The quality of your service is only as good as the people you bring into your team. With this in mind, in-building wireless integration specialist M-Comm hires for the “who,” not for the “what.” This attitude towards people has allowed the company to build a team and culture that set it apart from the rest of the industry. Holding the reins is the company’s founder and CEO, Graham Ellison, who catches up with Carrie Charles in this conversation. Join in and learn about M-Comm’s vision for growth, its secret sauce for differentiation, its team’s obsession with quality and attention to detail, its unique “road warrior” culture, its approach to internal training and development, and some of the job opportunities that the growing company offers. Graham also shares some of the challenges that he has faced in growing a wireless infrastructure company as its founder and leader.
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M-Comm Sets The Benchmark In Quality And People With Graham Ellison
I’m excited to have you with me, and I am even more excited to have the CEO and Founder of M-Communications, Graham Ellison.
Graham, thank you so much for joining me.
I appreciate you having me.
Graham and I are both wearing M-Comm shirts. I was lucky enough to get a gift in the mail that I adore. Not only that, but I adore the company, M-Comm. We staff for you, Graham. I’ve known you for a long time. I talked to you in endless conversations about M-Comm. I’m excited to tell the world about your company, culture, and what you do because it is something special. First, I want to know about your journey. What prompted you to create M-Comm and how did you get to where you are now?
[bctt tweet=”Where there’s a mystery, there’s a margin. ” username=”rcrwirelessnews”]
It’s been a fun journey in the last few years. You and I come conversing as our companies have moved forward. My background is I’m one of the old 1980s twenty-year-olds. I didn’t know what I was going to do so I started a company in 1989. It was an IT company. My background has always been, “Let’s go do something.” In 2011, after 23 years in the IT space, I said, “It’s time for a change. There didn’t seem to be any mystery left.” For me, I was always talking, “Where there’s a mystery and there’s a margin. Let’s go do something different.” I had an opportunity to step away from that business. My partner in this business has a background in real estate minus technology. He said, “Let’s do something.” I said, “Let’s start another company.” I always felt like that in this wireless world. We were 3G moving to 4G at that time. I said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I don’t know anybody in the industry. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it seems like the industry has got a pretty good tail on it for an opportunity. Let’s figure out how we can build a business out of it.” That’s how we started. We had no clue where it was going to go. We didn’t know how to get there, but we spent the first couple of years muddling our way through and found an opportunity in 2013. We took it and have ridden it.
You sure did choose the right industry at the right time. Congratulations. Tell us about M-Comm. What do you do and who are your customers?
We’re an integration company. We’re in-building wireless. We don’t clump towers. We don’t do those types of things. At one point in my career, we did a lot of tower work. I used to climb a lot of towers in the previous company. In this company, I always get asked, “Are you climbing poles still?” “No, we’re building horizontal, not vertical anymore.” That makes it fun. We do in-building wireless. We started out as a subcontractor to the primes in our market in the Southeast. We’re able to earn our way and work our way through allowing those guys to shine and doing a good job for them, which opened up opportunities for us to step up and become a prime.
Our customers now aren’t the primes. Our customers are the carriers because we are a prime. We were given the opportunity in 2016 to take that role. At that point, I figured, we stay in the shallow end or we get in the deep end. We’ve been blessed with lots of opportunities and talented people of mindset, quality and caring for what we do. Our customers are the carriers. Our 3PL customer base is continuing to grow as you see in our needs and our work. We’ve come from one guy. I heard we were at 75 employees. It’s a rapid ascent right now. It’s a lot of fun.
Congratulations. That’s exciting to know. I know we’re going to hear a lot more about your vision for growth. Let’s talk about what makes you different because I know that there are a few companies out there in–building wireless. There’s a secret sauce that you have. What is that secret sauce?
It’s a few things. Having the opportunity to work in the space prior to coming to prime and seeing how it worked, we’re always on a thought that said, “If we have an opportunity to get into this space and have a seat at the table, we’re going to do things a little different.” We bring a lot of central offices, cables and data center skillsets into this space, which are different. A lot of companies have brought tower skillsets into the in-building. It is technically a lot of the same stuff but build-wise, it’s completely different. If you’ve ever been into a data center or central office, they’re incredibly clean. Everything is detailed to a tee. If anybody has ever worked for AT&T, they know that their standards are stringent for that stuff. Our secret sauce is that we build for the guy that comes in behind us so that he can serve us and take care of it. Caring about what we do and building processes that drive consistency across all of our builds and working for other people. What we noticed was that they had five different construction managers in the field. There were five different ways they built things. We’ve brought in some skillsets on the front end to develop installation packages that create consistency across all of our builds. The key to that is finding the right people to manage that and take pride in what they do and build it.
You mentioned that you’ve done over 300 projects for one particular carrier and never missed and honor your deadline.
It’s not easy. You get those last-minute crunches where it’s like, “How are we going to do this?” It happens. It’s commonplace in this business because there are many things outside of our control. Our job is to reduce the noise for our customers as best as we can, identify problems that we see and bring solutions to those problems, not just drop them off at their doorstep. They’ve got enough on their plates as it is. It’s caring about what you did and the legacy that you’ll leave. You’re only as good as the last project you did.
The other thing that you say before is that another secret is OCD.
If you go to our website, you’ll see I3CQ. That’s an acronym for OCD. OCD drives quality. You have to strive to be the best that you can be. Our team is wonderful about that. They’re gracious and graceful, and they care about what they do.
I would say that you and the entire team in M-Comm are obsessed with quality and attention to detail. That’s what sets you apart for sure. What would you say are some trends in in-building wireless? What is the future of DAS? Is there going to be something that’s going to come along and replace it, a new technology, a new model? What do you see as the future?
Interestingly enough, we had this conversation several years ago when C-RAN hit the market, “That’s all going to be C-RAN. It’s going to replace the DAS. It’s going to take the radios and move them out to the edge.” That hasn’t necessarily happened the way that was projected. I don’t think DAS is going anywhere. DAS is only going to expand. Now you’ve got all the existing bands and spectrum. They’re bringing in CBRS, C-Band and all these other capabilities and technologies. In-building is only going to continue to expand based on the spectrum growth that we need to see to support the demand that these networks are seeing. The future is bright.
CBRS is going to open a lot of opportunities in the space. C-Band is going to open a lot of opportunities for the carriers to expand their footprint, capability and their capacity. C-RAN is a growing piece of business. We’ve launched a C-RAN division that’s focused on that to understand where that market’s at, how do we participate in it, what’s that looks like. We’re excited about that. Technology is going to continue to evolve. We have been inundated by people who want to be in this space. They want to get into it from an operator’s perspective. We’ve come to terms that we are good at what we do. We’re not a 3PL. We’re not an operator. We want to stay focused on the world that we’re in. All of these companies need somebody to execute their vision. That’s what we’re good at. The technologies are evolving. Stadiums are a great example. We’ll rip and rebuild a stadium, and five years later, we’re going to do it again. It’s a recurring business, just not in a traditional sense.
Speaking of rip and rebuilt, how many of your projects would you say are rip and rebuilds versus new builds?
Rip and rebuilds represented about 40% of our workload. New builds or carrier ads are 60%.
What types of projects do you seek out? What are you good at?
We have found a niche in higher capacity builds, stadiums, arenas, high-rises, but we also do single carrier, single radio ads in stores and MVNO build. Working for the carriers is unique as we own turf. That’s a nice opportunity because we’re exposed to everything from the very small to the very large. We treat them all the same. The key is treating the MVNO install just as you do the stadium or corporate office install. We work across the board. We’re not the least bit hesitant to take on the smallest one as much as the largest one. The largest ones have given us a lot of opportunities to scale.
Consistency, that’s what comes to my mind.
If you walk into a small project or large project, you’re going to know who did it after we’ve been there.
I remember we were sitting at lunch in Las Vegas In-building Wireless Conference. I remember you showed me pictures of your work and the DAS system that you had built. To me, the only word I could think of was perfect. It looked like the people who were building it cared and took pride in their work.
You can’t do it without that. I had an executive come through one of our builds or one of the carriers. He walked into this room and he walked around. I heard him say, “If I didn’t know any better, I would think I was in a central office.” That’s a homerun for me. I’ll take that any day of the week because that’s what we want. His team was so proud. That’s what it’s all about.
There are some challenges in what you’re doing. What would you say are your biggest challenges with growing a wireless infrastructure company as a leader and founder?
Our challenges have been a couple of things. It’s taking on taking on bigger projects, taking on more work, and expanding our footprint. How do you do that and not sacrifice what got you there? That’s the challenge. Number one is finding the right people to build the organization around. I’m just one person. The key is consistently finding the right mindset and the right personality to get what we do. I say it all the time. I always hire for the who, not the what. I can teach the what, but you can’t necessarily teach the who. That’s our challenge as with anybody.
That is a big challenge for many leaders. The work is out there, but the people are not to do the work. That’s the tough part. What I love about what you do is your leadership. You bring in people that are the who and take the what. You’re bringing in fresh talent and training them. What do you look for when hiring?
We consider ourselves a family. I’m looking for someone free, foundationally humble person, has a lot of humility, and that can work in an environment that is supportive of other people. Our job as leaders and employees, from a technician in the field to my position, is to support the people around us. I preach that in this organization, “There’s a path forward for everybody in this company. The way you do that is to support the guy in front of you and the guy behind you. You’ve got to underpin the guy in front of you. You’ve got to knock down roadblocks for the guy behind you.” That’s what we do. The one word that I share with our organization is grace. Grace is something we need to extend. If I’ve got a person who understands that, I’m teaching them what we do. We can teach them what we do.
[bctt tweet=”Always hire for the who, not the what. You can teach the what, but never the who. ” username=”rcrwirelessnews”]
Something also special about M-Comm is your company culture. You’ve touched on it a bit, but let’s go into that a little bit deeper. What is the M-Comm culture? The other piece of this question is, how do you maintain a consistent culture throughout the growth?
Our culture is simple. It’s family. We care about our employees. We show that from the top down. Every organization has structure, systems and benefits, but picking the phone up and calling the guy on the field and ask him about how his family’s doing. That’s how we maintain it. That’s number one. Our culture is of caring. We’ve talked about how we structured the company, and having turf creates markets for us. We’re from Virginia to South Florida to Texas now. What we try to do is this business is a road warrior business. It’s a vagabond’s lifestyle traditionally. What we try to do is create structure and decentralization in the business. We’ve done that. This drafts the culture. It’s to keep people closer to home.
If they’re in a market and they’re working, they’re not five states away. They might be a couple of hours away. These things that we can do to support our people and their families as best as we can create balance because you got to have that. That is overlooked in this day and time. I want a culture and an organization that people are excited to be here about. I know that talent is so hard and everybody’s getting phone calls, “Do you want to come? Do you want to talk?” Our people get calls all the time. I’m grateful for the fact that we have built an organizational culture that puts them in a position to say, “I’m not interested. I’m happy where I’m at.” Success can be defined in many ways. It’s not always money. To me, that is huge.
You told me multiple times, you pick up the phone and call your people. The CEO of the company calls people and says, “How are you? How is your family?” On the other end, they’re like, “Graham is calling me.”
I’ve worked for myself since I was twenty. I understand the value of a title but I’ve never been big on titles. They throw up walls. It’s funny because I have a lot of conversations about, what if we did away with titles. What would we do? How could that benefit the social connection in the company? I understand that titles bring a sense of value, success and achievement. I can appreciate that, but they also create stigmas. That’s the downside for me. I don’t care about a title. I’m the Chief Encouragement Officer. That’s what CEO means. My job is to support this organization and provide some vision and guidance as to how we get to the next step. We’ve got an amazing team of executors in this business, from our president all the way down.
Your leadership team is incredible. The other thing you do well is you provide an amazing space for your contingent labor force or your contractors. They feel very much part of the team and they’re committed to you. How do you pull that off? That’s a tough one for most companies.
It’s pretty easy because we were subcontractors. That’s how we started. We always knew how we were treated. We weren’t treated badly. We weren’t given any type of direction as far as what’s coming. When’s it coming? How’s it going to pay? What can I expect? Everybody needs to be able to plan. These last-minute calls, “Can you have ten guys here tomorrow?” That’s tough. That happens a lot. I’ve had a big push internally to make sure that we treat our contractors with the utmost respect as best as we can, give them enough forward-looking direction so they can plan and have resources available, so they know where their next project is going to be. They know how they’re going to move their people around. It’s so important. In this business, we can’t do it without contractors. They’re an extension of us. When they’re on a project, they’re us. It doesn’t matter who writes their checks. They’re us.
Training and development also are something that you do well. That’s an area where we groom people and bring new people into the industry that we can do better. What are your training and development like? Do you have a formal training program or mentorship? How does that work at M-Comm?
We are in the process of developing some internal training. That’s a big topic of the conversation internally. Here’s the way we do it. A lot of these builds is experience-based. How many guys know how to SOOW cable? It’s a lost art almost. We’ve got some construction managers that have been in the business and building sites for 20 and 30 years. Not necessarily in-building wireless sites but central offices, MedSAS and data centers. They have the skillset that they bring to this. What we’ve done is we’ve paired our next generation with these guys and put them under their tutelage. Their job is to mentor these young bucks and teach them all they can. We tell these young guys, “We hire guys that we feel are going to get it. You got an opportunity. Sponge all you can off of these guys because they’re moving toward the end of their careers. There’s an opportunity right here.”
There are lots of conversations in this organization about our next generation of leaders all the way up the chain. We’re putting people with people. We’re creating apprenticeships with people. We’re looking at internships. We’re doing lots of different things. We’re working with the OEMs to train. What we’re doing is we’re taking skillsets. We’re not just having them bottled up in one location. What we’re doing in 1 or 2 people is we’re taking that person with that skillset. We take an integration capability on the BTS side. We’re pushing that out to the edge. We’re training our guys in the field to do that. Now, I’m not having to fly people all over the countries. The guys who are building the sites will have the capability to do it when they’re building it. It’s going to give them more pride in what they do. It’s going to give them the ability to see that they’re expanding their knowledge. It makes them more valuable up the chain. We want them to do the same thing to the guy behind them. That’s our vision forward at least.
Let’s keep talking about vision because I’d like to know your vision for M-Comm in the next years. What are you thinking?
Our vision is to expand. In 2021, we’re now in Texas, which is a big thing for us. Our plan for 2022 is to expand into more parts of the country. We’ve got some geographic expansion, which we’re excited about to continue to take what we’re doing. We’re creating a vacuum of opportunity through each project we do. We’re excited about that. We tell potential customers that we just need one project, “Give us one project, I promise you, you won’t be dissatisfied.” Our vision is to grow our geographic footprint. Our vision is to expand our capability and skillsets to create some end-to-end services, to continue to entrench into the carriers that we support, and into the 3PL. In general, continue to reduce the noise for our customers. If we do that, then we’re good. Repeat business is the best business ever. That’s what we strive for. Our vision is to grow and continue to build this family. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I didn’t know where it was going to go ten years ago. I’m grateful that God has blessed us beyond measure. Our vision is to continue to grow people and give people an opportunity wherever it might be.
We are going to help you grow here at Broadstaff and get more good people. Your key is taking on more projects and growing, and then having those good people come to you and developing them. You’ve got your heart in the right place, M-Comm. All the leadership, the entire team of M-Comm has its heart in the right place. You keep doing what you’re doing, but most of all, you keep being who you’re being. If you stick to your values, maintain that culture and continue that, then people are going to be attracted to you. You’re going to get more business. You’re going to get more abundance and you’re going to continue to be blessed.
Let’s talk about the types of jobs. I know you’re hiring. I know you have open roles in different markets. There are probably people after reading all of this who are like, “I want to work for M-Comm right now.” What types of roles are you hiring for? Where are you looking for any particular markets? Also, where can people go to learn more about your previous work or learn more about what you do for potential customers?
We’re launching Texas. Texas is a big market for us in 2021. We’re there. We planted a flag. We’re hiring in Texas. We’re hiring in most of our markets. They’re Tennessee, Kentucky, the Gold States, the Mid-Atlantic, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. If they go to our website, which is www.MCommWireless.com, everything is posted there. If they’re on LinkedIn, look me up, they’ll find links to those job opportunities. Our website is a phenomenal place to go and learn about who we are and what we’re doing. There’s a page that has pictures of everybody doing some goofy things. That’s fun. It gives you some insight into who we are as people. Opportunities are bound across our whole footprint. It’s going to continue to grow. We see a wonderful year lining up for us and we’re grateful for that. We’re looking for the right kind of people.
I am so excited to see where you’re going to be in the future. I’m honored and blessed to be a part of it. Thank you for being on the show. This has been a pleasure. I wish you the best.
I appreciate that. Thank you so much. I love our conversation. We always have a good conversation because the challenges that present themselves are always fun.
I love it when we call each other and talk. It’s like, “This is what’s going on with me and you.” That’s what it’s all about. It’s about relationships, people, taking the time, caring, and having those moments where you’re bond and connect with people. We’re missing that now. I hope we’ll get back to it soon.
We need that back. This is a small community. It’s good to know that we have friends out there that we can support, as well as our people and customers. Thank you for what you do for us.
Thank you for being on the show.
About Graham Ellison
Graham’s love affair with emerging and converging telecommunications began in 1989 when he started his first IT business. Towards the end of the 20th century, he led his team into the realm of two very new technologies; Voice over IP and using new WIFI standard technology in outdoor wireless connectivity that resulted in a Wireless Carrier Class layer 2/3 MPLS network, covering 3000 square miles of areas in the Georgia/South Carolina with both licensed backhaul and unlicensed distribution.
In 2011, seeing numerous opportunities within wireless communications, Graham started M-Communications which has become one of the premier companies in design, engineering, deployment and monitoring of in-building wireless solutions. M-Communications serves Carriers, Third-Party Operators,] Enterprises, Hospitality, Health Care, ACE, Airports, Education, Commercial Real Estate and Public Safety.
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