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New Channel Chief: Windstream a 'Hedge' Against AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink

"We're going to stop apologizing for things that may or may not have happened 5 years ago," says Curt Allen.

Edward Gately

November 7, 2017

10 Min Read
Q&A

Channel vet Curt Allen left the channel in September with plans to take a year off, and then return with a new entrepreneurial pursuit.

Then Windstream came calling and changed everything. Allen is taking over as Windstream’s channel chief, replacing Olen Scott, who took over the position in late February. Allen will start his new job on Nov. 13.

Scott became Windstream’s channel chief immediately after the company’s acquisition of EarthLink closed. He previously was EarthLink’s vice president of partner channels.

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Windstream’s Curt Allen

Allen’s official title is senior vice president of channel. He was president of X4 Solutions, the master agent that was acquired by fellow master agent Sandler Partners. He became Sandler’s president of channel before leaving in September.

Layne Levine, president of Windstream’s enterprise business division, said Allen is somebody “who really understands what we are going through.”

In a Q&A with Channel Partners, Allen gives his assessment of Windstream’s channel strategy, and shares his plans for building an improved partner program and increasing channel sales.

Channel Partners: What made you want to come out of retirement to take the Windstream channel chief position?

Curt Allen: After initial conversations with Brian Crotty (president of Windstream’s midmarket and small business division) and then Layne Levine and Tony Thomas (president and CEO), and several other folks over there, it became apparent to me quickly that this was a group, both the existing leadership team and then the new folks coming on board, that was really committed to creating what I think will be the world-class organization in our space and, more importantly, very committed to channel playing a huge role in that. So running a carrier program wasn’t on my short list of things that I was going to do next, but it became apparent for a couple of reasons that this was the right thing for me to do.

The first one that jumped out at me was the underlying assets in the combined companies. From a pure network perspective, you look at the diversity of network assets, with broadband all the way up through big fiber and mixed wireless, and that type of diversity was always going to be a pretty powerful story. But you couple that with a really robust SD-WAN play to leverage those underlying network assets, and then you wrap in the Broadview Networks acquisition and what I think is one of the coolest, most compelling UCaaS plays in their OfficeSuite, and you’ve got a jumping-off point … for something that can really take advantage of the market from a networking solutions perspective. Second is the overall marketplace. You have two really large cable companies and you’ve got AT&T and Verizon, and then CenturyLink acquiring Level 3 and being really clear that their goal is to go after AT&T and Verizon … (and a) massive void in the space that used to be PaeTec, Windstream, XO, TelePacific — there were dozens in that space kind of filling that void as the agile CLEC, kind of easy to do business with, reliable, residual commission-paying companies that would be …

… a hedge against AT&T and Verizon, and now that CenturyLink-Level 3 play. That gap in the marketplace actually creates what I think is a really big point of jeopardy for the channel as we know it because if there is no legitimate hedge against AT&T and Verizon, and whatever CenturyLink-Level 3 becomes and the cablecos, the channel would be in jeopardy. These are thousands of businesses, thousands of people who I’ve worked with over the years and built a company around, and who I owe a debt to, that need a viable, agile alternative to the big boys, and that’s where we think we fit. This is something that needs to be done and we’re going to do it.

CP: How will your previous experience with X4 and Sandler Partners come into play in this role?

CA: It’s actually invaluable in a couple of ways. First of all, it sends a message to the partner community that Layne was being serious, that we’re going to build a program, that we went out and got one of you guys, we got somebody who has spent a long time building and running a large master agent, then had his transaction and went to work to run an even larger master agent with thousands of partners. And we went and grabbed that guy to come over and in essence be an advocate for you all to build a program that can support your needs as he knows them. So I think the optics are dynamite … and the message has already been received. I’ve spoken to dozens of my peers and people are excited about that part of it. But that is based on foundational truths. The fact is I’ve sat on probably over 100 advisory board meetings in the last 13 years with carriers. I’ve partnered with all of my peers, large master agents around the country. I’ve seen things done well and I’ve seen things done poorly, and I’ve seen things done everywhere in between, so I think I have as good a grasp as an outsider could on what is really needed, what really moves the needle with a master agent, for instance, for a direct selling agent, for instance, and for an MSP that’s new to the space, so it closes gaps [more quickly]. But then as we continue to go to the street and talk to our partners about what they need in their business, and as we work with them to align mutual goals and success in the partnership, I speak their language. I’ve sat on their side of the table, so when they talk about pain points and about opportunities, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

CP: What are your impressions of Windstream’s current channel strategy?

CA: I think the strategy is sound post-acquisition as far as what they’re trying to do and I think we’re further along from an execution standpoint than I had suspected … so we’re going to do a better job of messaging where the improvements are and we’ll do a better job of kind of showing people that we’re worthy of their business and them trusting us to handle their customers based on actual objective, documentable improvements and the experience there. But the larger overall strategy, this idea of using platforms like SD-WAN and UCaaS to work back to these awesome underlying network assets, I think is …

… very sound.

We are going to continue to leverage heavily our master-agent partners that can help us get to thousands and thousands of their subagents, but we’re also going to recognize that there are other large direct-selling agents that need a program from us as well and that program will be a little bit of a different experience from the master agent. And then, oh by the way, just because we’ve got great working relationships and understand what we need to do to completely leverage our master agent partners, we also have to work through them down to their subagent partners, understanding that those are the ultimate selling entities. So the strategy is going to be to service the heck out of the market as it exists today with our eyes and ears open for what’s coming next. We’re already seeing master agents evolving to see kind of a sell-with model with some of the new entries to the market in the MSP and VAR space, and so we’ll tweak our program however we need to leverage those resources so we can support their efforts there. But then more importantly, as we get into the Internet of Things (IoT) and the emergence of operations technology in our side of the space … we always want to be agile and flexible enough so that the next generation of sellers, whether they come to us directly in some shape or form, or come to us through one of our master agent partners, that we have the ability and the agility to to service them the the way they need to to drive business.

CP: Have you already begun receiving feedback from Windstream’s partners? What are you hearing?

CA: The day that Layne announced me taking this role, I had 311 text messages … some were from carrier folks who I’ve known, and friends in the business, but overwhelmingly (they) were from folks that are in the partner program at some level, so the opinions varied. Certainly there are folks who have been frustrated and expressed that to me, and then there are folks that also expressed the market opportunity … and more importantly the need for Windstream in their channel. And then my favorites were a huge amount of them about “Hey, we’re seeing improvement, this program is poised and ready to take off, and we’re ready to go all in with you guys,” and literally booking time to come out and spend full days with some of these groups to come up with a strategy because they recognize that a healthy, aggressive Windstream program in their portfolio is not only a good business practice for them, but it’s needed with the makeup of the carrier space.

CP: What do you see as Windstream’s biggest strengths and weakenesses?

CA: Our biggest strengths are those diverse network assets from the underlying plays, from Broadview, EarthLink and all of those companies that are Windstream together, that puts a massive portfolio of options to deliver to the street. And our biggest weakness is …

… those underlying carriers and that massive portfolio, and the challenges of integration that have come along with that. Our strength is also our weakness today, but the beauty of that is that’s mechanical and we can fix that. And we’ve already made tremendous improvements, we’ve already gotten so much further down the road with these integrations so … it’s not only a problem that can be solved, but is being solved and will ultimately feed into our strengths.

CP: What will be your top priorities in this new position?

CA: In my opinion from the outside looking in, with the conversations I’ve had to date, the markeplace is change-fatigued. There’s been massive change not only within our organization but within all programs of substance, so what I would love to do is take what we have and kind of get my arms around it, understand exactly what we have, and to communicate our value proposition, meaning everybody within my organization and our organization should be able to articulate in a really brief format what our value proposition is, where we win, what we’re trying to be and where we fit into your business, those types of things, and go to the street with that because we’re pretty far down the road. It’s SD-WAN, it’s UCaaS, it’s that OfficeSuite platform, it’s those underlying network assets. And then the ask from the partners is going to be to work with us on this, to recognize that we need you in the program, you can’t all just sit on the side and let someone else be the first one on the dance floor. We need partners who are willing to engage with us, and those are the ones we’re going to throw time, effort and resources at because we do have to move the needle; we have to increase production significantly and rapidly, and we’re going to.

CP: What do you plan to accomplish in your first six months to a year in this role?

CA: We’re going to stop apologizing for things that may or may not have happened five years ago and we’re going to be proactive in our relationships. But then what I really want to do is build a program that understands the difference between our master agents and our direct sellers, and our subagents and what we need to deliver to them. So a sell-to story, meaning we’re selling a program to these partners, and then a sell-through where we’re selling these products and services through these partners to their customers, and recognizing the difference in that. But then ultimately we want to get the program to be 35 percent of the production of the company, and in order to do that we’ll significantly increase sales by three times in the first 18 months. That’s what the goal would be.

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About the Author(s)

Edward Gately

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

As news editor, Edward Gately covers cybersecurity, new channel programs and program changes, M&A and other IT channel trends. Prior to Informa, he spent 26 years as a newspaper journalist in Texas, Louisiana and Arizona.

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