Top Shentel exec plans retirement

Earle A. MacKenzie

EDINBURG – When telecommunications entrepreneur Earle A. MacKenzie was hired by Shentel 14 years ago, the Shenandoah County telecommunications company was a small player in a rapidly changing industry.

MacKenzie, executive vice president and chief operating officer, has announced his retirement, pending a replacement. During his tenure, Shentel’s annual revenues have increased five-fold, from $105.9 million to $535.3 million last year.

“It was a good fit and he did a phenomenal job for us,” said President and CEO Christopher E. French, with MacKenzie helping grow Shentel’s personal communication offerings, improving industry and partnership relationships and overseeing acquisitions of small telecommunications companies.

For MacKenzie, 64, it has been a journey from his 1974 graduation from William and Mary and his first job as a Certified Public Accountant with Arthur Anderson in Washington, D.C.

But it didn’t take long for him to realize, “It wasn’t the career for me. I wanted to be on the company side (of the business), not the audit side.”

Earle A. MacKenzie, executive vice president and CEO of Shenandoah Telecommunications Company, sits inside a meeting room at corporate headquarters in Edinburg. MacKenzie has seen the corporation grow into 1,200 employees and being publicly traded on the NASDAQ Stock Market. Rich Cooley/Daily

So he took a job with ConTel for 13 years, helping them expand by buying small telecommunications companies.

“I went from keeping score to playing the game,” he said and when ConTel was acquired by GTE in 1990, he could have remained with GTE but he abruptly quit, noting “It was not the culture I wanted to be in” and when he called and told his wife she said, “Earle, we have two small kids.”

It was a winning gamble.

For the next 13 years, he started five companies, including offering consultant services to Wall Street investment bankers in the early 1990s.

During that time the Federal Communications Commission was awarding geographical territories for telephone service via the drawing of numbered ping-pong balls from a machine once used to select draftees.

Applications were submitted “and someone would win but then they had to build the company and didn’t know what to do,” said MacKenzie.

“We would contract with the winner, go raise capital and build the business until they decided to sell it. The FCC made a lot of millionaires” out of those winners, he laughed.

MacKenzie became immersed in the cellular telephone business and digital television, working with Direct TV’s mission to develop local personal communication services (PCS) by signing up small local electrical co-ops, small telephone companies and utilities.

Then in 1999, he formed Broadslate, a company providing data over copper lines with Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) for a range of high-speed broadband communication services (PCS) to customers via phones, internet, televisions, etc.

Business was good, the future rosy and then 9/11 occurred.

“We went from robust to almost nothing and investors stopped buying small telecommunication companies,” he said.

MacKenzie stuck it out, closing the business without filing for bankruptcy and in 2003, called French, who had approached him earlier, and said he was ready to work for Shentel.

It was a turning point in his career.

“Up to then, I had more wins than loses without a significant setback in my career,” he remembered. “I felt responsible as president of the company when it failed. It was quite a blow to my finances and my psyche.”

But there was an up side.

“Sometimes losing is actually winning because it shows you what you are made of,” he said.

MacKenzie transferred his experience to his employees, like Audrey M. Bright, a sales manager who has worked at Shentel for 27 years.

“He always empowered us,” she said. “If we made a mistake he just wanted us to learn from it and go on. I learned very early on that there is no place for problems or issues – only opportunities that allow us to learn, grow and become better.”

MacKenzie recalls when he graduated from college, high-tech was a fax machine and he thinks, “I’ve gone further from my accounting roots than many of them. I was willing to take the risk.”

At Shentel he realized, ‘We had to understand how to compete so we could provide better service in a small community. Winchester is a big market for us. Do you think an executive at Verizon wakes up in the morning and thinks of Winchester?”

Shentel is the exclusive personal communications affiliate of Sprint in portions of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. MacKenzie helped improve communications and create partnerships with Sprint to expand Shentel’s geographic footprint and services.

MacKenzie spearheaded the Shentel team that acquired Sprint affiliate nTelos last year, which doubled Shentel’s PCS customers to its current total of 960,000 – 10 times more subscribers than when MacKenzie was hired – plus cable and high-speed internet customers and telephone access lines.

He credits Shentel’s nine-member Board of Directors and French for “giving people the latitude to change the company. They were open to change. A lot of small companies aren’t and they are on the verge of failing.”

He noted telephone (not cellular) “is a shrinking business.”

“We’ve all seen tremendous changes in the last five years and in the next five years (the telecommunications industry landscape) won’t be the same as today,” he predicts. “You can never rest, you need to constantly upgrade your skills and be constantly learning.”

“Hopefully, I’ll be missed but I expect (Shentel) to do great,” he said. “The senior management team has been together more than ten years.”

Family and career were his priorities followed by personal time, which he admits he neglected.

“I haven’t had time for hobbies,” he confessed. “My escape is I have 37 beautiful acres right off Route 42 and I can see the Massanutten Mountains from the back of my house and the Allegheny Mounties from the front. I mow nine acres and take care of that part myself. It’s been my release.”

MacKenzie doesn’t plan to leave Shenandoah County, stating, “I love it here.”

He has delighted in telling people: “Our headquarters is in a town that doesn’t even have a traffic light.”

In retirement, MacKenzie said he hopes to do some teaching, visit his children more (his daughter lives on the West Coast), maybe work with some nonprofit organization, “but I won’t do any consulting.”

As for Shentel, MacKenzie won’t be easy to replace, French said, who jokingly informed the Spencer Stuart executive search team, “If you can bring me another Earle, that would be great.”