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Answering a CEO’s call

For someone who took early retirement several years ago, Ann Burr’s schedule is pretty full.
Burr this month was named general manager of Citizens Communications Co.’s Rochester region. Already a Citizens senior vice president, she added oversight of the 2,000-worker Frontier Telephone of Rochester Inc.’s operations to an already full plate of duties overseeing Citizens’ regulatory affairs. In the regulatory job she manages the company’s dealings with the Federal Communications Commission and 23 separate state commissions where Frontier has local operations.
Burr’s new assignment as Rochester region general manager comes just shy of a year after she agreed to take a consulting job with Citizens and some three years after she stepped down from a senior management job with Time Warner Communications in Stamford, Conn.
If Burr, 59, had any misgivings about cutting her early retirement short, she seems to have dropped them months ago.
“I never looked at her as being retired. I thought of her as just getting her bearings until she saw what she would do next,” says Rochester Institute of Technology president Albert Simone, who asked Burr to join the RIT board in 1996 shortly after she first arrived in Rochester.
Of her departure from Time Warner, Burr herself says, “my intention was to be active.”
She continued to consult for Time Warner for three years, so her early retirement was really more of a semi-retirement, Burr adds.
Still, a call last year from Citizens CEO Maggie Wilderotter asking Burr to consult for Citizens came as “a bolt from the blue,” recalls Burr’s husband, attorney Vincent Buzard.
“They called her; she didn’t call them,” says Buzard, a partner with Harris Beach PLLC and current president of the New York State Bar Association.
At the time, Burr was happily devoting herself to travel, gardening and golfing but also to a full schedule of community activities. She served as a board member of the Rochester Institute of Technology, the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film and the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency-positions she still holds. She also had been named to Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks’ team of economic advisers.
“I was certainly enjoying the finer things, the garden club and so on,” Burr says. “I’d worked for many years, but I also enjoy working, and I was excited about what Maggie was doing. I’d known her for 20 years. It sounded like an exciting effort.”
Now fully committed to continuing at Frontier for the indefinite future, Burr concedes moving from semi-retirement to her present pace reversed the direction she expected to be headed in three years ago.

A turning point

Wilderotter, a former AT&T Corp. and Microsoft Corp. executive, less than a year earlier had replaced Leon Tow as Citizens CEO. Tow had resigned after mounting an ill-fated effort to sell the company. Six months of sale rumors had done little to improve already low morale at Frontier, which Citizens had acquired from Global Crossing Ltd. The bankrupt Global Crossing had downsized heavily before spinning off Frontier’s local telephone operations.
Wilderotter’s charge was clear: to quickly stabilize and redirect the company in order to react as nimbly as possible in a volatile competitive environment. It is easy to see why Wilderotter wanted Burr to help in that effort. The timing of her offer at the expiration of a three-year non-compete clause Burr inked on her exit from Time Warner also makes sense.
A onetime switchboard and long-distance operator, Burr has wide experience in telecom and cable television. Over a three-decade career she had risen to top management posts with Time Warner in Hawaii and San Diego as well as Rochester and Connecticut.
Burr and Wilderotter had met and developed a friendship when both were telecom executives in California. Both had belonged to the state’s cable and telecom industry association, which Burr headed.
Wilderotter hardly could have asked for a better mix in an adviser than Burr, who not only had extensive experience with cable and telecom markets but was intimately familiar with Rochester, which is Citizens’ biggest market. Burr had retired from Time Warner as executive vice president stationed in Stamford, Conn. Immediately prior to the Stamford posting, she spent four years-from 1995 to 1999-heading the cable company’s Rochester operations.
That Burr was a veteran of Citizens’ main Rochester competitor would be a particularly delicious bit of icing on the cake for Wilderotter.

Dual roles

While the two hats she is now wearing-head of local Frontier operations and Citizens’ top regulatory affairs manager-might seem to present her with a more than challenging workload, Burr says, the dual responsibilities play directly into each other, making the task less daunting than it might seem. Besides, she adds, handling the two jobs is partly eased by the fact that half of Citizens’ 35-person regulatory affairs staff is in Rochester.
A key to her job now is that “we’re all trying for the same consumer dollar,” Burr says, pointing to recent telecom industry consolidation, the rapid convergence of the cable TV and telecom industries and the equally rapid rise of voice over Internet protocol.
“It’s purely a data world now,” she observes. “It’s all packets and packets and packets.”
Congress, which is starting to take up the first revisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, has “a lot of (telecom) bills pending,” Burr says. Much of Frontier’s ability to compete will depend not just on how the revisions shake out but on how well the telephone company understands the new regulatory climate.
Frontier recently introduced a bundled three-in-one package-voice, high-speed digital subscriber line data and TV-that uses Dish Network satellite TV offerings for the video component. In doing so, Frontier is going head to head against an all-in-one cable TV/digital phone service and broadband package Time Warner introduced some months earlier.
While Frontier has no immediate plans to drop Dish Network, it is installing fiber-optic in the Rochester area to add its own video services. When that happens, Burr says, Frontier wants “a level playing field” in which it is no more disadvantaged or advantaged as a video provider than are cable companies in competing in the voice market.

Western roots

Burr’s deep knowledge of the minutia of telecom regulation, and the telecom and cable markets, plus a more than passing familiarity with the industries’ technical issues, was earned over a lifetime working in both fields, mostly for Time Warner. Yet her career path is one that few would have predicted.
Burr earned a B.A. degree in secondary education with concentrations in French and English in 1968 from Utah State University in Logan, Utah. She had returned to Utah, her native state, for college after a childhood spent in a series of peripatetic moves around the Southwest that took her family to California, Arizona and Las Vegas-where Burr did much of her growing up and where her uncle and grandfather figured prominently building the gambling mecca’s mushrooming infrastructure.
Utah State was the alma mater of her father, Dale Lewis, a former top-ranked tennis coach whose career is memorialized in the national collegiate tennis hall of fame.
“I’ll always be grateful to my father for providing me with an education,” Burr says.
She describes her mother, who had her own radio show, as “artistic, a lovely singer” who also was athletic and a dedicated golfer. Today, Burr counts golf as a favorite pursuit.
In bearing, Burr possesses a certain steely elegance and composure. Sandra Day O’Connor comes to mind. Like O’Connor, Burr, who describes herself as “a traditionalist at heart who has adapted to the East,” was raised in the West and like O’Connor she is a woman of definite views.
George Eastman House director Anthony Bannon describes Burr, who is in her second stint as an Eastman House trustee, as one of the board’s harder-working members; ever ready with facts and figures to rival any staffer, she does not hesitate to gently yet firmly press her point of view.
“I don’t think I’d rather have anyone else disagree with me,” Bannon says. “She has a way of disagreeing but showing respect for the other person’s views always with grace.
“She is intellectually and emotionally elegant,” he adds, “yet she has two feet on the ground. She is a remarkable woman.”
Burr came out of college expecting to be a teacher. And she did briefly student teach before her first husband, Timothy Burr, a wildlife biologist whom she had then recently married, went back to school for a master’s degree at Utah State.

Career switch

Burr, who had worked summers as switchboard operator for Las Vegas hotels when she was a college student, got a job as a long-distance operator for the Mountain Bell Telephone Co. In 1975, her husband’s work took them to Honolulu, where Burr first worked in operations for GlobeTel Communications Corp. and then with Time Warner’s Hawaii subsidiary, Oceanic Cable Vision Inc.
“It was great to get in on the ground floor,” Burr says of her work with the cable company. Still, she adds, “in cable, we always looked to the telephone companies as more sophisticated. They were the ones trained in operating systems. That’s why I was thrilled to get the chance to work in telecom (with Citizens).”
In Hawaii, Burr moved up in Time Warner management, polishing her credentials and business acumen with an MBA earned in 1985 from Chaminade University in Honolulu. At the time she had two small children and a third on the way. But she was ambitious and considered the business degree a must.
After a dozen years with Oceanic, Burr was vice president of operations. Then in 1986, Time Warner offered her a position as president of its San Diego operation, which would put her in charge of four Southern California cable companies. Burr accepted.
One of her first moves in San Diego was to hire Pacific Telesis Group’s head of operations away from the phone company. And in San Diego, Burr oversaw installation of one of Time Warner’s first ventures in telephony, a point-to-point business service.
In 1995, when Time Warner asked her to take over its Rochester operation, which it planned to make the first of its units to offer telephone service, Burr accepted again. In 1999, the company moved her to Stamford, where as an executive vice president she had national responsibility for the cable company’s telephony initiatives.
Burr and Buzard met when Buzard, who had been intrigued by a 1996 Rochester Business Journal article published when Burr first took over the local Time Warner operation, introduced himself to her in a restaurant. They were married in 2000 and for the next couple of years maintained a hectic, two-home schedule in which they alternated weekends in Rochester and Connecticut.
Moving to Connecticut was out of the question for him, Buzard says. He had spent years developing a law practice here. Keeping on top of it from Stamford would not have worked. The alternating weekend trips were a viable but sometimes exhausting solution.
“Every weekend one or the other of us was catching a plane,” Burr says.
While the couple, each of whom has grown children by previous marriages, still enjoys traveling, they sold the Connecticut home when Burr retired from Time Warner and now are firmly based in Rochester.

Community-minded

In Rochester, as in her previous postings, Burr plunged deeply into community service work. When she left San Diego in 1995, some 400 attendees gave her a send-off as the mayor proclaimed Ann Burr Day.
After a two-year stint Burr left the Eastman House board in 1999, when she moved to Connecticut, but she rejoined the body as soon as she retired. Since returning to work full time at Frontier, she has not slacked off on board duties with the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, the Eastman House and WXXI Public Broadcasting Council.
“I’m sure she’d be doing even more, if she weren’t working full time,” Bannon says.
Burr, who has served on RIT’s board continuously since 1996, is one of the school’s most active trustees, Simone says. She is “too energetic” to limit herself to one or two activities.
“(Burr) opens doors for us, particularly in the communications industry. She knows everybody,” Simone adds.
Burr sees community service as “part of my DNA,” but also as part of her new job at Frontier.
When it was Rochester Telephone Co., the business was a point of local civic pride as the country’s fifth-largest independently owned local telephone company. After the telephone company passed out of local hands, Rochesterians had reason to think that stake in the community had been uprooted.
Today, in addition to helping to boost economic development as a COMIDA board member or keeping local heritage alive as an Eastman House trustee, Burr says, “one of my primary goals is to raise Citizens’ local profile, to dispel the myth that it’s not committed to Rochester.”
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

03/31/06 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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