worked across industries and a lot of different functions. I would say this, “There has never been a better time to be at telecom and certainly never a better time to be in telecom infrastructure, which is where we are focused now.
Tell me more about Tillman.
There’s never been a better time to be at telecom and telecom infrastructure than today.
We are a startup but not a startup. We have been around now for five years in 2022. We are in the business of building, financing, and owning telecommunication towers for the industry. Most folks on your show understand what we do. These towers provide the vertical real estate for the antennas that allow the cellular dealer networks and the wireless internet service providers to offer service to their customers. It is a B2B play.
When I got here several years ago, we were about 300 towers. We are now over 1,600 towers. Almost all of those have been organically grown. We are not horribly active in M&A based on some of the sky-high evaluations in the industry now. We have got a huge pipeline of over 2,500 additional committed sites.
To put that into perspective, we grew 40% a year in 2021. We will double that again over the next few years and likely double again in two years. It is an explosive growth story and a great place to be. Our customers are the AT&Ts, Verizons, T-Mobile’s, Dishes, and the WISPs that are out there. It has been amazing to watch this business grow and establish itself as one of the preeminent fastest growing tower coasts in the US.
Explain the business structure of Tillman. I know you have four portfolio companies.
There is Tillman Global Holdings and that is the parent company. It is led by a visionary leader in the industry, Sanjiv Ahuja. To somebody who may know him, he was a former CEO on Telcordia and also at Orange over in Europe. He has been active across the world in building successful companies. Tillman Infrastructure was founded several years ago. We are focused on macro tower builds. We design, build, finance, and own that asset Tillman Infrastructure.
We have a sister company, Tillman Networks. That is now a couple of years old. That is a full turnkey services company. If we build the tower, these are the guys who go on behalf of the cell companies. They install the equipment that is going on the tower and the ground-based equipment. They provide all the coordination with the transport providers and deliver a turnkey on-air site to our customers. They have been successful. It is one of the fastest and most rapidly growing service providers in the industry and a great success story.
The third part of the organization is Tillman Digital Cities. It is several years old. They are focused on building systems. You think of large venues. You think of where I live locally, like a Yankee Stadium or the airport in JFK or Newark. They design, build, and own those types of assets that provide wireless service indoors.
Finally, a new entry, which will be launching here soon is, Tillman Fiber. They are focused on building out fiber for the home and wholesaling for the industry. Fiber has been the tower infrastructure, an explosive growth part of the industry up to this point. Those are the pieces of Tillman and all led ultimately by Sanjiv. I happen to be in the largest and most established of those four companies now.
What do you think is fueling this explosive growth?
I would be lying if I did not say that there is a lot of growth across the industry as a whole. You look at some of the public companies that are out there and they have had record business results based on the transformation of networks with 5G. That has been exciting to see the industry as a whole is growing but within an explosive growth industry, we have been the star of the industry. We have grown faster and more prolific in terms of building.
There is a good reason why. We have a unique business model. Traditionally, the big three-tower cos rent out space to a carrier. They are specific in the equipment that goes on the tower. They tend to charge anytime something is added or taken off the tower. There is a new amendment that generates a whole bunch of additional fees and ultimately, the rents go up.
We provide full condo rights across. Somebody gets a certain capacity on a site and a condo where you move in. You do not get charged every time you change your furniture. You are able to do whatever you want to decorate that space. Our customers are able to deploy whatever equipment they want. That has been something where it was starting to take hold in the industry as a whole but we were the sphere in driving that as part of our model.
The second was around pricing. We had this fair and transparent pricing model where we opened our books. We shared with our customers what it cost to build one of our towers. We charge them a fixed yield based on the build cost. We are aligned to try to keep those costs as low as possible. We have low escalators.
The third thing is we typically have brand new towers. There is a lot of capacity. Many of the legacy towers were built long ago. They were built for 1 or 2 carriers at the most. Now they have 3 or 4. They are constantly having to be upgraded and charging a high cost for those upgrades. We found the right balance of value to offer customers where we are not always the lowest cost but generally, we are the highest value in the industry. That is what our customers tell us.
A couple of other things are our ability to scale. We have an in-house development team. We do not look like your traditional tower team. We have a full team of people, much like I did when I was on the operator side. They are designing, building, and operating these towers. Then our speed to market, we typically can clock in many of the sites we build in less than ten months.
If you come to our sites, you can put in an application and install and beyond air, depending on your backhaul solution, within 30 days. It is that combination of all those that make us a compelling choice for our customers when they look at where do they want to put their investment and where do they want to grow their network? Tillman is that choice.
It sounds like there is so much that you mentioned that makes you different and makes you stand out in the marketplace from other tower companies. Is there anything else that you did not mention?
One of the things that we like to emphasize is that many of the leadership within our company, we have a high percentage of folks that have worked at the operators. They understand some of the challenges that the customers face in doing their jobs and maximizing the efficiency of their capital and their OPEX.
We like to think of ourselves as a strategic partner to the operators where we will go in and we will look at not where they are now but where they want to go in time. We can plan our business around helping to align with what that vision is and whether it is a specific financing vehicle that they need, the type of flexibility that they need on a site, or the timing that they need to be able to move off their existing carrier. We do look to strategic partners. That is shown by we are in the C-Suites versus sitting and knocking on the doors of the purchasing agents at these companies. That is one.
Two is we had a willingness to go in and where there was an existing tower provider that had outrageous pricing. If we were able to overbuild, we showed that we were willing to overbuild and offer that value to customers. There was this piece of value where we could help folks to lower their OPEX costs, which was important to operators.
The final thing is we have pretty much come out and said, “We are here to build and own these assets.” There are many other providers and they are good providers but oftentimes they build a portfolio and they flip it to the larger, big three, thereby giving even more leverage to those guys. We have told our customers, “We are in this game for the long haul.” As a result, they do not need to worry about us going off and selling off our portfolio. We give them leverage in those M&A negotiations they have with our competitors and customers appreciate that.
Company culture has always been important to candidates and employees alike but it has become even more important now because of the Great Resignation, this drive to keep people engaged and to keep people employed with us. Tell me about the Tillman culture. What makes it unique, different, and stands out in the marketplace?
Find the right balance of value to offer customers where you’re not always the lowest cost but the highest value in the industry.
I mentioned that we had this high percentage of our leadership that has been on the operator side. There’s a commitment to the customer. I know it is cliché and every company says it, but I will say that we are focused on delivering something of value to our customers. Inevitably, this is not the meatus industry. There are things that will happen and zoning that is delayed or whatever the case may be.
There are a lot of externalities that exist. It is that ability to focus on what the customer needs and to drive to deliver against their expectations. That is something that permeates the company culture. People, process, and tools are something that is written on my and the owner’s whiteboard but at the end of the day, we build and own assets and that is important. It is the people that we have that enable that.
I have seen this across my career at every stop. It is when you have great people. It starts there. You are able to go and do impossible things. I can’t tell you many times in my career somebody groused at the high goals that we had set as a team but after we were successful, he came back and said, “I did not even know that I could do this and I’m glad you challenged me.”
We have that exciting and challenging culture because expectations are high. You do not deliver value by sitting and resting on your laurels. Although we are well funded, we have raised an excess of $1 billion dollars in that several years. We still have that startup mentality. There is a sense of every day is a struggle for survival. You do not take anything for granted and we embrace innovation. There is no such thing as a bad idea. We are willing to try things differently. Even if we get it wrong, we will learn from that, bring it back, and help improve our processes long term.
We hire for fit and values. When we interview, myself, the CEO, we interview nearly every employee because we are a small company anyway. We try to make sure that we touch welcome that person as a potential candidate and make sure that they will be a fit for the type of culture that I described. To me, that is part of what makes us unique. We are not always loved in the industry by our competitors but we are at least appreciated for what we have brought into the space. Certainly, our customers are thrilled at what we have been able to deliver on a consistent basis.
I know Broadstaff is a staffing partner of Tillman and it has been quite easy to staff for you, even in a tough market. Everything that you said is spot on from my point of view. Speaking of that, candidates have many options these days, and many times, we will have a candidate that has an offer and they have another offer. I’m curious. You joined Tillman several years ago. Why did you choose Tillman over many other opportunities? I have listened to your journey, where you have come from, all the experiences you have, and all the opportunities that you probably had in your hands.
There are a couple of reasons. At the time that I went to Tillman, I was leaving another company. I realized at this point in my career how important values, fit, and culture are. I was not happy at the last job despite having a large role there, being well-compensated, and having a good job. At that time, I was not actively looking but I had folks ping me on a regular basis as they do from time to time.
Ironically, I was looking hard at Tillman and the process took a while. I probably had 7 to 8 interviews with the founder, had dinner together, got to know each other, and made sure that there was a good fit. There was a much larger competitor to Tillman that I was simultaneously interviewing for. It is a great company. They are successful. They generate a lot of shareholder value and it was that choice between, “Do I want to go to the scrappy startup David that has a lot of potential upside, and an ability for me to have a role in helping to shape the talent there and build the company? Or go to an established company where I was going to have to flex in and learn how to embrace their culture?”
To me, it was that combination of that scrappy startup, their passion for the customer, for growth, and that culture that drew me to Tellman. I have not looked back. I have enjoyed being part of here and rebuilding some of the leadership team and leading us to a successful place. I’m happy I made that decision and it made all the difference. Any candidate looking at a Tillman would see that come through the interview process or if they talked to others that have worked here. We went through our growing pains early on and now we are a high-performing team. We have enjoyed a lot of success. That is a place that you want to be if you are a candidate.
Chris, you have talked a lot about the growth and the development of employees and leaders at Tillman. I know this is important because many times, when candidates come to us at Broadstaff, they say, “I do not see growth and a future for myself here.” I know that is important for you and you have an interesting internal promotion rate. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I have been in many years working at telecom. You look back at things that you are most proud about in accomplishing your career. The easy thing would be to say, “I successfully launched this market and built this company.” Whatever that achievement is. It is more about achieving a company’s success. As an executive, when I have to say, “What am I most proud of?”
I do not take full credit here but I would tell you, I know that I played a role in helping to identify, develop, nurture, and realize that talent base within the companies that I worked in. That has led to several C-Suite folks in various companies, a bunch of EVPs, SVPs, VPs, and directors. It is 100 plus people that I can look back and personally say, “I played a role in helping to grow their career.”
It is important to me personally, as a leader, that I’m focused on nurturing and developing that talent, because there will come a time when all of us will shuffle off and retire. When that time comes, you need to leave behind you a strong bench of people that are capable of stepping into those roles and not missing a beat in their job.
Start by saying, “That is how important it is to me personally.” Your reference there in terms of a promotion, one of the things I did when I came to Tillman was I said, “We brought a lot of people from the outside in and growing companies need that. There is no doubt.” I wanted to set an internal promotion rate where we could measure our ultimate ability to identify and grow talent with the organization and not leave anybody behind, particularly those high-potential employees that we knew had a great capability.
We set the goal at 80%. Quite frankly, if you look at most of the leadership positions, myself, as an exception is, we have promoted from within up, including our CEO. It is tough to do because having the talent that is capable and has the potential is one thing. Having that potential leader or future leader ready for the job that you do not impact the business, and that you can take some level of measured, calculated risk, is always tough.
Despite the fact that I have rebuilt the leadership team, both the sales team and the operations team, I had to realize some roles and set aggressive roles to measure our process. We have been able to grow 82% when I looked at this last. We identify those high-power leaders with the potential. We promote them from within.
If we have made a mistake and sometimes we have made a mistake, we move somebody too quickly. We have tried to move that person back into a role where they can be successful because we want people to be willing to take that risk with us and say, “I’m ambitious. I want to do that. I’m willing to take on more responsibility.” That has been effective for us.
Every employee within my organization has some full form of IDP or individual development plan that aligns with their role, what their future goals are, and any gaps or growth areas that there are opportunities for them that they need to grow into. It is not perfect. We are a busy company. Everybody is busy.
It is sometimes always the last thing that people think about is that personal development piece. I’m super passionate about that because I think if you are able to do this and pull it off, you get internal employee loyalty. People see that the opportunity’s there, that the grass is not always greener. I would say over time, most of the folks that have left ultimately left because either they do not fit the culture or they want something else out of their life at that point in time. Our highest performers, we have been able to keep. Knock on wood, long may that continue. That is one of our success stories.
Over 80%, that internal promotion rate, that is incredible. Over the last several years, many people have been rethinking what is important to them in their life, in a career, and this notion of development and looking toward the future. You are giving someone a future. You are committed to development. It is huge for candidates these days, as well as for our employees because it is different than it used to be, Chris.
You being committed to Tillman, like you said, “Taking a risk and it takes something to develop these new leaders.” This isn’t like plug-and-play. “We are going to promote you. We put you here and you know what to do.” It is a massive commitment that you are making to these people, to their career path, and their future. I congratulate you on that. That is the right way to go these days for sure. Let’s switch gears a little bit and tell me what trends you are seeing in the tower space.
Being the tip of the spear, I feel like we at Tillman pioneered a lot of this and now I’m starting to see those same trends pick up when I speak to our customers in terms of the types of deals that they are driving with competitors. There has been this move towards fair and flexible pricing for a long time. The tower cost across the industry was not liked. They were a necessary evil to realize capital to reinvest in the operator’s businesses but people were always hesitant to sell their portfolios because they knew they were giving up leverage. Fair and flexible pricing is something that we have seen start to take root, which is important. It is good for the industry.
Being able to go and do impossible things starts with having great people.
The second is this sense of high rent relos. There are a couple of players in the industry who are adamant. They are not going to provide any flexibility in their pricing. They have high escalators and tough terms and conditions for the carriers. We call it high rent relo but this willingness to go, it overbuilds select towers in certain markets. It is starting to grow out. We saw it and it started being active.
One of our large customers but now is active across several of our customers. We serve as that lead player to help them to achieve their financial aim. The third one is rural wireless is alive and well. There was much focus on building and launching 5G in the major Metro areas. As you look across each of the carriers, whether it is FirstNet with AT&T, small town rural with T-Mobile, or Verizon, has always had that focus. In these secondary and tertiary markets, which have not always been the most attractive financially, there is a battle going on for market share amongst the carriers and everybody is active.
It aligns with our portfolio. We are primarily a suburban exurban and rural power operator. Therefore, we are seeing a lot of business in that area. I would say this is that trend that has been here for a long time. There has been a lot of small cell activity and there are certainly use cases for the small cell that makes perfect sense for the operators.
I would tell you, macrocell sites. We keep building them. Everybody has been busy. I’m always amazed. The building is there. It is growing rapidly. Small cell is a player there but these macro sites, this is where the action is. We are fortunate to be, at this point, our company history in the crossroads. We are right where we need to be in a space that is explosively growing, providing a good value for our customers, driving and creating shareholder value for our shareholders. Sometimes I got to pinch myself to say, “How did we have the vision to pick this part of the industry and perform well.” It is a blessing, honestly.
Looking years ahead, what is the vision of Tillman?
Growth for the sake of growth is not our sole ambition. Although that probably comes across, we want to be the preferred choice of our customers as an infrastructure partner. We talked about it is not Tillman Infrastructure but now we have a networks business that can provide services and build a fiber piece that can provide those services.
We want to become not just any choice but the preferred choice. We are going to do that by delivering against customer expectations on a consistent basis and providing a superior value in the marketplace. We won’t always be the cheapest. We attempt to be competitive but it is about being this preferred choice in customer service, which we think can differentiate us from the other guys. They are well run companies. They do a good job but there is conflict often. We want to get in there and provide that value.
The second thing is not just becoming the preferred choice, then it is about market share. It is like, “How do we eventually grow?” Taking the big three aside. If you look at the private tower cos, it is like, “How do we become the number 1 or 2 growth partner for each of those? How do we gain the market share as we are growing specifically, and ultimately become a tower company that has 5,000 plus towers over the next several years? Who knows where we go from there?” At that point, we could grow even bigger. We have got experience working internationally before. There is a bunch of other things.
The final piece is we want to be the preferred employer. We want employees to want to come to Tillman. For the first several years of existence, we have flown under the radar. We did not do interviews like this. We tried to keep a low profile as we were establishing ourselves and going through the growing pains of establishing ourselves in the sector.
Now that we are at this point, we want people to know who Tillman is. We want Tillman to become the employer of choice, not for folks to come and to get their experience but honestly, to spend their career here. Ultimately, they outgrow Tillman Infrastructure. They go on to one of the other Tillman companies and find a way to grow over time. I’m convinced that will happen. We already had a couple of executives go from our company on TI over to TN. We are passionate about moving people around the businesses. It is that preferred destination for employees and probably most apropos to this talk of where we hope to be over time.
Chris, you said something earlier, which I want to get this right? Maybe we can quote it in the show. It is, “When you have great people, you can do the impossible.” What was it? I loved it.
It is about this concept of when you have great people and you set audacious goals to achieve, oftentimes employees would say, “I do not think this is possible. This is too high. It can’t be done.” It is the realization that after it has been accomplished and it is a journey to get there. It is never straight and never easy.
Once that journey is complete, the employees look back and this isn’t once or twice. This has been many times. People said, “I did not even know I could do that. I did not have the confidence and willingness to even roll the dice to go for it.” The beauty is sometimes you may fall a little bit short but you have accomplished much more than you would have if you had played it safe. It is that smart, calculated risk-taking, which is emblematic of what makes Tillman a great player in this space and a great place to work.
Chris, that is the mark of great leadership. I want to thank you so much for coming to the show. Can you please tell us where we can go to find out more about Tillman? I’m sure you are hiring. Where can we go to find out more about Tillman jobs as well?
If you go to www.TillmanInfrastructure.com, you can learn more about our company. We have all of our job openings posted there. You can also go to LinkedIn or Indeed, where we have many of these posted. We have reviews on Glassdoor. I’m happy to say that they are fairly positive. It is a company that is worth learning more about because it is a great place to work. Ultimately, you will find leadership embraces the challenges and helps to grow and develop people. That is all you can ask for in a career. It is that you have that opportunity to show what you have and you accomplish great things together as part of a team. That is a great place to work.
Chris, thank you so much for coming to the show. This has been fantastic. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Carrie. I appreciate it.
About Chris Hillabrant
Christian Hillabrant is the Chief Operating Officer of Tillman. Mr. Hillabrant has worked in senior executive roles across major global wireless operators, equipment manufacturers and services companies. His expertise spans operations, engineering, sales, marketing, logistics, and finance.
Mr. Hillabrant joined Tillman from Samsung Electronics where he served as Vice President and General Manager for Samsung’s two largest global accounts: AT&T and Verizon Wireless, generating $5B+ in annual revenues. He led a major improvement program restoring growth and profitability after 3 consecutive years of falling sales.
From 2012- 2017, Mr. Hillabrant worked at Ericsson where he was Chief Operations Officer for Western and Central Europe, Chief Operations Officer for North America, and a Board member of Ericsson Deutschland. Mr. Hillabrant also served as Vice President, General Manager of the Sprint Customer Unit where he oversaw the turnaround of the troubled Network Vision program.
Mr. Hillabrant has held numerous executive roles at T-Mobile and PrimeCo (a Verizon predecessor) in Network Engineering, Operations, Sales and Marketing. Hillabrant graduated from Skidmore College and has a MBA from NYU Stern School of Business.
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