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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Staying Connected

When a MetroNet business sign was installed on the Courier & Press newspaper building at 300 E. Walnut St. last year, some River City residents were left scratching their heads. Who was MetroNet? Where did it come from? What service did it provide?

The telecommunications company’s air of mystery is more about humility than intrigue. Grounded in Evansville since 2000, MetroNet provides 100 percent fiber-optic networks for internet, phones, and television services. It has built fiber networks in more than 120 communities in more than a dozen states and quietly became the largest independently owned fiber-to-home company in the nation. As more residential and commercial customers have begun to rely on fiber-provided services — MetroNet can produce symmetrical speeds up to 10 gigabits, with its most popular private options involving broadband speeds of at least 500 Megabytes per second — MetroNet has spread its wings, expanding its networks across the U.S., adding more employees to its ranks, and earning accolades from Glass Door (one of its “Best Places to Work” in 2020) and CenterPoint Energy (Vectren’s “Safe Digging Partner Award” in 2020).

As it turns out, the green business sign now perched on East Walnut Street was just the most visible local symbol of a company that has been quietly rooted in Evansville and growing into a fiber powerhouse for the last 20 years.

Booting Up

MetroNet’s origins were founded in family. John Cinelli, MetroNet’s president and CEO, started his career in the banking industry, first at Bank of Boston in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., and then at Security Pacific National Bank, requiring a relocation to Los Angeles. At the same time, Cinelli’s father, Al, was a corporate attorney in Overland Park, Kansas. Wanting to move away from practicing law, Al chose telecommunications as his next business venture and purchased a small company that became Kentucky Data Link, which provided long-distance telephone service. Identifying a need for more telecommunications options for residents in rural Kentucky, KDL begin offering its services in the Bluegrass State. Cinelli left banking in 1990 and joined his father at KDL.

“We got involved in different aspects of the business,” he says. “We sold long-distance services. We got involved in the calling card business. We got involved in the payphone business. We had 15 people in the company and less than a million dollars in revenue.”

Eventually, KDL expanded into the burgeoning internet market. Considered the “long-haul” arm of the industry, internet fiber was being laid between cities, and KDL hopped on board. Owensboro and Madisonville, Kentucky, were its first two cities connected by fiber, considered a small route because of the 45-mile distance.

Using that initial long-haul fiber as a base, the Cinellis grew KDL’s service region to 26 states and 30,000 miles of underground fiber routes, and with business partners founded parent company Q-Comm Corporation, of which KDL was a subsidiary.

As the internet industry entered the 21st Century, the Cinellis noticed the increasing consumer interest in ditching dial-up and securing internet fiber directly to homes. The idea for MetroNet was born: The Cinellis sold Q-Comm — and with it, KDL — to telecommunications company Windstream in 2010 and channeled their energy in fiber-optic internet to underserved areas of the U.S.

“At first we tried to get the communities to raise bonds to pay for the infrastructure build, because we thought, ‘This is brand new infrastructure. It’d be great for your communities. It’s good for economic development and all those things.’ But they really didn’t have the political desire to do that at that time,” Cinelli says.

After running into local government roadblocks, MetroNet turned to an unlikely partner: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There was a program through the USDA. They said, ‘We have funds. We want to make sure that rural markets have high-speed internet, just like we did with rural electrification (and) just like we did rural telephone services.’ So, we applied, and we were granted the largest (amount) at the time — $106 million — to build 10 (fiber) towns in the state of Indiana,” Cinelli says. “We put in some of our own money also because we had to support it with equity.”

Because of the company’s concentration in the Midwest and Kentucky, Cinelli and MetroNet’s headquarters moved to Evansville in 2000, setting up shop in a small house near the University of Evansville and quickly purchasing Evansville Online from the Courier & Press. Requiring software stored on a floppy disk that then engaged with a modem and a home telephone line, EOL was one of the Tri-State’s first introductions to the World Wide Web and provided crucial infrastructure as MetroNet got off the ground.

Five years later, MetroNet’s first community-wide fiber network was built in Greencastle, a town of about 10,000 people in west-central Indiana.

MetroNet concentrated its initial efforts on smaller Indiana cities, rolling out 100 percent fiber networks in another nine communities including Madison, North Vernon, and Connersville, Indiana.

“After building 10 towns, we learned a lot during that time because it was a brand-new industry,” Cinelli says. “We learned that we had a business plan. Then we took our own capital and we started to expand. We went to Franklin, Indiana, and Lebanon, and then we took on a really big town for us at the time, which was West Lafayette.”

Expanding Its Network

As each of its early fiber networks was implemented, the company evolved its business plan to offer strong customer service, build partnerships with city governments and fiber contractors, and identify new markets. An industry executive once described MetroNet to Cablefax Magazine as the “Goldilocks of Overbuilding,” capable of selecting cities that were just right for fiber competition.

Along the way, the company acquired Light Speed Fiber Communications as it expanded into Michigan. MetroNet operates brick-and-mortar shops within its service locations for customers to receive in-person help and employs a range of telecommunications specialties, from inventory specialists and materials buyers to fiber engineers, permitting specialists, safety trainers, and market analysts. To fund its expansion, MetroNet partnered with New York-based private equity firm Oak Hill Capital to supply investment capital. In 2021, MetroNet launched recapitalization efforts and added a second New York private equity firm, KKR & Co., to its financial partnership.

“MetroNet has set itself apart as the leading independent FTTP provider in the U.S., well known for its high-quality technology, exceptional customer service and local operations,” Waldemar Szlezak, a senior infrastructure investment leader at KKR, said in an April 2021 statement. “We are thrilled to be supporting MetroNet, alongside Oak Hill, on its mission to deliver much-needed broadband access across the U.S.”

“We can grow at a certain rate with our own money,” Cinelli says. “But we would like to have a smaller piece of a larger pie because that smaller piece is going to be bigger than the biggest piece of a smaller pie.”

Since private equity’s initial investment, MetroNet’s core focus has remained consistent — providing high-speed fiber internet in smaller markets with fewer options and offering subscribers top customer service. By channeling its energy into solidly cornering small markets in a vast industry, the company has shaped a reputation across 14 states as a quality communications provider to areas such as Bryan, Texas, and Des Moines, Iowa.

“This tremendous investment by MetroNet will make unprecedented capabilities available to everyone who lives, works and visits our city, giving Bryan the infrastructure and competitive edge needed to attract and grow business and high‐wage jobs,” Bryan, Texas, Mayor Andrew Nelson said in May 2021.

“We’re extremely pleased that a solid Midwestern company such as MetroNet is going to provide 100 percent fiber optic high-speed services to our residents,” Mayor Frank Cownie said in May 2021 of the company’s $70 million investment in Des Moines.

Throughout its widening fiber network extending across the U.S., MetroNet has maintained its base of operations in Evansville and is deepening its roots in the River City. The company employs more than 600 people between a customer service call center, its East Side headquarters off Lynch Road, and its warehouse in the Courier & Press building near Downtown Evansville. Notably, each individual fiber providing service to MetroNet’s customers is tethered to a server in Evansville, meaning each line can be traced from the Tri-State to clients as far away as Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, and Texas.

“When we made some acquisitions of companies in western Kentucky, Evansville became part of our marketing territory, and we looked in that footprint. There are some nice places in Kentucky, but Evansville was the largest and sort of the hub,” Cinelli says. “I’ve lived in Evansville for 21 years. I’ve lived in Evansville longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.”

Connecting Within the Company

As MetroNet has grown — with plans to add another 1,000 employees, more than 250 of them in Evansville — its leadership initiated the crafting of specific goals for each associate, as the company calls them, to share. But for a cultural definition to have staying power, it must take root at the deepest levels.

“Last summer, I said to a group of mid-level managers, ‘We’re getting large, and we’re going to have to be purposeful about teaching people about our culture. What do you think it is? I’m not going to be involved; I want you to write it down,’” Cinelli says. After managers spoke with their associates, “they came up with three promises: We’ll take care of the customer, we’ll take of each other, and we’ll take care of the company.”

Those three promises have become the pillars — SimpliFi, SatisFi, and PersoniFi — of MetroNet’s mission, supporting its goal of providing a quality, crucial service to customers and a positive place for its people to work.

“As a result, the entire organization speaks a consistent language that expresses our values. It’s how we hold each other accountable and it’s how we celebrate ‘Pillar’ behavior,” says Keith Leonhardt, MetroNet’s vice president of communications and customer experience, who formerly served as president of Evansville marketing firm Fire & Rain.

“The reason that I think we’re successful is because of our culture. We take care of each other,” Cinelli says. “We have over the last year really codified this idea that your culture is not something you can make up. It is what it is.”

Cinelli says much of the idea’s foundation came from his father.

“The greatest value my dad ever added was helping us with this culture. He’s had this belief for the last 30 years — which I also share — that the people who we work with are our associates. They’re our partners. We say ‘associates,’ and it’s on purpose. It’s an intent. We believe that we all have important jobs to do. We all have important opinions. And we want to go forward together and share the benefits of the organization.”

At its annual meeting in October, MetroNet’s leadership presented its inaugural Pillar Awards to associates who embody the company’s culture. More than 180 nominations were received from throughout the company. MetroNet also produces in-house “It’s Time to Shine” notifications highlighting associates who exemplify the company’s promises and pillars.

“It’s a rare day that we don’t see multiple ‘It’s Time to Shine’ emails,” Leonhardt says. “It’s a nice feeling to have fellow team members see how we’re living our culture, even in the smallest ways.”

“For every private equity firm that Italk to, for every bank that I talk to, I always talk about culture because I really do believe that this is our single most important, sustainable, competitive advantage,” Cinelli says. “Technology equalizes. Everything equalizes. But if you have people who have the right mindset and work hard, and who are going in the same direction, you can be really successful.”

metronetinc.com

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