Bernie Stevens Featured

8:00pm EDT August 28, 2006
 Staying on top of the telecommunications industry is not easy, but Bernie Stevens has found a way for PowerNet Global Communications to be heard over the phone company giants. By focusing on the company’s strengths, he has put PNG Communications among Cincinnati’s 100 fastest-growing private companies for three years in a row. The company’s growth to 310 employees has enabled it to offer voice, data and Internet solutions to residential and commercial customers nationwide while staying within its means. Revenue is more than $100 million for the privately held company Stevens founded in 1992, and PNG has opened offices in Jamestown, N.Y., and Chicago, Ill. Smart Business spoke with Stevens about how he helped PNG Communications find its niche.

Pick your battles.
This is a very tumultuous business. Our key is we’re much better as a team than we are as individuals. It’s the same old football analogy: We’ve got offensive players, and we’ve got defensive players.

We’re small, so we have to consider what our advantages are. We have to be quicker and more maneuverable. We have to accumulate our people and resources to do something (collectively) instead of individually.

We’ve been able to sustain the old business, and we’re growing the business where we’ve seen pockets where we can compete, for instance, business-to-business — especially small to medium-sized businesses where the big (telecommunications companies) and cable companies really don’t do an effective job. Those are places we can fit in. We look for niches where we can compete head-to-head, and as we find one of those niches, we exploit it.

It’s difficult, because we have to figure out which ones are sustainable, which ones aren’t. We have to figure out which ones can we do because we have the capacity, and if not, do we want to invest in those resources in the right capacity to handle the business.

Build relationships.
Even early on, we were very focused on taking care of customers and agents, independent agents who were our sales arm. Not that we even set that out as a strategy, we just thought that this is the way to be as a human being, you take care of that person, whether it’s a customer, an agent or an employee.

We set it out not to be a business strategy, but just because it’s a human strategy. As we did that we would grow — sometimes pretty rapidly, sometimes slowly - but every year there would be less and less competitors.

Their strategies were seemingly, ‘Make as much money as you can as fast as you can, grab it and get out.’ We started to have a long-term objective. The longer we’re in the businesses, the stronger our position gets, because there’s less and less (competition).

Don’t spend a fortune on every new gadget.
How do you succeed when you don’t have billions of dollars in the bank to try anything you can and not have to worry about whether you’re really successful or not? Every time we see a new technology that has merit, we try to assign somebody to follow it pretty closely to see if it will be brought to fruition or not.

We can’t invest in every technology — we can’t be bleeding edge, but we want to stay abreast of everything so we can see how we can incorporate it in the company.

We’ve got to figure out what our strengths are, and our strength can’t be technology because we’re never going to win that game.

Lead as a servant.
We use a servant leadership style at PNG. I’m here to serve everybody I’ve appointed to be able to do their jobs, and they, in turn, are to serve the people under them to enable them to do their jobs.

The whole culture is communicated in our human resources department, with all of our statements showing how we view the company and what we value, and then we do training for the executives to make sure they understand that.

We do team-building exercises, as well. We make our executives be very visible with all the people, so the workers can see who they can go to for help. They aren’t isolated in the ivory tower.

From top to bottom it’s the team spirit of, ‘We’re going to accomplish this,’ and it’s much easier to buy in if there’s a top-down approach, (then) there’s a bottom-up desire to succeed.

Hire the best.
It doesn’t do us any good to have a lot of incompetent people who just want to do servant leadership. Once we recognize talent, then we separate it into, ‘Can this person work in team-building projects, or is this person averse to such kind of activity?’ We isolate them to find out if they want to participate.

We like seeing if they are happy people. Are they happy to come to work in general? Specifically, we give them an environment that fosters all that.

Take care of your employees.
Pay close attention to the first people you need, and that’s the employees. You have to make sure you have them on the right path to ensure success, and that you are fostering them, encouraging them and supporting them.

It’s true that people are the best asset you have. If you have really good people that are well-motivated, when times get tough, you’re going to succeed.

If you don’t have that when times get tough, you’re not. Your predictability of success is much greater if you have well-motivated, well-trained, talented people.

We treat people — whether they are customers or employees — the way we’d like to be treated ourselves. It’s the Golden Rule, and it is personified in everything we do. When business is tough, it’s got to be that desire to succeed for something bigger than the cause of a paycheck that keeps people moving in the right direction.

HOW TO REACH: PowerNet Global Communications, (800) 860-9495 or