Brett Lindsey helps Everstream find its way forward in the wake of COVID-19

Brett Lindsey recently took on a second job in addition to his role as president and CEO at Everstream.

“I’ve had to turn into a second-grade teacher in addition to being a CEO, and frankly, I don’t think I’m very good at it,” Lindsey says. “But I didn’t have a choice.”

Lindsey is not alone, of course. In the wake of COVID-19, families around the world have been confronted with unemployment, home schooling and countless other challenges to their daily routines.

“I’ve got team members who have two, three and four kids at home, and they’re trying to figure out how to work from home and take care of their children,” he says. “It’s a time for patience. We’re going to have figure out how to make our way back, and it’s probably going to be a little bit harder and a little bit slower than everyone would like.”

The good news for Everstream is that, thus far, the enterprise-grade network provider has more than kept its head above water. While many companies have been scrambling simply to make it through another day, Everstream is looking to hire.

“Our expansion plans are still on track, and we’re building fiber every day in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri,” Lindsey says. “Wireless providers are some of our largest customers, and obviously they need increased bandwidth to support their customers. We are myopically focused on building more fiber than anyone else in the Midwest, and that gives us a distinct advantage over our competitors.”

The challenge for Lindsey is to develop a strategy that keeps the company growing, while also protecting company stakeholders in a very different world.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to keep the engines moving while we do everything we can to keep people safe,” he says.

Innovation, connectivity key to survival

So many aspects of life are uncertain these days. But the one thing that has become quite clear, Lindsey says, is the critical role connectivity and bandwidth play in making the world go each day.

“If organizations hadn’t already been planning on how to digitally transform their business through e-commerce, online client support and artificial intelligence-driven applications, it will be a top priority for those executives as they figure out what the new normal is for them,” Lindsey says. “Innovation and digital connectivity are really key to survival.”

The future is limitless when it comes to what can be achieved in a digital age, he says. There is a more immediate concern, however, that could create significant headaches for businesses as their employees return to the office.

“They’ve had employees at home maybe not going through the corporate VPN or firewall or all the different things that they’re used to doing when they’re in the office,” he says. “It’s going to be a huge burden on IT leaders as all those folks bring those infected laptops back into the network.”

Business analysts have speculated that COVID-19 will be remembered as the moment when working remotely stopped being a luxury and became a normal way to function in the workplace. Lindsey gets the sentiment, but he isn’t ready to abandon the water cooler just yet.

“Most of the folks that we’re talking to are saying that they’re anxious to get their teams back and it obviously depends on what business you’re in,” he says. “But I think they miss not only the camaraderie being in the office and the amount of creativity and ingenuity that comes from having people in a room with one another, but the productivity levels too.”

Advance planning pays off

As the pandemic tightened its grip on the world, Everstream knew clients in health care, education and government were going to need additional bandwidth.

“If we had a port out at their facility that would allow for them to be upgraded from 100 megabits to one gigabit, or from one gigabit to 10 gigabits, we upgraded all of them,” Lindsey says. “The original idea was, let’s do this for 30 days to see if we can help support them during the pandemic. That’s been extended, and we’re just going to leave it in place until everything gets resolved, however long that takes.”

That type of demand is a key factor in Everstream’s ability to not only remain competitive in this economic crisis, but thrive, at least from a business standpoint. It’s enabled the company to be supportive of clients who aren’t as fortunate and are struggling financially.

“We’re trying to figure out, ‘If some of our customers are impacted financially because of their businesses being shut down, can we help them renew their service but delay billing for a few months in order to alleviate some of the financial pain that they’re under?’” Lindsey says.

Advance planning has played a key role in Everstream’s ability to be there for its clients, Lindsey says. The company preordered equipment and supplies to ensure it was fully stocked for new fiber network construction or customer installs that might otherwise be impacted by supply chain issues.

“As you can imagine, new sales bookings have slowed a bit because so many business leaders and decision-makers are obviously intensely focused on getting their business through this crisis,” Lindsey says. “But we’re finding that as the weeks go on, more and more of the IT leaders are very interested in having discussions post-COVID on what needs to happen with their network.”

As business continues to get done at Everstream, the effort to communicate and then communicate again remains a top priority, Lindsey says.

“We talk about everything that’s happening with the business with both our employees and our customers,” he says. “During this COVID-19 process, we have had an all-employee call every Friday just to create some normalcy. We get people on the phone, talk about what’s happening with the business and allow for employees to send in questions in advance. We’re trying to make certain that any of the fears, uncertainties and doubts are being addressed head on.”

No plans to slow down

Dealmaking has played a key role in Everstream’s success. After receiving 16 bids, Lindsey completed a deal to sell Everstream for more than $330 million in September 2018 to Australia’s AMP Capital.

“Our relationship with AMP has been instrumental in allowing us to grow at warp speed,” Lindsey says. “I feel like our key principles haven’t really changed. If anything, that has been accelerated because of having a partner with available capital.”

In April, Everstream completed its acquisition of Detroit-based Rocket Fiber, adding 41 route miles to its network and access to more than 5,000 businesses. In 2020, Everstream plans to expand into five new markets, hire 100 new employees and reach its goal of 15,000 route miles of fiber deployed across the Midwest.

However, Lindsey is not done making deals.

“The joke in the fiber space is that you need capital if your business isn’t doing very well, and you need a ton of capital if your business is doing really well,” he says. “So we had been looking at increasing our debt facility.”

Lindsey was working on a deal that was set to close around the end of March.

“As you can imagine, there was a lot of pressure on the banks,” he says. “Do we still want to be doing these deals? It always goes back to do what you say you will do. These banks have been with us for five years. We have always hit our budgets, and we have always done what we said we would do with them.”

Everstream had six banks that were in its original deal that are still there and was able to add three additional banks into the mix. The company came in at $342.5 million on a new debt facility that supports its growth plan.

“So there’s really nothing that’s slowing us down,” Lindsey says. “In addition, we’ve had additional equity come in from AMP to support what we’re doing. We really feel like, even with all of the recent events, we have all the dry powder required to push the business hard for the balance of 2020 and into 2021.”

Time to come together

When the pandemic begins to ease, Lindsey says M&A activity can be a tool to revitalize the economy.

“There are great businesses out there that may not have been as fortunate as we were to get access to capital during this time period,” Lindsey says. “They may just be in a capital crunch and not able to get access to it because the banks are pulling back. This could lead to an opportunity to save some businesses that have a great deal to offer the market.”

As he looks specifically at Cleveland, Lindsey is optimistic that the region has what it takes to bounce back from COVID-19.

“What I really hope this does is bring people together and make them want to work toward that common goal in a way that maybe we haven’t seen in the past,” Lindsey says. “It’s not a time for partisan politics or anything else. It’s really just, how do we help each other get through this time period and come out stronger on the other side? That’s going to take work from everyone.”

Takeaways:

  • Develop a plan to reintegrate employees into the workplace.
  • Transparency is a must during difficult times.
  • Never stop thinking about the future.

The Lindsey File

Name: Brett Lindsey

Title: President and CEO

Company: Everstream

Lindsey on culture: We have a couple key mantras in our business that we really hold dear. The first one is do what you say you will do. It’s kind of our internal Golden Rule. We put out conservative estimates and budgets for what we’re going to do each year. Then we work to overachieve them, and people continue to trust us and want to invest in our business.

We also believe that happy people lead to happy customers, meaning that if our people aren’t happy, there’s no way that our customers can be happy. When we have a culture that people want to be a part of, our customers are excited about doing business with us, and that helps us drive the financial side of the business.

Lindsey on transparency: The thing that is going to make people feel uncertainty and doubt is they feel isolated. Whether they are at home with their family or they are home by themselves, you’re not having as much contact with the people that you work with. We just want to make certain that people are getting touched, if you will, and make certain that they feel comfortable about what’s happening with the business.

Lindsey on investors: As long as we are delivering the results that they have expected from us and we are focused on the fact that it’s good business, I don’t want to say that it’s an unlimited amount of capital, but they’re wanting to put money to work. So for us, as long as we’re doing what we say we will do, then I think the money will continue to flow our direction.