Finding someone to lead Fibrant no simple task

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 11, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — The search for the next Fibrant director has proven a bigger challenge than anticipated, Mayor Paul Woodson said.
“This is more difficult than we thought,” Woodson said.
Not many people have experience running a municipal fiber-optic network like Fibrant. Roughly 150 cities in the country are in the broadband business, competing with private companies to sell high-speed Internet, cable TV or phone services, and only about 70 have technology on par with Fibrant’s.
The city has interviewed six candidates.
“We have had some good people, but right now we don’t have a great person,” said Woodson, who has participated in every interview.
The city has not made an offer.
“We are really trying to be careful,” he said. “This is one of the most important hires this city has ever had. We have a multi-million dollar utility and lot on the line.”
The city manager, not the City Council, hires and fires city employees, including the Fibrant director. Doug Paris, the interim city manager, has said he will consult with the City Council on the decision, as well as with interim Fibrant Director Jim Behmer, who is not a candidate for the permanent job.
If the City Council hires a new city manager before Paris chooses a Fibrant director, then Paris’ successor would make the decision and could start the process from scratch. Woodson said he doesn’t care who is hired first, as long as the city finds the right person for each job.
The new director will take over Fibrant during the network’s most challenging period. The city hopes to increase the number of subscribers from 1,700 to about 4,500 by July 2014.
The leader will need strong technical skills, as well as marketing and sales experience, said Woodson, who has pushed city staff to treat Fibrant more like a business and less like a public utility.
City Council members have said they want the new director to have some experience in private industry. All six finalists had a background in private sector telecommunications, Paris said.
Two candidates were from large Fortune 500 cable companies and the
others were from smaller firms.
“We want to make sure we make the right hire,” Paris said. “If we find that none are the right fit, we will go back out and look again.”
The next director’s focus will be to grow Fibrant conservatively, Paris said. He or she must find the sweet spot where the utility generates enough money to cover operations and debt, but doesn’t grow so fast that the cost of installations and programming exceeds revenue from subscriptions, Paris said.
Fibrant’s first director, Mike Crowell, took early retirement in August.
The city used two search firms, one in North Carolina and another in New York, specializing in the telecommunications industry, Human Resources Director Zach Kyle said. The city only pays the firm if its candidate is chosen, Kyle said.
The city created two assessment panels — an external panel composed of people with industry knowledge and City Council members, and an internal panel made up of members from the city’s management team — to score the candidates.
Paris conducted the final interviews.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.