Picking up speed

It has been five years since Verizon Wireless bought its way into the Columbus market, paying nearly $2 billion for Cellular One, a regional company with customers scattered across Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina.

Expansion nationwide has come fast and furious, with the company pumping an estimated $6 billion nationwide this year into improving its network with new cell towers and equipment. The investment adds up to $37 billion over seven years.

Jeff Mango's rise through the ranks of Verizon has been nearly as speedy, but perhaps with added flavor. The New York native gave up a chance to run his father's restaurant, Mango's Pizzeria, to attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

"I wanted to take my pizza-flipping skills to the next level and get an education on how to run hotels and conventions," Mango joked during a recent visit to Columbus.

He ended up at the Sands Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., but eventually experienced a career swing, taking a retail sales position with Bell Atlantic Mobile, which eventually became Verizon. After a year working the floor, Mango set a rather aggressive career target.

"I realized that this was what I wanted my career to be and I set a goal of being president in 10 years, and then took positions in the company where I was needed," he said.

Store manager and district manager positions followed in New Jersey and Philadelphia. He came to Atlanta in 2000 to run Verizon's north Georgia district, then bounced back up to New York City to run a retail zone.

Then the big break came, with Mango being promoted to president of Verizon's mountain region, which includes Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. His goal was realized.

"I earned the position right before my 10th year," he said. "So right before the end of 2004, with about 60 days left in the year, I was appointed president of the mountain region."

His story continues. In January, Mango was named president of Verizon's Georgia/Alabama region, overseeing sales, operations, marketing, distribution, customer service and financial results. He also has nearly 1,500 employees under his tutelage.

Mango's office is in Alpharetta, a northern suburb of Atlanta. But the executive said he tries to spend as much time as possible visiting stores and talking with customers.

A recent rally with employees brought him to Columbus, where he sat down with Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Tony Adams to discuss the cellular industry, its future and how Columbus fits into his two-state puzzle. Here are portions of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity:

What are your thoughts on Columbus in relation to the wireless business?

I think the biggest thing here is the fact that we've done the Rev A (high-speed broadband). That shows this is a very strong market that requires us to make sure that we're staying one step ahead on the technology.

We added an additional tower in this market in February. We also added 49 towers between Montgomery and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa to give folks continuous service after they travel from Columbus to Montgomery and beyond. That happened at the end of March.

Do you still have coverage holes to fill locally?

There's always opportunities for us to continue to strengthen our network. First of all, as communities grow you need to add more towers to make sure you're staying ahead of capacity. At the same time, our test-drive cars are telling us here's an opportunity and then we work on putting (upgraded equipment) into our funnel in order to improve service in those areas.

(Note: Verizon launched its high-speed broadband service in Columbus last October, calling it Evolution-Data Optimized. An upgrade to that service, called Revision A technology, was recently completed. Auburn and Opelika in Alabama launched the high-speed service earlier this year, while it will roll out in LaGrange, Ga., before the end of 2007. Mango said Verizon has invested more than $142 million in Georgia and Alabama so far this year.)

How does Columbus compare to other similar-sized markets like Augusta, Savannah and Macon?

Each market has its own individual identity, and we rely on our leaders in those markets to make sure that we're invested in the community. We do track troop movements so that we are able to support the needs of the community. We track large businesses and companies moving, or if a plant opens, that kind of information. . . . We want to make sure that we're proactive to the community's needs and, specifically, infrastructure can take a little bit of time. So we need to make sure that we're prepared for those influxes of new residents and the growth.

In a maturing cell phone industry, is future growth in add-on services and products?

There's no doubt that the opportunity for additional revenue growth is through adding all of the services, which is why we so heavily invested in EVDO and in improving the data services and making sure that we're testing data services and so on. The reality of it is that as voice matures, your growth opportunity is in data services.

When all the carriers announce our quarterly results, we all announce something called average revenue per user. It's usually in the $50 range. If you look at that you'll see that we're growing and improving that number.

Is churn — people changing service providers — a big issue today, particularly with number portability?

Number portability, for the first year it was out, had a lot of movement. But it really has leveled off over a period of time. . . . What we try to spend our energy on is making sure that our customers who are with us, one, get the most reliable network and, two, are aware of the new products and services that we offer. . . . Ultimately, as far as churn goes, we have the lowest in the industry, and a lot of that comes down to the network, customer service and offering the best products and services.

How dramatically has the business changed since you first started?

The biggest change was once we added all the robust data features to all the products, when we started getting into the world of text messaging and e-mail and (instant messaging) and surfing the web from your phone. When we launched all of the new data products it really became a new world for our customers because there are products that are going to be very beneficial, especially to business on the productivity side.

What products or services have the most potential?

There are two services that I think are growth areas now and going into the future, which are the broadband and everything that brings to the consumer, whether it's downloading V CAST videos or the ability to log into your laptop with an air card.

The other is VZ Navigator, because I don't think people realize the access they have to the directions and the fact that the phone will tell you exactly where to go — where the nearest gas station is, where the nearest restaurant is.

The other thing that comes out of both of those products is field force manager, which is a product for small business or larger businesses that have a mobile work force. You can take your phone, which has (global positioned satellite), and track on the Web where the employee is with the truck . . .

One quick example — you have a company that makes deliveries and all of a sudden there's an urgent delivery on Ninth Street. You can look on the Web, see where your 10 trucks are and know that Joe is closest and call Joe directly and he can be over there in five minutes. In the past, you would have asked who's available. Somebody would say they're available, but they happened to be across town. Plus you can shoot them directions and their VZ Navigator will take them wherever they need to go.