David Post: Frustrated with Fibrant
As a business person on City Council, dealing with Fibrant has frustrated me beyond words.
For much of the past 30 years, I worked in the world of corporate recovery, turnarounds and bankruptcy, a world of urgency and uncertainty, and a world requiring new directions to survive.
If a troubled company is to survive, change is essential. Strategic decisions must be made within a compressed time frame and cannot be delayed week after week, month after month, year after year.
Chapter 11 disease, I once wrote, is the paralysis of the decision-making system. The city and Fibrant are infected. Not making decisions is a decision. Not changing strategies is a strategy. Every decision does not have to be perfect, or even right. Being right only 51 percent of the time generates improvement.
On City Council, I dug into Fibrant. The audit showed that something was wrong. Newly hired City Manager Lane Bailey had quickly recognized Fibrant’s financial problems and required honest numbers. Mr. Bailey, though, is the first to admit that he has neither the experience nor the appetite to run a for-profit highly competitive business (though I’m confident he could do so very effectively).
Over a year ago, after digging in and outlining how a new business plan might look, I recommended that City Council create an advisory board to manage Fibrant. The response was tepid. I could not find any votes to support my idea.
We hired a consultant who concluded that we consider partnering with a company in which he had a financial interest. We terminated the engagement. We then hired CTC Technologies, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in municipal broadband strategies.
CTC’s strategy included searching for a possible private sector partner. A temporary board helped review the proposals. The process exposed several difficult challenges.
Because of Fibrant’s lack of profitability, its value is low, requiring us to negotiate from a position of weakness. We face local criticism for yesterday’s mistakes rather than support for tomorrow’s possibilities. The North Carolina legislature, with Spectrum’s and AT&T’s army of lobbyists, has been punitive.
Suppose we find the right partner and reach an agreement. Getting to the finish line could take another year.
CTC echoed my suggestion that we create an advisory board. My thinking was to tap business expertise. CTC believes separating business from politics is essential. Both reasons are cogent.
Can Fibrant be improved? Absolutely. (If we simply changed the name to “Google,” customers would flock to Fibrant. Yes, we’ve talked to Google, but Salisbury lacks the demographic profile Google requires.
Improving its image, operations and market share would enhance Fibrant’s value and open the door to more partnering options.
Meanwhile, we have disclosed little to the public, and that lack of transparency has promoted even more public distrust of Fibrant. And City Council.
About 15 years ago, I took over a bankrupt company. Critical decisions had to be made on the first day without the luxury of a safety net. Fibrant, however, has a safety net — the taxpayer — and that covers any sense of urgency. Because of that, Fibrant needs business, not political, leadership.
Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different resuls. Maybe I’m insane rather than frustrated. (My bet is I could get three votes for that.)
David Post is a member of Salisbury City Council.
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