MBJ BUSINESS PERSON OF THE YEAR — Forward thinking: C Spire’s Hu Meena has made the most of 2013
C Spire’s Victor Hu Meena Jr. will tell you it’s not business anxieties that keep him awake at night but rather opportunities on the digital horizon.
In Meena’s world of wireless technology, opportunities come at hyper speed. If you don’t grab them the other guys will.
“I’m not good at sleeping anyway,” Meena says. “I’m always thinking about what we’re going to do next and where the opportunities are.”
That’s probably why he’s keeping the other guys awake. Guessing his next move has been difficult to do lately.
As an acknowledgment of the bold moves Meena has made in this and other years and the resulting elevated profile the moves have provided both C Spire and Mississippi, the Mississippi Business Journal has named Hu Meena “Business Person of the Year.”
“He’s had a hell of a year, and put Mississippi on the map in a progressive and enlightened way,” said Ross Reily, MBJ editor, in announcing the annual award.
As president & CEO of Ridgeland-based C Spire, Hu Meena is busy guiding an effort to extract pioneering uses from a fiber optic network for which C Spire’s predecessor companies — Cellular South and Franklin and Delta telephone companies — laid the foundation decades ago.
With each new C Spire announcement of a digital-based product or service, the spotlight on Mississippi as a generator of tomorrow’s technologies grows brighter. By the end of the last decade, the nation’s largest privately held wireless provider — estimated by Forbes’ analysts to have reached sales of $578 million in 2011 — served notice to the telecom sector that it and the state it calls home intend to be aggressive and innovative players in the digital marketplace.
Slightly more than a year ago, C Spire completed a fiber-optic infrastructure upgrade that brought 4G LTE service to wireless phone customers and data terminals across Mississippi and set the stage for a soon-to-launch expansion of the service to its Florida and Alabama markets. In the meantime, the company has expanded data storage and transmission capabilities by adding a $20 million commercial data services center in Starkville to complement its downtown Jackson data center.
More recently, C Spire started an initiative to bring ultra-fast 1 gigabit-per-second fiber to the home, selecting nine Mississippi cities for the nation’s first and only statewide roll out of an Internet service the company says will provide broadband speeds 100 times faster than national average broadband speeds.
Two years ago the company made clear its plans to diversify beyond its life as a wireless telephone service provider, changing its name from Cellular South to C Spire, with the “C” denoting “customer” and the “Spire” denoting “Inspired.”
“With a name like ‘C Spire’ we can do anything in the wide world of technology,” Meena says. “So we have been busy working on some things.
One of these is making sure we get the most out of our fiber optic network. We’ve done a lot on the business side and now fiber-to-the-home is a big business for us.”
Meena says his 1,250-employee company headquartered in Ridgeland’s Renaissance at Colony Parkway is on the verge of becoming ground zero for the arrival of a Silicon Valley of sorts, citing the strides it is making in developing useful data analytics applications for businesses, “We’re doing some cutting-edge things in the data analytics space.”
That work, he expects, will draw digital innovators from all over.
They emphasis is on draw, Meena says. They’ll have to come here, he says, because C Spire is staying put.
Why, when relocation could prove very lucrative?
The short and simple, Meena says, is that Mississippi and improving the state’s fortunes occupy a top spot in a company operating plan that he and founders Wade and Jimmy Creekmore developed long ago.
“We need businesses … where the decision makers are here,” he says.
“If you’re doing business in Mississippi it is not number 50 to you. It is ‘Number One’ if you are headquartered here,” adds Meena, a 56-year-old Clarksdale native and University of Mississippi education major.
Cotton to telecom
As a youngster growing up in the Delta town of Clarksdale, “everything was cotton,” Meena recalls.
But cotton was not the kingly economic staple it could have been, he concluded. The Delta grew and ginned the cotton but shipped it to textile and garment factories out of the region. “We didn’t have the textile mills or the garment factories. We have plenty of land. Why don’t we have them here?” he recalls asking.
“That was one of the lessons learned as a kid growing up in the Delta.”
And a lesson he acted on years later when he came to a crossroads as head of Cellular South: “Why not be a full- service wireless and technology company as opposed to just a wireless company?”
To answer “yes” he had to overcome what he says is “a mindset in Mississippi that we can only do this” or that but not more.
Meena says his decision was helped along by the knowledge that Mississippi “had some of the sharpest people anywhere.”
A life outside of football
On his way to becoming CEO of the nation’s eighth largest wireless carrier, Meena coached a year of football at Greenwood’s Pillow Academy. “I found out that probably wasn’t going to work,” he says, indicating his won-loss record told him his fortunes lay elsewhere.
Business opportunities led him to Dallas which he followed with a return to Mississippi, where he married Ashley Creekmore in 1986. By 1987 he was venturing into a less-than-4-year-old technology called cellular phone communications.
Wade and Jimmy Creekmore had won the right to buy federal wireless licenses for Mississippi through ownership of the Delta and Franklin phone services companies, a pair of landline companies established in 1959 in rural areas the-then Southern Bell declined to serve. “Wade and Jimmy were working on this cellular stuff. I didn’t know what they were talking about,” but “it sounded intriguing,” Meena says.
Thus, he became general manager of a fledging wireless company on the Mississippi coast called Cellular South. “I wasn’t guiding anything. I was just trying to make it,” he recalls.
By 1990 he and Ashley were in Jackson, where Meena became company vice president of operations and development and by 1997 president, a point at which he began exploring an expansion of Cellular South out of state.
At the same time, Meena and the Creekmore brothers weighed the potential synergies of the telecom infrastructure they had in place. That led to creation of parent company Telepex Inc. and the start-up of fiber optic-based broadband company Telepak Networks Inc., which further established a network of buried fiber-optic cable that today totals 4,000 route miles.
The fiber capacity set the stage for C Spire’s current 4G LTE wireless offerings and its soon-to-be-built 1 Gbps fiber-to-to-the-home network as well as the continuing growth of CSpire Business Services, which handles data storage, data transmission and Voice-Over-Internet services for businesses.
“We had all these fiber optic cables running everywhere. The next logical place to go was the home,” Meena says.
Telepak Networks Inc. is now C Spire Fiber and will be adding an additional 1,200 miles of fiber optic cable in the next 15 months. “It will give us the ability to offer the opportunity for more communities to participate” in the 1 Gbps ultra-fast Internet initiative, said David Miller, company spokesman.
Setting the pace
Meena is not expecting his regional competitors in the digital realm to suddenly decide they want to join in the race to new markets such as 1 Gbps fiber-to-to-the-home. Most couldn’t even if they wanted to, according to Meena, who says C Spire’s vast fiber-optic network makes it a “have” and many of the others “have nots.”
Further, they are burdened by inertia, he adds. “What others have done is try to protect an investment they made decades ago. They keep trying to get more out of it as opposed to going ahead and jumping into tomorrow’s technology today.”
Jeff Kagan, a 25-year technology industry analyst based in Atlanta, said in an email he has followed C Spire’s progression over the years and continues “to be amazed by the success” it has achieved.
“I think we can see that they are not satisfied with the wireless world only, but are really starting to punch their way onto the map in other industry segments as well.”
Hu Meena and C Spire, he says, “are two names that have punched their way onto the wireless scene and continue to show not only strong growth, but innovation as well.”
What of the risks of over-extending?
Kagan says he is inclined to advise caution but notes times come in an industry where rapid growth and expansion are the right path to take. “I believe we are in the early years of such a time in the telecom and wireless world right now,” he says.
No IPO, no urge to merge
As a private company, C Spire does not reveal its total market value. Analyst Kagan says he couldn’t venture a guess, though he adds he is certain “they are much more valuable today than just one year ago because they have been involved with so many innovative, industry reshaping ideas.”
Kagan emphasized that he has no reason to think C Spire is heading down the IPO path, but he noted the company would very likely get Wall Street’s interest should it decide to go public. “They are building their brand name in this industry,” he says. “A couple years ago no one knew about C Spire. Today they do. And over the next couple of years they will continue making a name for themselves in the industry.”
Raising money hasn’t required much heavy lifting, according to C Spire’s David Miller, who says financial institutions and lenders across the country have “clamored to invest in C Spire because of our history and track record of growth and innovation.”
Meena brushes off the merger and IPO talk, saying he hears it often. Suitors pop up now and then, he says. The only answer they get is a “No, Thank You,” he says.
“We don’t merge; we fight.”
Likewise, an IPO would run counter to C Spire’s attachment to staying a Mississippi company and fostering economic growth across the state, Meena says. “We’re not going to do an IPO – not unless we have to.”
The concern with an IPO is that decision making would be removed from Mississippi, according to Meena.
“The decision makers are all in Mississippi. We’re very committed to this state and very committed to this building.”
Meena has plenty of company at CSpire in the way of contemplating new opportunities. He gets a steady flow of ideas from the people around him and says he does what a good CEO should do – get out of their way.
“If I don’t mess them up, they’ll do really well.”
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