Holly Henderson | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Keeping Connections with Customers Strong

By Karen Rosen, Atlanta Trend

As the most junior staffer for a U.S. Senator  in the early 1990s, Holly Henderson learned her way around Capitol Hill by working on a variety of  issues.

She addressed constituent concerns about veterans’ affairs and military retirement, dealt with immigration issues, and delved into foreign policy matters and wrote polite -- yet vague -- letters to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists.

Henderson also worked on telecommunications policy, where she became acquainted with the Federal Communications Commission. That experience in Washington still serves Henderson well today as External Affairs Manager for SouthernLINC Wireless, where she is responsible for regulatory and legislative issues at both the federal and state levels. 

“I understand how the Hill works,” Henderson says. “I understand that the person you are talking to there is not necessarily that deep in your issue. And you can’t get that deep with them, or you can very quickly overwhelm them and lose them.”

She says the most critical step is persuading the staffer to help with your issue.

“You are one of three, four, five meetings they’ve got during the day,” Henderson says. “They’ve got a stack of letters -- and a stack of phone calls and 1,000 e-mails on top of it all. So what is it about your need that makes it so important and makes them want to take your issue to their member and get some help there?”

While FCC staff is, naturally, much more knowledgeable about telecommunications issues, the same approach of being persuasive applies, she explains. 

SouthernLINC Wireless is a small carrier serving customers across 127,000 square miles in Georgia, Alabama, southeastern Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Southern Company, parent company of four electric utilities in the Southeast – Georgia Power, Alabama Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power, which are also SouthernLINC Wireless customers.

“In the wireless industry, we’ve got a great story,” Henderson says. “We provide a service of tremendous value to consumers. In an external affairs function, we have an important role to play because it is a complex business. Whether it’s a change in law or a change in regulations, it’s never quite as straightforward as the party on the other side would like to believe, when they say things like ‘Well, you can just stick that on your bill.’ That’s not so easy.”

Henderson is an advocate for both SouthernLINC Wireless and their customers in making sure the company invests in services valued by consumers.

“The challenge of working for a small carrier is I don’t have the resources of an AT&T or a Verizon,” she says. “After you get past the Big 4, there are the rest of us. We have amongst us somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the market, so it makes for a very interesting dynamic on policy matters”.

Small Town Upbringing

Growing up on a farm in the South Georgia town of Pavo, Henderson never imagined she’d be immersed in a world of cell towers and FCC pleadings. She was class valedictorian at Colquitt High School and went to Agnes Scott College, where she majored in international relations.  After her sophomore year, Henderson received a scholarship to attend a six-week program offered by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Students took classes in the morning and interned in the afternoon.

“It was a great place to live, so much going on all the time,” Henderson says. “Working in politics and public policy is very demanding, but it’s great when you’re young and don’t have a lot of commitments and you can afford to make practically no money.

“You know all those stories about how the interns on Capitol Hill go looking for the receptions to eat? That’s all very true.”

After graduation, Henderson and her boyfriend, Jeff Finger (who is now her husband), went to Washington with no jobs lined up. They did some house-sitting and met a couple who invited them to stay with them until they were gainfully employed.

“All they ever asked in return was that we help people,” Henderson says. “So I’ve always kept that in mind.”

After her first job on the Hill,  Henderson then became a research assistant with the Korean Embassy. She says people are often curious about how she obtained the position. “I answered an ad in the paper.”

Henderson worked in the political section at a time when the Clinton administration and the Korean government were intensively negotiating with the regime in North Korea over nuclear reactors. “That is still an ongoing issue today that has not been resolved,” she says.

Henderson monitored news media and did some speechwriting, mostly for the political minister, but once for the ambassador.  When the Korean president arrived in Washington for a state visit, she went to Andrews Air Force Base with the embassy contingent to greet him.

After about 18 months, Henderson left to obtain a masters of science in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. The program had a concentration in international business diplomacy, so she could study more on the business side without having to get an MBA.

During the two-year program, Henderson worked for Rockwell International in the office of the vice president of trade.

Return to Georgia

After five years in Washington, Henderson and her husband decided it was time to move back home. It was the spring of 1996 and he had a job doing advance work for the Olympic torch relay.

“I came back thinking that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much of a job search until everyone was done with the Olympics,”  Henderson says.

Instead, she’d been in town just a couple of days when her networking in Washington paid off.  A woman who had finished the same masters program at Georgetown contacted her about a summer job with GTE.
That turned into four years. Henderson began working in international business development, with the company focused on wireless business deals  in places like Taiwan and Italy.

Henderson then changed jobs internally.  Transferring to domestic marketing for the wireless business unit in Atlanta, “I did a lot of work in competitive intelligence, looking at what other carriers were doing and analyzing our own markets,” she says. “We probably were ahead of the curve in terms of really looking at demographic data, trying to understand the market.”

Getting the company to actually use the data was another matter. “It’s challenging and I think companies have gotten more sophisticated about that today than they were at that point in time,” Henderson says.

She also looked at the performances of prepaid plans and helped the company strategize to attract their ideal customers.

“We had this sense of ‘Oh, we’ve really almost gotten everyone that we can get to buy a cell phone,’” she says. “And we were still so far away from actually reaching that threshold if you look at what the penetration rate is today, which is well over 90 percent.”

Henderson next moved into regulatory affairs in the government relations organization at GTE, where she had responsibility for about 20 states. “For the most part, the wireless industry is deregulated at the state level, but there are a handful of issues that are enough to keep us very busy,” she says.

One of those states was California, which is a notoriously tough place to do business because it is intensely regulatory.

“We spent a lot of time addressing consumer complaints that went into the Public Utilities Commission,” she says. “There was a clear expectation that if the PUC sent something to GTE, they wanted to know what was done to fix the problem, to satisfy the consumer.”

A New Opportunity

With GTE in the process of merging with Bell Atlantic to form Verizon – and with Bell Atlantic acquiring AirTouch Cellular -- Henderson recognized that it was time to look for another job.

“Mergers or acquisitions are tricky situations when you’re working for one of the parties,” she says. “Because you don’t need two managers doing the same thing.”

Through networking, Henderson heard about a position at SouthernLINC Wireless and joined the company in June 2000.

“I have grown with the job and I think I have grown the job as well,” she says. “When I first came in, it was mainly because they needed somebody to do some of the FCC regulatory work.

“I had done the state side, but I hadn’t done the FCC side, so it was a learning opportunity. “

Henderson directs the work of outside attorneys who assist with SouthernLINC’s FCC advocacy.  She also manages the company’s state lobbyists during the legislative session, providing them with direction and information.  She has two people who report to her directly: one in Atlanta who helps with a lot of the FCC reporting and analysis of rulemakings, and another in Birmingham, Ala., who focuses on 911 deployment, which is a huge compliance area for wireless carriers.

The FCC has plans to move 911 to broadband networks so consumers can not just call in an emergency, but also send a text, a photo or a video.

The biggest issue on Henderson’s plate right now is FCC reform of the Universal Service Fund.

“Universal Service is the idea that consumers in rural areas have access to services comparable to what consumers in urban areas enjoy at reasonable prices, and the Universal Service Fund provides financial support to achieve that idea” she says, adding with a laugh, “I’m thinking that maybe reforming Social Security will be easier.  But in all seriousness, the Universal Service Fund has meant that rural America has made progress in terms of communications infrastructure, so how it is reformed is incredibly important.”

Who Should Pay?

Henderson says that it has been difficult to build industry consensus around what needs to be done.  She says SouthernLINC Wireless opposes any plan in which the FCC would support only one carrier in a given rural area.

“If you think about it as a consumer, how frustrating is it if you have no other choice, you can’t even say, ‘You don’t appreciate me or my hard-earned money, so I’m going to take my business elsewhere. ’ And whoever wins has very little incentive to do better if they are the only game in town.”

She says SouthernLINC Wireless believes reform should be legally justifiable. “We don’t think the FCC has really thought about  what the Telecommunications Act says that they are supposed to do,” Henderson says. “They have an end goal in mind and they’re just trying to get there and not really pay attention to what the Act says.

“And we think that reform should be technologically neutral. There are a lot of ideas that have been proposed that really favor the existing landline carrier. This is coming at a time -- depending on whose survey you look at -- when somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of Americans have cut the cord and have only a wireless phone.”

SouthernLINC Wireless is in a different position than some of the other wireless carriers in that it doesn’t have a landline parent.

As the issue consumes much of her time, Henderson follows her personal policy of being optimistic.

“You always have to believe that you can prevail,” she says, “because I think people otherwise can hear it in you, if you’re just going through the motions and don’t fully believe in it. And I think if you’re going to be in external affairs, you have to believe in who and what you’re advocating for. I don’t think I could do this for just any company or any industry for that matter.”

Secrets to Success

  1. Have integrity and be credible. A lot of times, that’s all you’ve got with people.  Integrity and credibility are essential to building and maintaining your relationships with policy makers, legislators and with staff. And be a good, reliable source of information, someone that if you tell them that this is how it is, it’s believable.
  2. Plan for the long haul. It can be very easy to get caught up in what you’ve got to do to win the battle today and lose sight of ‘If I plan on being around here a while, I need to be able to come back tomorrow.’
  3. Be a good communicator. A lot of policy  issues can get very detailed, very technical, and filled with jargon, so it can be a challenge sometimes to keep that at a level where the person you are speaking with understands what you’re trying to share with them.
  4. Understand people’s motivations and needs in order to be effective in advancing your viewpoint. You have to find the thing that you can really hook onto, and that they can as well. Help them help you.
  5. Think strategically and have your end goal in mind. But also have options about how you would get there depending on how things unfold.
  6. Celebrate the small victories along the way.  There are seldom big, clean, clear victories in public policy, especially for small companies. A lot of it is about tradeoffs and getting a portion of what you want and giving up something somewhere else.  So, you have to learn to celebrate the victories.

"Holly Henderson is External Affairs Manager for SouthernLINC Wireless. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Holly Henderson for sharing her thoughts with us."

Staff Writer

For questions or feedback, please contact us at emedia@atlantatrend.org


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