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Terry Savage talks with Carrie Hightman

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: April 17, 2005

Carrie Hightman is president of SBC Illinois, the very public face of a very important utility -- and the third largest private employer in Illinois.

How did this 46-year-old lawyer ascend to such a powerful position? What drives an attorney to lead a regulated company into competition in the entrepreneurial world of technology? And how does that same personality integrate a civic and charitable commitment that includes boards of both the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as several other local organizations, into a very full personal life?

Hightman’s ready smile and quick laughter let you know that while she takes business seriously, she’s quite capable of handling all those commitments.

The Chicago area native -- Niles North High School -- married her high school sweetheart, and moved to Florida with him. There she started her legal career with the Florida public service commission as a staff attorney in the energy division, doing electric and gas regulatory litigation cases. But her ascent to her current position is no accident:

On career planning

“I did a very good job of positioning myself for this job, and it started long ago.

“When we moved back to Chicago 20 years ago, I was very deliberate in my job search. I looked at all the regulated industries and who represented them, and all the government agencies. I thought about working as an assistant to a regulatory commissioner, at a law firm or in-house at a utility, or working for an advocate.

“I joined Schiff Hardin [Chicago’s seventh-largest law firm] because Illinois Power Co. was its biggest client, and was in the process of constructing nuclear plants. And the firm also had a telecom client in central Illinois, so I worked with all those clients.”

Then SBC came calling.

“Four years ago, I had become well known in my very specialized field, and I represented many of the new phone companies that were coming in to compete with what was then Ameritech. And SBC had just acquired Ameritech. There were some issues with service.

She smiles ruefully as we both remember the service problems SBC encountered as it integrated with Ameritech, including headline-making waits for phones to be connected, and cut cables to be rewired.

“And they came to me, and asked if I was interested in joining. This was in April 2001. It was a huge decision. It was so risky that as I sit here today, I cannot believe how brave I was and that I was willing to take the risk. I had worked for 17 years to build a legal practice, I had clients, had a partnership in my firm, and it was a big personal risk to leave the certain for the unknown.

“But, ultimately, asking me -- someone who grew up here -- to be president of the Illinois Bell telephone company was something I couldn’t turn down. And it was the best thing I’ve ever done professionally.”

Can Hightman still say that on days she’s assailed by consumer groups and regulators? Several groups have the high-profile president in their cross hairs as the Illinois General Assembly rewrites the telecommunications act, and lobbyists on all sides try to get their views written into law.

On the issues

There’s a great debate between consumer activists who consider the “phone company” to be a monopoly that must be regulated to keep prices low for consumers, and Hightman’s view that competitors who are using new technology are encroaching everywhere, and thus SBC needs flexibility and freedom to adjust prices to meet competition.

Hightman is a pro at laying out the complex issues involved in regulation and legislation.

“None of the policy or business issues that we’re talking about today were issues when I joined this company four years ago,” she notes. “That’s how much has changed. Four years ago, you would never have thought of using a wireless phone as a substitute for your home phone. It was too expensive. But now wireless is displacing wireline at an ever-increasing pace.

“People don’t understand the pace of change. A Yankee Group analysis of the telcom industry estimates that by 2009, 15 percent of wireline users will switch to wireless totally. And Yankee estimates that in 2004, 60 percent of long-distance calls were made on wireless phones, and 40 percent of local calls were wireless. People got smart. Wireless companies sold all-you-can-use packages, and made it cost effective.”

Hightman leaves no doubt her company will be a tough competitor if it is allowed pricing flexibility and freedom from regulations that do not encumber new technologies.

On competition in technology

“What has been really difficult is the decline in wireline, and the increase in other technologies such as wireless, cable, traditional phone service over cable and Internet calling -- companies like Vonage -- that aren’t what we knew of as ‘phone companies.’

“SBC believes you can integrate both wireless and wireline, and that the customer should have both and many more features and options. And so we’re bundling the traditional wirelines, along with wireless, high-speed Internet data, and soon video. And the more you get, the better deal you have. All services can come in through one pipe -- ultimately through the $5 billion fiber project we call Lightspeed, which will serve our 13-state footprint.”

And there will be even newer technologies:

“We offer video currently through our satellite Dish Network joint venture, but soon a new video offering will replace the satellite. It will come through the ‘pipe’ [fiber optic wires into your home], and it will be better than cable wire, because cable is broadcast and ours is Internet based. It will not only be better quality than cable can offer, but it enables video on demand.

“And then [with the package] you can be watching your TV and see your telephone caller ID printed on your TV screen when the phone rings.”

But will that bring lower prices for consumers?

“It will certainly mean more value. How much depends on the bundle. [The bundle of services is] getting bigger, so it’s hard to compare. But if you look at just the basic local SBC services, we’ve had rate decreases every year since 1994, and the price you pay today, even adjusted for inflation, is less than you paid in 1993.

“Of course, we [SBC] weren’t allowed to offer long distance then. Now it’s a commodity. And now we have DSL -- which dropped from $69.95 a month to, in some promotions, $19.95. And wireless is no longer for emergencies, it’s so inexpensive.

“So if you look at each of the pieces, it’s absolutely clear that prices have come down. And when you price it together it’s a very good deal, offering greater value and more choice for customers. And that’s what competition is supposed to do.”

Hightman spends her days planning and explaining this competition to legislators, regulators and the media. So what happens to a personal life, and when does she teach her two teenage children about money?

On money

“I’ve tried to teach them independence when it comes to money,” she says. “It’s not so much a matter of having to work every summer, but understanding that in the end, whatever you do, you should be able to live your life the way you want, so you need to take all the right steps to do that. For instance, my son in college really wants to be a writer, so we talk a lot about how he can make a living while he waits to get his fiction published.

“For my daughter, though we don’t say it frequently explicitly, we make it very clear to her that she can do whatever she wants and be successful. And I think that’s important for a girl to know growing up

“It’s not just about money; you’ve got to be happy. That’s what I hope my kids know. You have to be self-sustaining, but you have to be happy in what you do. There’s a balance there.”

And how does she handle her own money? Another laugh.

“Probably not as well as I should, but I recognize the importance of planning and knowing what you need money for in the future. The trick is to enjoy the present, but with the recognition that I have to plan for 20 years from now.

“We try to spend on things that serve our overall, current well-being, but with the recognition that we’ll want to do more things as we get older. So we’re pretty conservative.”

Hightman’s husband, Harry, works for a company that provides outsourced services for corporate clients. She acknowledges his expertise:

“My husband does all the bills, and, yes, he pays bills online. He does the money stuff in the house, which is good because my hours are worse than his are. He does everything on the Internet.”

She reveals that she’s more of the spender, while he’s the saver in the family, but says they’re well matched.

“We don’t really argue about money. We think pretty much alike. He’s the one that will get us back to reality faster than I will.”

On career advice

“Do the best job you can do. But that alone won’t be enough to be really successful. You have to build relations with people, and work on those relationships because they may lead you to a career path that you might never have envisioned when you started out.

“Don’t think you can plan everything, because I certainly never planned to be where I am now. I think the moral is: In your career and in life, you never know what’s going to happen, and you’ve got to be willing to take some chances. You never know where it will lead. But I’m so happy I took this chance. I love every day of this experience.”

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser, and appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s newscasts.

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