Regulators have had Northwestel in the hot seat lately, but its newly appointed chairman, Charles Brown, is no stranger to the recent controversy.
For the past two years, Brown has sat on the company’s board.
He takes over from longtime chairman Terry Mosey, who held the position for almost nine years.
With more than two decades of experience in the telecommunications industry, Brown, who is also president of the electronics retailer, The Source, brings with him a plethora of experience.
“I’ve always been interested in technology,” he said. “Sometimes I think it’s genetic.”
Years ago his great uncle Mord Millard ran a municipal telephone company out of his drugstore in Cold Water, Ont.
But while “telecom runs in the family,” Brown started out following his father’s footsteps down a different path.
“My dad sold insurance for London Life for nearly 50 years so I knew what that lifestyle would give and I liked sales so I was pretty good at it, but this technology thing just kept eating away at me,” he said.
In 1980 he left the insurance business to take a job with Bell Canada. That’s where he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.
“That’s what I mean when I say it runs in the family,” he said.
Over the years, Brown worked for a number of telecommunication companies. He even helped to start a couple of his own.
In 2006 he returned to Bell and a few years later he was put in charge of all the telecommunications for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
“I got really lucky in career choices,” he said. “Telecommunications is a fascinating business, always changing.
“It’s becoming more ingrained in our daily lives and we’re using it more and more for just about everything.
Right now Brown is teaching himself to play the piano by watching lessons posted on Youtube.
For remote places like the North, the impact of telecommunications is even more profound, said Brown.
“The challenge in the North for telecommunications is that unfortunately telecom is an expensive business,” he said. “It’s tough to do because quite often the markets you’re dealing with have a very small population.
“But telecom is so important in everyday life, it brings so much to people, that you’ve just got to find a way to do it.”
Brown’s tenure as chairman of Northwestel comes at a particularly challenging time for the company.
Late last year, the normally-reserved CRTC lambasted Northwestel for what it said was significant under-investment in its aging network infrastructure.
The commission noted that a majority of Northwestel’s switches are more than 15 years old and well beyond their estimated useful life. That was something it considered especially telling, considering Northwestel’s profits had doubled since 2007.
In its ruling, the commission stripped Northwestel of its monopoly on local landline phone service, denied it a request for a rate increase, ordered the company to come up with a detailed plan for future equipment and said it would take a closer look at how the company is regulated over the next two years.
“Northwestel was pretty surprised at the tone of the CRTC decision,” said Brown “They felt that they had made significant changes to really aggressively compete for business in the North.
“I mean $462 million over 10 years is a pretty reasonable level of investment in any business.”
As chairman, Brown isn’t running Northwestel, just heading up its board of directors.
This isn’t the first time that Brown has chaired a board.
In 2009, Brown oversaw Bell’s takeover of The Source and was later appointed chairman of its board of directors.
Two years later he was made president of the company.
While the regulatory requirements of a telecom company are more stringent than a retail business, when it comes to the work a board does, it’s not all that different, he said.
“There’s a really simple rule: NIFO, Noses In and Fingers Out,” said Brown.
The board’s job is to help management deliver better results and make sure that it is meeting all of its regulatory and legal obligations, he said.
In the near term, Brown said the board’s main focus will be helping management devise a strategy to meet the new regulatory and competitive landscape that Northwestel faces.
That means there will be an increased level of transparency.
“We want to make sure that people understand the Northwestel story,” he said. “What it’s doing, why it’s a good corporate citizen and where it’s investing its money.
“They really try hard to be involved in the community and to give back in lots of ways.”
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