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Leader sees growth on horizon

Marquett Smith-named president of Verizon Wireless Inc.’s upstate region in January-puts his top priority as growing the company’s leading market share in the region.
The road to accomplishing that goal, Smith says, lies in “enhancing the customer experience and building the network.”
Then he revises the statement: Everything flows from customer satisfaction, he says. If customers are getting what they need and want from the company, its market share will grow.
As Verizon’s upstate chief, Smith oversees 1,300 Rochester-area employees-more than 1,100 at the company’s call center and the rest at its headquarters and an engineering center at Verizon’s Calkins Road complex in Henrietta. Another 700 Verizon employees scattered around the upstate region also work under him.
The Upstate Verizon Wireless operation, which accounted for more than $1 billion of Verizon Communications Inc.’s $88.1 billion 2006 revenues, has added nearly 200 new customer service center slots in Henrietta this year and expects to keep hiring at more or less the same rate, company spokesman John O’Malley says.
Still, if a customer takes time to write with a complaint or with kudos, Smith says, he reads it. It is not an extra chore. If he did not keep up with what was on customers’ minds, Smith says, how would he know where to steer the operation?
Figures compiled by an independent market research firm, which Verizon is prohibited from naming publicly, Smith says, say Verizon has more than 50 percent of the Upstate New York market. Its closest competitor, AT&T Corp., has something like a 30 percent share, he says, while a collection of other providers split the rest of the field. Smith, 44, is ambitious, though. Verizon can and will capture more of the market, he predicts.
What customers want from a cell phone company now are versatile multipurpose devices and plenty of coverage, Smith says.
On the device front, he flatly claims to have no fear of AT&T’s and Apple Computer Inc.’s much ballyhooed iPhone. Devices Verizon sells, though perhaps not as cleverly packaged as the Apple device, do everything the iPhone does, Smith insists. The aggressive marketing of iPhone by Apple and AT&T as well as the wide media coverage of the product’s recent release have helped boost Verizon sales.
“It’s good for the industry,” says Smith of the iPhone. “It helps create awareness. We’ve had tremendous interest created from iPhone publicity and our phones do the same thing. The only difference is the look and feel.”
On the coverage front, Smith has overseen an aggressive buildout of Verizon’s Upstate network, adding new transmission towers in more remote areas to extend coverage of the wireless broadband service Verizon kicked off last year in the state’s metropolitan areas, including Rochester. The company has been spending some $100 million a year on network upgrades in the region, a pace it intends to maintain, he says.
Smith came up through the Verizon Wireless organization largely working in customer service and marketing. He joined Verizon in 2002 as director of customer service for the Northeast and next moved to director of retail sales, working in the metropolitan Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area. Immediately prior to taking the job as Upstate New York chief, Smith had a headquarters job in New Jersey as Verizon Wireless’ vice president of customer service operations.
His first job after graduating from Radford University in Reston, Va., in 1985 with a bachelor of science degree in marketing was as a customer service supervisor for Sprint Corp.
Smith credits his father, a marketing and sales executive with Xerox Corp. who worked with government accounts in Washington, D.C., with sparking his own interest in marketing.
As a child, “I watched my father and my grandfather, who was an accountant in the Army. They gave me an image to work toward,” Smith says.
He does not know to this day exactly what his mother, whose job entailed a government security clearance, did for a living, Smith says.
For the first nine years of his life, Smith’s family lived in the largely black Washington, D.C., inner city. When the family moved to Reston, Va., it was for Smith, the eldest of the family’s five siblings, a culture shock.
“I was used to riding my bike to the corner store, being able to ride over to my grandparents,” Smith recalls. “We could ride our bikes in Virginia, but there wasn’t anything that close to go to. It’s all built up now, but a lot of it then was still fields and farms, and our parents wouldn’t let us go more than a certain distance from the house.”
Smith adjusted, participating in school athletics and generally coming to enjoy his new surroundings.
“It was great, actually,” he says. “It was a good experience, a lot different than more aggressive city living.”
In later life, adaptability and an almost uncanny instinct for making the right move at the right time have proved to be strong suits for Smith.

Start in telecom

When Smith, then fresh out of school and newly married to his wife, Rhonda, went to work for Sprint in 1985, it was the front end of what over the next decade or so would become a telecommunications boom. As one of the earliest telecom companies to capitalize on a newly opened U.S. long-distance market, Sprint was a hot company. After three years there, Smith was Sprint’s federal accounts manager. He could reasonably count on a bright future with the company.
In 1990, however, Smith had a chance to move to a young company that was beginning to make a name for itself in the Internet’s infancy as an easy-to-use service provider. The firm had only a few years earlier changed its name from Quantum Computer Services to America Online Inc. and come under the direction of a new CEO, Steve Case, who was shortly to turn the company into an Internet juggernaut. But the inevitability of its rise was far from obvious to all.
“My wife was like: Why leave Sprint?” Smith says.
But a young and ambitious Smith saw possibilities for rapid advancement not likely to be matched at Sprint.
Smith was the 86th employee AOL hired. He now attends reunions in Virginia where a group comprising the company’s first 100 workers meets annually. Smith estimates that four of the first 100 still work for AOL, which merged with Time Warner Inc. in 2001 and has been forced to cede its onetime position as the top U.S. Internet service provider to telecom and cable firms.
The early days of AOL’s rise and his own rise with the Internet firm were “a wild time,” Smith says. “We were doing a lot of carpetbagging.”
In marketing circles, Smith explains, the term carpetbagging refers to the practice of randomly blanketing prospects with promotional materials. In AOL’s case, the materials were floppy disks loaded with AOL software sent in hopes of enticing recipients to try the service.
Those were heady days for the company’s small but tight corps of workers intent on propelling the service to the top of a rapidly growing Internet market.
“We were a lot of very entrepreneurial types,” recalls Rodney Dixon, an AOL colleague who joined the company in 1994 and worked for AOL until shortly after its 2001 merger with Time Warner. “Steve Case would be on the tables at the Friday beer bashes. Everybody would recap the week. Of course, the big topics were when would we go over 800,000 subscribers and then it was when would we go over a million. It was almost like giving birth to a child.”
Mark Luiggi, now a technical trainer with the FBI Academy who started at AOL as a technical support worker around the same time as Smith, recalls Smith as highly competitive yet inclusive of all fellow workers.
“It wasn’t like because he was African-American he’d only hang out with African-Americans,” Luiggi says. “He was equally friendly to everybody. We got along really well even though we were kind of opposites. I’m kind of laid back. Marquett’s kind of detail-oriented.”
When AOL reached the million-subscriber mark in August 1994, Dixon says, “Marquett was real instrumental in putting policies and procedures in place that made that happen. He was very meticulous in attention to detail. He really made sure the end user was happy at the end of the day and did everything to make sure that person referred us to a friend because at that time word-of-mouth was the name of the game.”
Smith left AOL in 1996. Having surpassed its main rivals, the company then was still in a high-growth phase. But seeing new possibilities in the fledgling dot-com industries, Smith went to work for CyberCash Inc., a pioneer in developing software to facilitate Internet transactions. As director of client services, Smith oversaw upgrades of CyberCash’s fledgling call center, helping to improve support and boost client confidence.
CyberCash, which is now part of eBay’s PayPal Internet payment service, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001 after suffering a Y2K bug that caused duplicate customer payments in 2000. Smith had been gone from the company for some five years, having left to go to work for Interliant Inc., an applications service provider that private-labeled software for Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and others.
At Interliant, where he held the posts of vice president of customer service and vice president of channel partner programs, Smith says he helped get certifications for Interliant software that helped convince clients such as Microsoft to co-brand offerings. Interliant also filed for Chapter 11 protection, however. Its assets were acquired in a bankruptcy auction in 2003 by NaviSite Inc., an Andover, Mass.-based applications management firm. Smith by then had moved to Verizon.

Back to telecom

He had a feeler from a recruiter for the Verizon job while he was at Interliant, Smith says. And though the first Verizon job he would be offered would involve moving to a lower-title position, “I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to get involved with a company that had such brand recognition.”
In scoping out his dot-com moves, Smith says, “I took calculated risks. I’m not a gambler. The people who got caught either weren’t paying attention or got greedy.”
Smith is the third upstate president Verizon Wireless has named since 2003. His immediate predecessor, Kenneth Dixon, was in the job for a little over a year before moving to a similar post in the company’s New England region. Dixon succeeded John Palmer, who had been in the upstate job for some two years.
Acknowledging the relatively short tenures of his immediate predecessors, Smith predicts a longer stay in the Upstate presidency for himself.
He has been used to milder climes, Smith says. Much of his working life was spent in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Eastern Shore Maryland. Smith’s stint with Sprint had him stationed in Atlanta, and even New Jersey had fewer serious snow days, he says.
“When I first got off the plane in Rochester, it was one of those nice fall days and I thought: ‘You know, this isn’t too bad.’ I found out different later, though,” he says.
Still, the area has its attractions. Smith, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter have settled into a home in Victor.
An avid participant in team sports since childhood, Smith suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury seven years ago in a basketball mishap. Two years later, he decided to stop courting further injury and took up golf. Though the season might be shorter here than it is in many places, Smith says, the region has an abundance of good golf courses.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be around here for at least the next five years or so.”
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

09/21/07 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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