Family ties have made Twin Valley a success
Jan 16, 2013 (Clay Center Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The truly amazing thing about Twin Valley Telephone is that it has always been, and continues to be, a family business, retiring CEO/president Mike Foster said.
"I was blessed with the opportunity to work with my family in a family-owned business since I was six-years-old," Mike said in naming the company's biggest accomplishment that he's most proud of. "That was an opportunity I didn't fully appreciate or understand early on in my career. But as I got older, it became cooler and cooler to work with my wife, my parents, my grandparents, my sister and her husband, my other sister, and then, as we continued to grow and the kids came back from college, with my son, daughters when they were working part-time in high school, and then my nieces and nephews. To be part of that family environment is unbelievable and at the top of all of my experiences."
He said the experience of working with family hasn't been limited to those he's related to -- all employees have become part of the Twin Valley family.
"They became friends and they were literally viewed by me and all of us as family," he said.
Twin Valley Telephone started when Miltonvale Telephone Company, which began in 1900, bought Greenleaf Telephone Company in February 1957, with Foster's family serving as incorporators of TVT. The Foster family had owned the Miltonvale Telephone Company since 1947 and his parents and grandparents were involved in the business.
Mike described growing up in the telephone business as "exciting," particularly in the first grade when he was six-years-old, and later in high school and college, when he worked part-time in the summers.
"I got to go out and work on the line," Mike mused. "My granddad and father might have called it getting in the way as much as anything, but they let me go with them. So I got to be involved and watched them work. I got to do that for a long time before I started to get paid for it in high school."
Mike returned from college to work for Twin Valley full-time as a lineman and installer in 1971, which wasn't long after the company had expanded. In 1960, TVT purchased four more exchanges from United Telephone Company of Kansas -- Barnard, Bennington, Beverly, and Tescott.
Mike recalled doing just about everything over the years and especially after he returned to the company following college.
"We didn't have a big enough staff to specialize -- we did everything," he said. "If we needed to trim trees, we trimmed trees. If we needed to dig a hole to repair a cable, we didn't have a backhoe; we dug a hole. Everybody did everything. Some of the guys were trained in the switching, some weren't."
The mid-to-late 1960's brought direct distance dialing. Up until 1978, the only services the company had to sell were dial tone, long distance and custom calling services like touch tone and voice mail, Mike said.
"We expanded about every year, putting in infrastructure, buried cable, new lines, getting rid of aerial stuff, burying plant, changing out switches -- all of those things, until about '78, and that was when we had all single-party service private lines through our service area and it was all buried plant."
At the time, they thought "it doesn't get any better than this," Mike said.
"Then we made a mistake, we didn't do an awful lot in the '80's," he recalled. "We should have done more. Then, when things started going digital, fiber optics were in the beginning (in the '90's). We started upgrading our switch and connecting our exchanges with fiber to provide better long distance service, more features and better stability for weather and stuff like. And at the same time, we were one of the early investors in the early '90s of Kansas Cellular."
As an investor and agent for Kansas Cellular, Twin Valley was among the first to bring cell phones to its customers in this area.
Until February 2006, Twin Valley served 2,000 customers over an 850 square mile area of north central Kansas. That year the company's customer base grew to 6,600 customers over a 2,400 square mile radius with 7,400 access lines with the acquisition of 13 exchanges -- Aurora, Leonardville, Longford, Morganville, Riley, Wakefield, Clifton, Clyde, Delphos, Glasco, Green, Milford and Olsburg.
Twin Valley began to change copper lines to fiber optic lines. After installation of fiber optic, the company began offering digital and high-definition TV and Internet service along with telephone services to customers. With the fiber optic project, Twin Valley added Clay Center customers in 2008 and completed the fiber optic installation in 2009.
Now Twin Valley serves 20 communities and customers in primarily six counties, including all communities in Clay County, most of Cloud and Ottawa counties, and parts of Lincoln, Mitchell, Saline, Dickinson, Riley, Pottawatomie, Washington and Republic.
Mike described how the company has changed since he started as "the difference between putting a monkey in a satellite and putting a man on the moon."
"It's the same kind of thing in our industry," he said. "Now, even on copper, we're delivering huge amounts of bandwidth for services like digital internet, TV. A little more than two-thirds of our customers are on fiber to their home."
Fiber has a huge amount of bandwidth, he said, so much that it can handle future needs.
"We'll never, ever bury anything to those customers' houses again," he said. "It has unlimited bandwidth. It's future-proof."
Before fiber, in the early years, telephone companies were replacing infrastructure two to four years, but with fiber, "that's over," he said. Eventually all the exchanges and customers will be switched over to the fiber. And with the fiber, there's "a ton of service that hasn't been generated yet that will be delivered on the fiber," Mike said.
Despite those improvements, the future of the company is uncertain because "the regulated business is under attack" by FCC regulators at both the state and federal level, Mike said.
"I'm not sure what the future of our regulated business will look like," he said. "I think in five to 10 years, it's going to be drastically different than it is today. Hopefully we'll be able to serve all our rural customers."
Serving rural customers is difficult because of the high cost to provide service to them, Mike said. The company has been "hit hard" by decreases in the Federal Universal Service Fund, which made it possible for Twin Valley to pay back loans made to upgrade services.
"The regulators back in Washington, D.C. don't understand that," he said. "(They think) that flea market concept that works in an urban environment and the city works in rural America, and it doesn't."
He said Kansas needs to make the right move this year on attacks to the Kansas Universal Service Fund, "because if they don't, there are rural telephone companies in Kansas that are going to go bankrupt."
While Mike is retiring, he'll continue as chairman of the board and do some consulting work for the company on an as-needed basis. His son Ben will take over as president/CEO of the company.
A retirement reception will be held for Mike Foster at the Miltonvale office 9-11 am. Friday, Jan. 18, and at the Clay Center office 2 -4 p.m. Friday.
Read more about the history of the company and how it has changed over the years at http://www.twinvalley.net/twin-valley-history.
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