“Going above and beyond” has always been the guiding ethos of Tri State Tower, the Marion, Iowa-based company that was founded by Rick Ellison in 1991, and today has grown into one of the premier wireless and telecommunications companies in the Midwest. “The business began with painting radio communication towers,” says Diek Brunscheen, company COO. “Whenever Rick was out, going from one painting job to another, he would travel through small towns with grain operators. He would stop in the office and drop off a business card, maybe sell them on inspecting the steel, that sort of thing.”
As Ellison’s network of small-town grain elevators and radio communication towers grew, so did the telecommunications and wireless industry. “The first large contract Rick was ever awarded was with Motorola, and from there it just kept evolving,” Brunscheen relates. “But Rick never turned his back on the two-way companies or the broadcast stations. So, Tri State has always had a diverse clientele base. When there were slow pockets of work on the wireless side, there was always the two-way broadcast work and the tower inspections. Those types of connections always helped Tri State fill the void and made it a pretty successful operation.”
“When Rick founded Tri State Tower in the early 90’s, he was driving a late 1980s Buick Skylark around from tower to tower,” says Pete Hagstrom, the company’s Vice President for Business Development. “We currently have over fifty trucks, trailers, and special equipment in our fleet. It’s pretty neat to think about how far we’ve come.” Today, Tri State also has 75 employees and has expanded from its original three-state area – Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska – to include work in New Mexico, California, Texas, Washington, and New York, among other places. “We’ve been all over the country,” says Brunscheen.
Tri State’s services include: turnkey tower construction and erection, including site acquisition, pad and pier foundations, grounding utilities, site grading, access road installation, compound and anchor fencing, generator installation, line and antenna installation, and microwave installation; tower site maintenance, including emergency and disaster recovery; technical services, such as equipment installation and inspection, as well as troubleshooting and testing: and a new fiber division that offers fiber optic placement, splicing, testing, drilling, trenching, and boring.
Brunscheen stresses that since much of Tri State’s projects come from its current customers as repeat business, building relationships with them, and always “going above and beyond” is still key to the company’s success. “We don’t work for just anybody,” he says. “We try and work for people who have the same type of values that Tri State Tower has. We focus on people who are going to have a relationship with us and get to know us and know what we’re about.”
Hagstrom says that the company’s field teams will often do extra work for their long-term clients, whether it’s checking fire extinguishers and first aid kits, or checking anchors for rust. “By doing so, we’re creating value for the customer,” he explains. “We’re trying to make sure that they’re getting the most for their money. We live by the culture of doing things without being asked; doing the right thing, even if no one is looking. We’re going to leave the site better than it was when we showed up.”
That type of attention to its clients also helps the company garner new business. “If a customer is satisfied with the work that we’re doing, we reach out to those customers and leverage them to put us in other markets with that company,” says Brunscheen. “So, if it’s one of the wireless carriers, and we’re doing a lot of great things for them in Iowa, we’ll reach out to people in Iowa and ask for a reference for their partners in Wisconsin.”
Tri State pays close attention to its own employees, as well. “We do a lot of promoting from within,” says Hagstrom. “A lot of our senior Project Managers started off being a Tech One, to a Tech Two, to a Top Hand, to a Field Supervisor, Project Manager, or Construction Manager. We’re always growing and developing that individual to be the best they can be. We challenge our customers, as well, to find out how we can get better.”
Concern for employee safety is also a high company priority. “Every Monday morning, we have a safety meeting where we collaborate company-wide, whether they’re in Fond du Lac, Omaha, Des Moines, or Marion,” Hagstrom explains. “We utilize web conferencing so everyone is able to see and hear exactly what’s going on. When you have a total of 15 crews that are out and about at sites and not physically able to make it to the corporate office, they’re still able to access it via their smart phones, and they’re held accountable to make sure that their getting the education about the safety concerns that we have. Also, we’re also getting that message out there, not only to our team, but also to the sub-contractors that we deal with on a regular basis. We live stream everything on Monday morning.”
As Tri State Tower continues to grow and mature, Brunscheen again stresses the company’s constant work on its culture and communication skills. “In the past two and a half years, our leadership team has worked with a business coach and we’ve put a lot of focus on, and attention to, the culture that we have at Tri State Tower,” he says. “Part of that culture is how we talk to people; how we talk to one another; how we encourage others to be better; how we encourage co-workers to achieve the same level of success that maybe one our top guys has. In the past six months, we’ve started seeing a huge shift in the way people are approaching a challenging situation; a huge shift and change in the way people are talking to each other.”
Hagstrom agrees: “Let’s not be good – let’s be great,” he declares. “I would like our customers to know that we’re their preferred vendor. If that customer doesn’t succeed, we don’t succeed. It goes back to integrity on the job site; it goes back to open communication; it goes back to the collective I.Q. to solve the problems and obstacles that face us. It goes back to going above and beyond.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Tri State Tower
WHAT: Tower fabrication, construction, and maintenance for wireless companies
WHERE: Marion, Iowa
J.R. Wilburn & Associates – www.jrwilburnandassociates.com