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SRT prepares for leadership change

Cooperative prepares for leadership change

Jill Schramm/MDN Outgoing general manager Steve Lysne and incoming general manager Cassidy Hjelmstad have been working together since July to transition the executive leadership at SRT.

SRT General Manager/CEO Steve Lysne is confident the telecommunications cooperative won’t miss a beat when he retires at the end of the month and executive leadership shifts to Cassidy Hjelmstad.

The two have been working on the transition since July.

“I’m looking forward to some of the opportunities that I hope to be able to bring to the table,” said Hjelmstad, who has been SRT’s director of corporate communications for 11 years.

SRT’s board tapped Hjelmstad last summer to replace Lysne, who started at SRT 27 years ago as chief financial officer after working for about 10 years in public accounting for a Minot firm. A Leeds-area native, he has been SRT’s general manager for 19 years.

A Newburg native, Hjelmstad worked for the Timberwolves in Minneapolis and later the Phoenix Suns after graduating from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Looking to come back to North Dakota, she became director of corporate communications at SRT.

Hjelmstad said Lysne’s institutional knowledge and the respect he’s garnered in the industry set him apart as a boss and mentor.

“You can ask anyone across the country and they know who he is,” Hjelmstad said. “When he speaks in a room, they listen. So trying to model that behavior of someone who’s got that respect is something that I’m just grateful for, that I get to learn from him. It’s been awesome.”

Lysne took the helm at SRT when the cooperative was in transition.

“The way we communicate today has changed considerably,” he said, noting how emails, texts, social media and data have replaced voice communication. “So when I became manager, it was pretty imperative that we had to transition from a telephone company to a broadband internet company.”

SRT now has more broadband customers than other types of customers, Lysne said. Landlines have declined from a peak of about 50,000 around the year 2000 to just over 15,000.

SRT was one of the first telecommunications companies to build its own wireless phone network. As the industry has consolidated, SRT no longer operates a wireless network but continues to own about 54 cell towers on which the major carriers lease space.

“We built towers where other companies would not have – in very rural areas. Because those towers are there now, we’ve the major wireless carriers located on those towers. So there’s service in those areas,” Lysne said.

The transition has required significant infrastructure investment, particularly the replacement of copper wire with fiber optic cable that began about 10 years ago.

Now completing the Minot piece to finish the fiber buildout, SRT is on track to have its entire system on fiber in two years. That accomplishment could make Minot the largest, fully fiberized city in the nation, Lysne said.

There were years where cashflow was tight due to the construction expenses, but SRT is experiencing the benefit of that investment now, Lysne said. The past three years have been SRT’s most successful financially.

“From a customer standpoint, we have some of the lowest rates, I would say, in the country – I know in the state,” he said. “I think we’ve kept our rates very competitive.”

“Even with that investment and putting the money into the network, we’ve still been able to give back capital credits to our membership,” Hjelmstad added.

Hjelmstad sees the completion of the fiber project as her most pressing goal. A completed fiber project will advance business development and serve consumers who need technology for uses such as smart appliances or a home business, she said.

“We need to provide that network. So the immediate need is to get the fiber in the ground so people can have any connections that they want,” Hjelmstad said.

While pursuing that goal, SRT also has been increasing its focus on cybersecurity.

“We constantly are talking about it,” Hjelmstad said. “We’re monitoring it. We’re doing things in our co-op that are more proactive than many others across the country, and we’re fortunate to have the IT staff led by our CTO, Shawn Grosz. If he didn’t have the team he has and the talent that he has, we may not be as capable as we are.”

Hjelmstad would like to leverage SRT’s staff expertise to educate the cooperative’s members. Taking some of the intimidation out of technology through education can create more satisfied customers and support the utilization of broadband services.

Hjelmstad also sees opportunity over time to leverage SRT’s resources to form partnerships that benefit its communities or that help support smaller telecommunications cooperatives.

SRT currently contributes to local communities in serving as a conduit for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Loan and Grant money, which most recently has benefitted ambulance services or businesses in Mohall, Berthold, Sherwood and Velva.

As a member of the Rural Development Finance Corp., SRT has been able to annually obtain $2,000 for grants, which it matches, to support community projects.

SRT itself employs about 190 full-time staff, or in excess of 200 when seasonal workers are on board. SRT is governed by a 12-member board of directors.

“What I’ve enjoyed is the forward-thinking that the board has,” Lysne said. “What I appreciate with the board’s choice of Cassidy is they picked somebody that’s got that forward-thinking. It’s always nice to look back at our accomplishments, but just do it for a minute and remember, keep moving forward. So the board made a great choice. Cassidy will be very successful.”

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