LEWISTON, Maine — Almost 120 years ago, a western Maine undertaker embraced cutting-edge technology to advance his business.
Alva Andrews ordered two crank telephones, poles and enough copper wire to set up a phone line between his businesses in South Woodstock and the West Paris railroad station. The year was 1893, just 17 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. A few years later, in 1900, Andrews officially incorporated Oxford Telephone and Telegraph.
Today the company is Oxford Networks. For decades it was a rural telephone company that cruised along, comfortable in its market and enjoying stable returns as a settled utility in what was essentially a regulated monopoly. But, echoing moves from a century before, the company realized in the late 1990s that it must embrace new technology, new markets and a new management philosophy or it would soon be 6 feet under — the victim of growing competition from cell phone carriers and cable companies.
Over the past decade, said President and CEO Craig Gunderson, the company has changed the culture at Oxford. His predecessor, Roderick Anstey, moved the firm to a team-based management style — a ground-up rather than top-down environment. Most of the top managers left the company, said Gunderson, who came to Oxford in 2002, following Anstey, whom he had worked with previously at a telecommunications company in Minnesota.
“When you look at it now, it seems easy,” said Gunderson. “But it was very traumatic. It led to a level of energy and excitement in an organization that was close to 100 years old.”
The company’s board of directors hired Anstey after recognizing the need to evolve or go the way of buggy-whip factories. As Anstey shifted the culture, the company began to invest in fiber-optics technology, putting about $40 million in fiber and supporting technology in Maine’s top 22 business communities, from Bangor and Brewer, down the coast to Scarborough, into Waterville and Lewiston-Auburn, and running telecom pipelines into Boston and Manchester, N.H.
The company has found a sweet spot in providing high-speed Internet and phone service to business customers. Even as its traditional phone customers decline, the company grows, seeing revenues increase by roughly 300 percent since 2000, said Gunderson. The company is profitable, and has about 125 employees.
“Part of their innovation was to look outside their geographic market, to reach new customers. Expanding and innovating doesn’t necessarily mean just new technologies,” said Renee Kelly, director of economic development initiatives at the University of Maine. “They also did something valuable, they looked at the opportunities they had versus the competition, they used their flexibility to design service teams to give them a competitive advantage.”
When a business becomes a client, the company will get specific contacts with Oxford, including a sales contact and tech support person. So when there are problems, the business can call an actual person for help — and not get caught up in a customer service phone tree. Cookie-cutter service doesn’t work with business customers, said Gunderson, and Oxford’s small size allows the company to provide more customized offerings for individual clients.
“We have to be closer to our customers, we have to listen to our employees,” said Gunderson.
Oxford’s expansion and its work internally have been noticed. In the last half-year, Oxford Networks was named Business of the Year by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce and a President’s Award Winner by the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce. For the fifth year in a row, it was listed as a “Best Places to Work” company by the Society of Human Resource Managers.
“I have a great, energized employee team who are doing the right things — they’re winning these awards,” said Gunderson. “We hired great people, got out of their way, and supported them.”
Maine Securities Corp. in Portland trades the company’s stock. Oxford Networks isn’t a traditionally publicly traded company. There are between 200 and 300 stockholders, said Gunderson, and much of the stock goes back to the undertaker founder, who would trade stock for supplies in a barter economy. Those original stocks were bequeathed down through the generations.
Brad McCurtain, president at Maine Securities, said the company has made some smart decisions over the last decade.
“To me, it’s a wonderful team of people from senior management right down,” said McCurtain.
While the company made significant investments, it never invested more than it could stand to lose if a venture were to go bad, said McCurtain. Other telecoms in Maine — including ones that Oxford worked with — took bigger risks and failed, he noted.
Gunderson said Oxford has had some missteps. It used the communities of Norway and South Paris as sort of a tech test bed. After building out a fiber network there, it looked to the nearby metro area of Lewiston-Auburn.
The company banked on bleeding-edge technology — IPTV, which was television over its fiber lines. But vendor support and product evolution in the technology wasn’t great, and the venture didn’t do well. While the company eventually killed the project, it did realize its business-class services were doing much better than expected, and it worked to develop that niche and expand it geographically.
Oxford ventured briefly into cell communications in Portland, as well, but didn’t pursue that business line, Gunderson said.
As telecom technology continues to change rapidly, and as consumer demands for things like video on demand, cloud computing and high-bandwidth smart phones increase, Oxford needs to keep moving in response, he said.
“We can’t rest on our laurels. We’re looking to grow, we’re looking to continue being relevant, continue to evolve,” Gunderson said. “You’ve got to make the right calls — as much as possible.”