Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction: American Tower
Jim Taiclet | Chairman, President and Chief Executive | American Tower | Boston, MA | Founded: 1995
A towering achievement
A dramatic series of divestitures at American Tower helped Jim Taiclet refocus on its core business of building wireless and broadcast towers.
Jim Taiclet began his career at American Tower’s Boston office on September 10, 2001. His strong operational background made him a good fit to lead the telecom real estate company. The very next day, September 11, American Tower lost 13 people in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
And while Taiclet’s Air Force training had somewhat prepared him for the difficult challenges ahead — layoffs, a telecom industry meltdown, a rapidly shrinking stock price and the need to care for the families of those lost in the attack — this was of a different order of magnitude.
“You always need to have a contingency plan,” says Taiclet, who served as an officer and pilot in the first Gulf War and holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs from Princeton University. “Things aren’t always going to go right, and you have to think about your options before you’re in the middle of the fray.”
So in the wake of 9/11, with families grieving, the economy teetering on the edge and the dot-com bubble bursting, Taiclet had to be ready for anything.
“A lot of our customers were actually dot-coms at the time,” he says. “There were significant revenue losses, and we were in a whole range of businesses that were pretty fragile. So there were some really difficult choices to make as our stock was slipping under $1 per share.”
Taiclet made the tough decision to divest American Tower of its non-core operations. Although these divisions comprised more than two-thirds of American Tower, they didn’t align with Taiclet’s strategic vision for the company.
“Being an entrepreneur is not always about growth, growth, growth,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about save, save, save and recover. This was a period where we had to save the company.”
Taiclet and his team identified natural homes for each of the business units being sold and agreed to reduce the sale price of each divestiture on the condition that each acquirer continue to employ the American Tower people working in those units.
Before the divestitures were initiated, American Tower had 5,000 employees. After the divisions were sold off, the company reduced its headcount to around 1,000. But more than 3,000 former American Tower employees were able to keep their jobs with the acquirers.
Shedding divisions allowed the company to become laser-focused on its core business of building wireless and broadcast towers. The plan worked: the company’s market cap has since increased by more than 600%. American Tower is now the world’s largest owner and operator of multi-tenant communications real estate, with more than 150,000 sites spread across 16 countries.
That large footprint allows American Tower to make a difference where it operates. In 2017, the company established the American Tower Charitable Foundation, which helps students, teachers and communities in need. Through partnerships, employees collaborate with schools, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations to bring advanced technologies to the classroom.
This philanthropic initiative is best exemplified by the foundation’s Digital Village Squares projects in India, Nigeria and Mexico. Digital Village Squares are learning centers anchored by tower sites that provide computer and internet access as well as technology training. The mission is to provide educational opportunities to those who are most at risk of being left behind by the technology divide.
In addition, American Tower is still supporting the families of those 9/11 victims through scholarships. “We’ve established an education fund for all the surviving children,” Taiclet says. “Our employees, our managers and even our business partners pitched in to make sure that they had what they needed to complete their educations.”
Today, American Tower has a staff of 4,700 — nearly back to its pre-divestiture days — and a corporate culture that focuses on the best of the best for executive talent.
“We look for people with high integrity — and even higher energy,” Taiclet says. “We have some fantastic people, some of whom have carried us through for 20 years.” That stability has allowed American Tower to expand globally and build microtowers, Wi-Fi networks, rooftop sites and backup power solutions.
American Tower’s next moves will be centered on drones, virtual reality, on-site data centers and self-driving cars.
“We have an entire innovation program that’s looking at the opportunity for fifth-generation networks,” Taiclet says. “In addition to our existing customers, which tend to be telecom companies, new customers will come along, and we can use our 40,000 towers in the US for those purposes.”
Those potential customers may be companies in the aerospace, automotive and energy industries. “The network of the future is going to be much more dense,” he says. “And there’s going to be a huge entertainment component, with self-driving vehicles leaving people free to watch movies and play video games.
“This is going to be a long-cycle deployment,” Taiclet concludes, “and we want to make sure that American Tower is the platform for that.”