Design for compliance separates GSS from its competitors. Host Carrie Charles introduces Steve Blazenko, the CEO at GSS, and Alexander Novak, the General Manager at GSS. Steve and Alexander explain how GSS does everything in-house, starting with site acquisition. With other acquisition firms, they’ll have to outsource environmental compliance. So if you want a seamless experience, go for the GSS way. Join in the conversation to discover more about GSS and its family-oriented culture. Tune in!
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The GSS Way: Design For Compliance With Steve Blazenko And Alexander Novak
I met these two gentlemen at Connect (X) and we had a phenomenal conversation. I learned so much about their company. I said, “You need to be on my show.” They’ve got a great story and an incredible history. They’re doing great things in our industry and 5G. I would like to introduce you to Steve Blazenko, the CEO of GSS and Alex Novak, the General Manager of GSS. Welcome to the show.
We’re going to start with a little bit about your journeys and the story of GSS.
To give a little bit of a background, GSS just had its birthday. We were incorporated in the late 1980s. We’re very proud of that and the longevity of the company. We started out doing similar services to what we do in wireless. In the late ‘80s, there wasn’t much of a wireless business but we did find our way into wireless in late 1994. Since 1995, we have been focusing primarily and almost solely on the wireless industry.
Steve, tell me a little bit about your journey and how you got here from where you were.
My father founded the company. He and I started this when I was in college many years ago. He did the incorporation with a partner at the time. That didn’t last long. We moved through the business. It’s a family-owned business. That’s something else that we’re very proud of. We navigated our way through a couple of different industries until we found our way to wireless. This is our home.
Alex, tell me about your journey.
My background professionally and educationally has been in commercial real estate. In about 2000, I got involved in the acquisition side of things when telecom was starting to boom. Steve and I have known each other for many years. We grew up in wireless together and got to know each other when we were both about 30 or 31. In the course of doing site acquisition all over the country, I maintained a relationship with Steve and GSS and we’ve partnered on projects throughout the years. I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about this later. I was given the opportunity to join GSS and help grow it and here I am.
Let’s talk about GSS. Who are your customers? Talk about your services. Let us get to know you a bit.
When you anticipate the problems upfront, you don’t have to go back and start over.
We started out in the late ‘80s as an environmental services company. We still do a lot of Phase I Environmental Site Assessments for wireless. We still do an awful lot for commercial real estate, banking and things of that nature. We did a lot of underground storage tanks, contaminated soil, groundwater work, soil and running water cleanup.
As we moved into wireless, we saw a need at the time for some of those services, mainly Phase I but also branching out into the other portions of FCC compliance, NEPA, Section 106, Tribal Consultation and things of that nature. From our first wireless project down in the Tallahassee, Florida market and in both through North Florida and the Gulf region, we paired environmental services with site acquisition.
Our first project, even though we were a Midwestern-based company and we’re down in the Southeast, grew the business back towards the Midwest. We didn’t start doing our first work in our home state of Iowa until sometime in ‘99 or 2000. That’s the path we took. As far as the services and the clients go, we still have that core. We got into this doing site development and FCC compliance through site acquisition.
We have grown and maintained construction services, construction management, full site development, a portion of GSS and marry those services together for our clients. Everybody has heard of tower companies and large and small major carriers. We also do an awful lot of the wireless work for traditionally non-wireless industries, such as utility companies and railroads.
Do you have anything to add, Alex?
I have watched GSS grow and perform for many years. To see what Steve has done as a leader not only with this company but also within the telecom industry as a whole is something special.
Speaking of something special, you do have something special that differentiates you from your competitors in the marketplace. Tell me about that.
It’s something we call Design for Compliance and it starts with the site acquisition phase of site development. We do everything in-house at GSS. That’s not common in the industry. If you engage a site acquisition firm and ask them to do environmental compliance, they’re going to have to outsource that. If you go to an environmental compliance firm and ask them to do site acquisition, they’re going to have to outsource that.
We have both functions under one roof, which allows us to look at site acquisition or site development under a very unique lens. We have people that are cross-trained across both disciplines. Here’s how that helps. Traditionally, if you have your site acquisition firm going out, searching candidates and bringing you options, they’re going to do their function, meet their contractual obligations and get paid.
It’s a handoff to the A&E firm and the regulatory people. What can happen and what often, unfortunately, does happen is that there are landmines whether that’s historical properties, NEPA, Section 106, Tribal issues or environmental issues. That can trip you up. What do you have to do? You have to go back to your site acquisition person and go, “That candidate fell out. We need you to get another one.” We’re looking at all of those things upfront because we have such a tight network of professionals under one roof.
I can make a call to our Des Moines office, to Steve in Tulsa or walk down the hall here in Dallas and say, “What do you think of these three candidates or sites? What have we seen in the area? What do we think are potential landmines that we can avoid?” Where we reap the benefits of that is in savings in time and cost to our client. We don’t have to go back and start over. We anticipate the problems upfront, which is something special here.
Do you have anything to add to that, Steve?
Alex mentioned having our folks cross-trained, which is the case. One advantage that does do also is from a site acquisition standpoint, especially these days with the proliferation of small cells, C-RAN and our right-of-way in pole-mounted installations. There are avenues through FCC programmatic agreements and FCC rules to where some of those installations can get built. Either, they can be exempted to where they’re not going to have to run through the FCC regulatory process or they can go through and abridged a tribal only or a regulatory format.
What we can do is we can take a look at those from a site acquisition standpoint and those areas upfront and say, “If we’re working in the right-of-way and if you go in the right-of-way of the Northside of the street rather than the Southside, we can save this many time and dollars by taking a different regulatory path than we can if we were to go at it blind.”
As far as co-locations go, it’s also very valuable in that we can take a look at rooftops in the area even if it’s a historic building and work with site acquisition to design that installation to where it may not have to run through Section 106 and much of the entire 106 in the SHPO process. Ultimately, it is a significant cost and time saving for our clients.
You have unique visibility and some information that others may not have because of the way you’re structured. It makes perfect sense. You have an incredible history and we spoke a little bit about this at Connect (X). That’s one thing I was so impressed with among other things. Talk a little bit about your successes over the years and your history.
Our successes are born from the fact that we have been doing this in wireless for many years. We have maintained an internal database and cited tens of thousands of sites across the US, virtually every state in the lower 48 and most municipalities that you have ever heard of. We have maintained an internal listing or database of where some of the problem areas are whether that be from a Tribal, zoning or local historic commission perspective. You don’t get that unless you’ve been doing this as long as we have.
Do you have anything to add, Alex?
All families have ups and downs. It’s a matter of working through the challenges and taking a more personal approach.
From a geographical standpoint, it results in very few surprises going forward. When we have clients asking, “Have you ever seen this jurisdiction? Have you ever done work here?” The answer is inevitably and usually yes. That has always been helpful to us.
You have some unique relationships and mentioned tribes a few times. Can you talk further about that?
When the FCC first started publishing the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement for collocates and raw land sites back in 2001 and 2005, we decided at that point to make it our mission to get to know and build relationships with the Native American tribes that we have to deal with on an everyday basis. Anybody can go out there, make a TCNS filing and send the information.
Where we do have an advantage is we’ve taken the time over the years to get to know a lot of the folks in the regulatory process that are part of the tribal governments. They play a very large and important role in the Section 106 process. It’s a matter of taking the time to get to know them and what issues they may have in that particular area geographically and going at it from a perspective of respect rather than coming at it and saying, “We know we’re going to butt heads. Let’s do it early and often.” We have had a lot of success getting a lot of difficult sites placed and taking a more respectful approach.
Alex, what are your thoughts?
Going from the site acquisition side, communication is important. My team is working on a large 5G project on the West Coast in Southern California. It’s all on the right of way. We have a clear path to developing these sites. However, the residents have questions in these particular municipalities. Giving them a voice, offering to listen to them and answering their questions have been instrumental in getting these sites approved. The relationships that we have established with the jurisdictions out there and communication with the residents are resulting in a lot of success for us on that particular project.
Alex, you said, “Giving them a voice and listening.” Steve, you continue to talk about relationships. That’s a big part of your culture and this was something that impressed me. I want to talk a bit about it. What is it like to work for GSS?
I’m going to have to defer to Alex on that. Let him go first.
Without sounding too cliché, it’s a dream come true. I have known Steve for years. We were very good friends before I came to GSS. I have been at GSS for a few years. We hatched a plan in 2019 and saw each other at the South Wireless Summit in Nashville before COVID hit. We were having some fun and he said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we joined forces?” I said, “Yeah, I definitely do.” He asked me if I would consider moving to Dallas. I was in Chicago at the time. I said, “Absolutely.”
Over the course of the next six months, we hammered out our details and it couldn’t be a better situation. I was a small business owner before that and had a site acquisition firm for twenty years. I still feel like I can have my fingerprints on this company and what happens in this company while having the resources and support to grow the business, do the business the right way and bring the right people on board. It couldn’t be a better situation.
What about from your perspective and what you’ve heard about what it’s like to work for GSS, Steve?
We are a family business. My dad was instrumental from day one. We are still maintaining 100% family ownership. Honestly, we make a genuine effort and I do feel like we succeed most of the time in treating GSS like a big family. It’s a really big family. We hope and whatnot that every one of the GSS team members has our back, which we feel like they do and we certainly have theirs.
All families have ups and downs, difficult times and everything else. It’s a matter of working through it and taking that more personal approach, which was one of the reasons why we have been very fortunate and don’t have a lot of turnovers. We have had people retire from GSS after almost 29 years. Folks come and very few leave, thankfully.
Let’s talk more about this because retention is such a hot topic. There’s the great resignation. With the pandemic, people are rethinking their lives, careers and future. Retention is one of the number one problems for companies and leaders. What strikes me about this conversation is I keep hearing longevity. Alex has known Steve for years. GSS has been in business for over 30 years and in wireless for over 25 years. You’ve had people that have stayed with you for over twenty years. There’s so much longevity here. I have to ask you what the secret is. What is your secret to that low turnover and high retention? What would you say is your turnover rate average?
Honestly, most years, it’s 0%. There are years where it is 5% to 6%. Rarely if ever is it higher than that.
You got to tell everybody your secret because that is amazing.
We enjoy the position we’re in. This isn’t rocket science. It’s a matter of genuinely making every effort to bring people up from the ground level. There is not anybody who is director-level at GSS who did not start at a level below that. It is all homegrown. We try to give every opportunity and make every effort to have our folks come up organically from within the organization.
It’s easy and cliché to say, “We’re a team. This is a team effort,” but we try to take that to the next step in that we make a concerted effort and it’s our everyday business dealings to get people in the organization from top to bottom involved in projects at an early level, have input in terms of how things should flow. It’s not just senior-level folks that have all the good ideas. I’m not a fan of that line of thinking. There are some fantastic ideas. Someone doesn’t have to have 5, 10, or 15 years in the wireless industry to be able to come up with a good idea, process or approach to something.
You need to surround yourself with the absolute best folks to succeed.
It’s more about critical thinking. Those are the folks that we go after and recruit. We bring on, honestly, a tiny percentage of the folks that we interview and the resumes that we review. We make a concerted effort to pick the best people, the critical thinkers and the problem solvers. I know everybody is looking for the folks who can solve problems especially in what we do.
It is very technical. We are a niche business. There are only a handful of companies out there that serve the wireless industry and do a lot of the environmental services that we do. The ones that are out there are all pretty good at it but it’s not like being in the restaurant business or something of that nature where it’s on every street corner. It’s critical to find the right types of folks and thinkers to get this done.
There was so much in what you said that I want to go back to but first, Alex, tell me in your view what’s the secret to your high retention rate.
It boils down to three things, Carrie. It’s autonomy, responsibility and accountability. None of our leadership team micromanages anybody. Everyone is trusted to do their job, given responsibilities and will be given more responsibilities if they want more responsibilities. There’s also accountability. Everybody’s got expectations. We set the bar high at GSS with the services that we provide to our clients. Our employees are expected to meet that and they do. It’s amazing to see.
You mentioned Steve that you promote from within. Many or all of your directors have started with you at a lower level before they became a director. How do you achieve this with some challenging or highly-skilled roles? I know that people come to us as a staffing company and say, “We have to fill this role and they have to have these exact skills.”
My question is if you have someone that you’ve identified that has the DNA for the role but doesn’t necessarily have the skill to move up into that next position, do you move them there and surround them with mentorship training and train them up to it? How do you handle that when you need specific skills and experience for a role?
When we need specific skills, it’s great to go out and find folks that have those skills. To be perfectly honest, there aren’t that many that know Section 106, NEPA, wireless site development and how those practices play into site acquisition and overall site development constructability. For the most part, we have the opportunity and a number of folks on our team that came from other aspects of wireless or competitors.
Some of the most rising stars are folks that didn’t have a lot of experience or background in this type of business. They may be familiar with it or their college degrees matched up with things of that nature. It’s about finding folks who are hungry, who want to learn and who are coachable. You’ve got to be coachable, honestly, to succeed in this industry and with GSS. We will surround you with some of the absolute best folks in the business.
I will put Alex, our director team and a lot of our project manager and senior PM teams up against anybody out there. New folks are going to be immersed with a tremendous amount of experience surrounding them. As long as they are willing to learn from that, realize that new ideas are great but there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. As long as you stay within that path of doing things the right way or the GSS way then they’re going to succeed. I promise.
Tell me a little bit more about the GSS way. What is that? Is that your mission? Tell me. I want to know.
It is a mission. It is on page one of our employee handbook. It’s something that everybody who comes to work at GSS becomes familiar with. It is about the way of doing business and conducting ourselves in the industry with clients, regulators, associates, competitors and whomever it might be in a positive, thoughtful and kind manner. We are here ultimately to serve our clients. We’re very old school in this regard. The client is always right. I know that has gone by the wayside but it’s how we do things at GSS.
That’s people-centric. Alex, do you have anything to add?
It goes back to a couple of the words I threw up before, responsibility and accountability. That applies to our clients too. Not every project goes as planned as we all know. Things go sideways in this industry. Our clients know that we’re going to take responsibility and fix any problems that arise. Steve and I are very proud of the fact that in our history, GSS has never been fired from a project. That’s a big thing. That’s hard to say for anybody.
Is that in the history of your company? That’s a lot of years. Congratulations. Keep going.
That speaks to our accountability. As I said, things happen but when problems arise, we meet them head-on and upfront, communicate with our clients very well and move on. We have been very fortunate in the respect that we have a team that has a lot of integrity and is willing to take on any challenges.
Hiring is a challenge for everyone not just in our industry but all across the world. What is your hiring philosophy? How do you find good people? Do you hire for skill, culture or soft skills? How do you do it? Where do you find people?
As far as finding people, it’s the same way everybody else does. We will run ads, work occasionally with staffing professionals and do things of that nature. As far as bringing a pool together, if someone’s got an idea out there and a new way to do it that I’m not familiar with, I would love to hear it. We do sometimes reach out directly to colleges and universities to say, “Who have you got that that’s graduating in a field that we are interested in?” Sometimes we reach out and talk to folks that way.
Ultimately, in the hiring process, we’re not looking for someone who fits into a singular or one contained box. I’m a big fan of ideas and creative thinking. If their communication skills are great, if their problem-solving skills are good, if they appear like they’re capable of building relationships and most importantly, are they someone that I would put in front of one of our clients? Those are the key skills that I’m looking for.
Don’t get into things you’re not good at.
Alex, what is the DNA of a GSS team member?
It’s a couple of different things. It’s hungry, aggressive and professional. I coach a few different youth sports and one thing I always tell my boys on the various teams is, “You got to have that want and hunger to do it.” It’s an intangible thing but you know it when you see it. I don’t think you can teach it. The DNA of the GSS employee has that. They have the will to learn more, take on more and be part of a team. We don’t have a lot of lone wolves on our staff. We have built a solid network and team.
The culture always starts top down. It’s the leaders that create the culture and keep it alive. Tell me about your leadership philosophies. Is there a common thread for the leaders at GSS or some traits that you train up in your leaders?
The first couple I can think of that are the most important as far as we’re concerned is accountability and leading by example. We are not an organization where the folks in charge or the leaders within the group kick back, don’t get involved, aren’t accountable or are there to dictate things to the folks that are down the food chain. We are 100% active in projects. Alex runs projects on a day-to-day basis. I still run projects five days in a workweek.
It’s the old adage that the folks at the phone companies use is, “You never want to get too far away from the telephone.” You never want to get too far up the food chain to where you don’t know what’s going on the ground. All of the folks at GSS, our directors and Shaun Hemsted, our Development Director in Des Moines, are 100% engaged not only with his team, projects and clients on an everyday basis. It’s not the typical pyramid structure that you see in a lot of companies. We’re almost more of an upside-down pyramid where all the folks in the leadership positions are completely engaged. Honestly, everybody had their lax moments. I try to have it where nobody is out there working harder than I am.
That’s my philosophy too. Alex, what makes a great leader at GSS?
As Steve said, the lead by example mantra is huge. It’s coaching and being able to teach. A lot of us professionally have skills but if you can’t pass on those skills, you’re never going to grow as an organization. That’s the biggest problem that I had as a small business owner. I had trouble trusting someone enough to put my name on them. Being now part of this team has forced me to embrace that. I have grown professionally because of that. Being able to share your knowledge and skills with your teams is critical.
I have learned so much from our conversations. You inspire me. Let’s talk about the future. What’s the vision for GSS in the future? What are you up to? What’s next? Where are you going? Is there anything exciting that you can share with us about some projects coming up or something cool?
As far as the future goes, we are constantly in growth mode. We grow steadily, carefully and intelligently. One of the reasons that we’ve been around for years is that we’ve made a concerted effort to never bite off more than we can chew. It’s a difficult situation. We’ve had clients, at times, come to us and we’ve had to say, “We can take on that project but it’s not going to get done with the speed, the expedience or by the personnel that you’re used to. We want to be upfront about that.”
We are always in growth mode. As far as new things and projects, we are constantly expanding our services menu and geographic footprint. There’s a lot of work that Alex is doing and the permitting the 5G work that he’s doing in Southern California. We have worked in California for many years but that type of project is new to GSS. I feel good about the fact that we are performing very well. It’s a matter of not getting into things that we don’t know. We know what we’re good at. Our growth and future are expanding the things that we know that we can do well to new clients in different geographic markets and places where we have worked in the past but not with the consistency that we do now.
Those are wise words. Alex, give us a peek into the future.
For me, it’s expanding the footprint of the site acquisition division. That was my charge coming here. We have made great strides in doing that. It’s getting the GSS brand out there as much as we can. When you gave us this opportunity, Steve and I were extremely excited. This isn’t something that we have done. Call me a tech geek but I have watched your episodes before. When you asked us to do this, I was thrilled. It’s increasing brand awareness and letting people know who GSS is and what we can do.
I am so thankful that you said yes. You are an inspiration. This has been a fantastic learning experience for me. I’m going to add pieces of your culture to my culture at Broadstaff. I want to thank you so much for coming to the show. We have to tell how to get ahold of you. There are many people that are wondering, “How do I work there? I want a job there. I want to hire them. They’re amazing.” How can people find you?
The easiest route would be through our website www.GSSMidwest.com. Alex and I are both on LinkedIn. Reach out to us there. There will be links to many of the State Wireless Association Programs. We’re very involved in those and sponsor those events on a regular basis. There will be links to us on some of their websites. We are members of WIA. I know that you can find us through there. There are lots of different ways to find us.
Thank you for coming to the show. This has been awesome. I’m sure that we are going to have a long friendship in wireless.
We look forward to it. Thank you very much.
- Connect (X)
- LinkedIn – Stephen Blazenko
- Nationwide Programmatic Agreement
- South Wireless Summit
- Shaun Hemsted – LinkedIn
- State Wireless Association Program
About Steve Blazenko
Steve Blazenko is a geologist who is proficient in wireless site development and property transfer projects. During his 33 years with GSS he has gained a vast knowledge of local, state and federal regulations related to many aspects of environmental compliance and regulatory due diligence. This knowledge covers both telecommunication and other property development endeavors. His responsibilities include client relations, marketing, project coordination and completion and submission of Phase I projects and other property transfer operations. He performs site reconnaissance for Phase I projects and has completed the ASTM Technical and Professional Training Course on Environmental Site Assessment for Commercial Real Estate.
Mr. Blazenko works closely with local, State and Federal Agencies in the completion of Section 106 and NEPA projects and specializes in the negotiation of difficult sites with regulatory agencies. He has worked closely with the FCC in finding solutions complicated wireless site installations. He works closely with State and Federal agencies as well as Tribal representatives on issues related to the siting of wireless facilities.
Mr. Blazenko has spent the past 26 years building and maintaining relationships with the FCC, Tribal representatives, local, State and Federal Agencies. He enjoys a close working relationship with State Historic Preservation Officers across the United States as well as FCC representatives and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.
Mr. Blazenko has been personally involved in the performance and management of Section 106 and NEPA evaluations on tens of thousands of wireless site installation projects including raw-land sites and all manners of co-location. He has provided advice on wireless regulatory issues to industry representatives as well as members of the Unites States Senate and House of Representatives.
About Alex Novak
Alex Novak has had a successful career of over 25 years in site selection/acquisition, real estate development, valuation, consulting and brokerage and is the General Manager at GSS, a Development Services firm which specializes in acquisition, development and management of telecommunications sites across the country.
Alex has extensive experience negotiating and closing transactions on behalf of his clients, which have ranged from individuals to Fortune 500 companies. Dedication to his clients has always been a focal point of Alex’s career, resulting in many successful long-term business relationships. Alex holds a Bachelor of Science in Real Estate from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud Minnesota.
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