MOORHEAD - A conservative growth philosophy married with an eye toward innovation has served 702 Communications well in its 20 years of existence, helping the company to grow from a one-man-band to nearly 40 employees.
But with president and CEO Jim Walter retiring Oct. 31, and Chief Operating Officer Brian Crommett ready to take over the top spot on Nov. 1, a new, more aggressive 702 may be in the cards.
“We can’t be afraid to punch above our weight class. We can’t be afraid to take a chance on something,” Crommett said Tuesday, Oct. 23. “As long as we can do it well, it doesn’t matter if we’re in Fargo, or Minneapolis, or Chicago, or Silicon Valley. We can be an innovator, we have shown we can be an innovator. We’re going to keep innovating.”
The Fargo-Moorhead area is a fiercely competitive communications market.
Crommett counts at least five strong competitors in the area where other telecommunications firms might normally have one. And it’s been that way since Walter was first charged with starting 702 about 20 years ago.
“So that really is something that will always push 702 to find the next thing, or to figure out a way to do something better. We have to differentiate ourselves somehow, when you have that much competition in the market,” Crommett said.
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Even now, huge new opportunities are presenting themselves with the growth in the internet of things, smart homes, and wireless small cell technology to improve internet connections for smart phones.
“Really, the opportunities are boundless. Because as technology evolves, the next opportunities show themselves,” Crommett said.
At the same time, Crommett gives a tip of his hat to Walter, a man he considers his mentor and a key leader in improving broadband access in the region.
Crommett said he’ll aim to uphold the reputation Walter has built for 702.
“I think we’ve demonstrated a conservative, slow and steady approach to the growth of the business,” Crommett said. “We’re going to continue holding on to that. We’ve built a lot of great relationships over the years with the business community. We’ve built a lot of great relationships with residential customers. And we’ve built a lot of great relationships with partners in the industry. And those type of relationships shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Val-Ed Joint Venture, which does business as 702 Communications, is a competitive local exchange carrier.
It was started in 1989 by six independent telephone companies to provide interactive educational video to schools and libraries in their service areas. The partner/owner companies are Barnesville Telephone, East Otter Tail Telephone, Loretel Systems, Inc., Otter Com, Inc., Red River Telephone and Rothsay Telephone.
Walter was the firm’s first hire and only employee for the first couple of weeks. It took a year to get the employee count into the teens, when Crommett was hired, Walter said.
The board of directors dictated a conservative, sequential philosophy of growth.
“Walter, we’re going to do Fargo-Moorhead, we’re going to do it well, and we’re going to do it conservatively. We’re going to do it one step at a time,” Walter said he was told. “And that’s been something I’ve followed for 20 years.”
Still, over the years, the company’s offerings have greatly broadened.
702 now provides residential internet and phone service to more than 15,000 apartment dwellers in the F-M area, and to businesses big and small. At the retail level, it competes with providers like Qwest, CenturyLink, Midco, Cable ONE, and others.
The firm has gone from having about a mile of fiber optic cable to about 400 miles of fiber optic in the ground in Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding area.
“That allows us to supply a lot of bandwidth to lots of different folks, whether they’re small apartments or large enterprise customers like Concordia and State Bank,” Walter said.
702 also wholesales internet bandwidth, long-distance telephone, and fiber optic transport, and provides network engineering, management and monitoring for regional transport and data networking.
The firm does business in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Wahpeton-Breckenridge, and Sioux Falls, S.D.
702 partners with local exchange carriers in the Aurora Fiber Optic Networks, giving it a reach through virtually all of Minnesota, Walter said.
It operates out of two locations: the main office at 702 Main Ave. in Moorhead, and a data center opened this year at 2911 Fiechtner Drive in Fargo.
The firm’s latest score? It recently signed a deal with Hurricane Electric to provide a 100 gigabit POP (point of presence) access to the internet.
Customers close to Fargo - as well as 702’s competitors - can connect to that line, Walter said. That will be a big boost for 702 and the region, Walter and Crommett said.
Identifying the next market need and finding a way to meet it has always been key to 702’s success, Crommett said.
“When I started here, we were just putting in our first dial up modem pool in, so people could have their 56K connections to the internet. Now, where are we? We’re not a phone company anymore, we’re an internet service provider, we’re a technology provider, we’re a service provider, all of that,” Crommett said.
The firm bought up several of its competitors along the way, including GoMoorhead and i29 Wireless.
With Go Moorhead, “we turned that around from something that didn’t work very well to something that worked really well,” Walter said.
702 acquired i29 from Forum Communications in 2013. Now, 702 is preparing to do a $1 million upgrade of that network, Crommett said.
One of 702’s early coups came in 2002 when Walter brought together 18 different players to provide service to a school and library network in northwestern Minnesota.
“We did it in a manner that was positive for the independent telephone companies in the state of Minnesota. It was positive to the school districts within their exchanges, it was a positive to their consortium coordinating services, and it was a positive for us,” Walter said. “Since 2002, that network is still in place, virtually with the same design, upgraded … and everyone’s happy.”
“We brought gigabit to over 140 schools and libraries in northwest Minnesota. So each of those schools has access to gigabit,” Crommett said. “That schools and library network never would have happened without Jim.”
Walter also gave Crommett’s life a new direction.
Nineteen years ago, Crommett had graduated with a music education degree from North Dakota State University. However, the job market was incredibly tight at the time, with but two music teacher openings in eastern North Dakota at the time.
Rather than try and support his family on a substitute teacher’s pay, Crommett decided to do temporary work and wait for the next round of school job openings.
He started with three days working at 702 doing 10-key data entry.
At the end of those three days, Walter approached Crommett and said 702 had hired a new receptionist, but since it was going to be a couple of weeks before that person arrived, he asked Crommett to take on the job.
After that, one job followed the next for Crommett.
“You just get the employees that just plain do the stuff. They have the opportunity to do the stuff, whatever it is, and you can’t let those people go," Walter said.
Crommett, now 45 years old, was just happy to get in on the ground floor with 702.
“You just feel like this all could go somewhere, and I want to be part of building this into what it’s going to become. And so I started studying. I got industry certifications and led me to further jobs here,” Crommett said.
“I’m very glad that I landed where I did. This has been really good for me. It’s been great to be part of this team. I’ve learned a lot from Jim and I’m going to try to build on his successes, and maybe going to push a little harder on a couple of things that I’ve always wanted to push on. That’s what it’s all about,” Crommett said.
For his part, the 60-year-old Walter is ready to retire.
“See that gray hair, I’ve earned every one of them,” he jokes.
Walter plans to move to Denver, hike in the mountains and take photos.
“It’s been a heck of a ride. It’s been a fast and furious and moving experience. I’ve enjoyed it to the fullest,” Walter said.
Walter said his goal has always been to leave the company, its employees, and the industry, better off than when he first arrived on the scene.
“That’s where I get my enjoyment,” Walter said. “Seeing other people have success, moving forward, being better than they were. What better thing can there be out there than that?”