Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stephen Feehan

Stephen P. Feehan

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

In early October, Stephen and I sat down for a few hours in his office in Binghamton, New York. Interestingly, I had never spoken to Stephen before in my life before meeting him for our VIP Conversation. A mutual friend and one of Stephen’s new team members, Matt Wallen, set up the interaction and it was truly an enjoyable experience. Stephen is a dynamic business leader with a successful financial and insurance advisory business through the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. His tremendous work ethic, personal value system, sound business background and excellent team have helped him and his Associate, Stephen Guinan, meet the needs of clients all over the Southern Tier. - JWN

JWN: Now, I know you grew up in this area (Binghamton) correct…

SF: I grew up in Deposit. That’s where I went to high school. I’m one of those redneck lumberjacks. (Laughs) Then I went to SUNY Albany. After that I came back and worked for my family’s telephone company, the Deposit Telephone Company.

I came back to work there for ten years. It started with my great-grandfather back at the turn of the century. I was fortunate enough to get into it. We sold the company in 1996 and then I worked for the acquiring company for two years and decided I’m better at giving orders than taking orders.

I didn’t like having the same physical space but not the same organizational space. So, I decided to get out.

JWN: Who acquired the Deposit Telephone Company?

SF: TDS Telecom out of Chicago. And that’s what they do. They go around buying small, regional, typically family-owned telephone companies. Then they roll them all up into a big account. So, I left there quite literally without a plan of where to go.

It is kind of funny because people would always say, “Oh, you’ve got a plan.” But, I really didn’t. I just knew I didn’t want to be there anymore. My whole life plan was to run that company. In fact, if you looked at my high school yearbook you would see my quote for future plans, “Run the family telephone company.” I had wanted to do that since I was about twelve years old. At the age of 31, in 1996, I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. So, I quit. Financially, I had the ability to do that and not worry about where my next paycheck was coming from. I looked at a couple of different opportunities. There were a few folks I had talked to about running their telephone companies.

I was on the board of the hospital here, United Health Services. Of course, I was fairly young, so the CEO said, “Why don’t you come here?” I said, “Why?”

Then, Steve Guinan, my current partner, talked to me about what he did. We were clients of his at the telephone company, so he and I had interacted for many years. He said, “I think you might be good at this.” I liked the idea of staying here locally. It is a great place to raise a family, so I really didn’t want to leave. I enjoyed being on the Board of the hospital, so I didn’t want to give that up. And, I did think this had some sort of appeal to me. I thought I might be really good at it. So, this is what I decided to do. That was almost ten years ago now.

JWN: Now, when did you get your MBA?

SF: When I came back to work for the telephone company I decided to get my MBA at Binghamton University at night. It was interesting because I remember a good friend of mine from college had asked me, “What are you doing that for?” This was right after I started taking classes, but I remember thinking, “You never know.” In retrospect, obviously I’m glad I did it because “you never know” turned out to be right.

It was a bit of a differentiator for me and it was a great experience. I think that was an advantage for me; going through it while doing work that is. I could apply what I was learning in the classroom at work, so I had my own little lab.

Here is the thing, when you get your graduate degree it is a lot more practical then theoretical. To me, it’s almost like they make you go through four years to see if you can get far enough to get what you will really use.

After conversation about the experience I have had with Notable and Newsworthy we started talking about creating access to people…

SF: As a student you can get access to people to have this kind of interaction, but I have personal experience that you can do that as a human being. If you ask someone for help; i.e. share with me your ideas, your ways of being, your ways of doing things. As a human being you can do that as long as you carry yourself in a way that makes people want to be generous with you.

A few years back I was having some difficulties. I felt like I hit a bit of a blocking point and there were some things I was questioning. I called three guys. One of them employed 5,000 people. Matt, the largest employer in the county, Darryl, Chairman and CEO of M & T Bank, and Tom Kelly, who is Vice President of External Affairs at SUNY Binghamton. I asked all three of them, “I need your help. I have some questions prepared that I would like to ask you. I want to see how you do things.”

I sat down with Darryl for a couple of hours and I sat down with Tom and Matt for a couple of hours. So, here is a 38 year old man asking for help and these three guys took a serious amount of time and shared a lot of things that have been very helpful. What you’re offering up for students is definitely available, but I think it works across the board.

JWN: That’s awesome. What did you study at Albany?

SF: Economics

JWN: What was your focus in your MBA?

SF: Didn’t have one. It was a general MBA. I was running a company at the time so it made sense for me to stay general. Strategic Management was one of my favorite courses. In fact, that was one of those courses where I remember literally taking what I was learning and applying it to a major deal I was doing at the time. Then I would go back about two nights later and say, “This is how you do this right? It’s kind of a big deal if I get this wrong.”

What’s neat is here it is 17 years later and my professor still remembers that.

JWN: What has your experience been here relative to running the telephone company before? They are obviously two very different industries.

SF: Well, it’s funny because I think the business I was in before prepared me well for this business. I had always been in a business where it had been about planning for the future. If you think about a public utility which is what a telephone company is, you have to be there when people need you; during the ice storm, the hurricanes, the emergencies, whatever. So, you have to plan to things that will happen to your network.

It is also a long term focus. When you put a pole in the ground it is typically going to be there for thirty years. When you put a mile of copper up in the air, it is typically going to be there for twenty years. If you put fiber up, you are looking at a long term job. It is not about next month or next year. There are poles that have been in the ground since 1940 that we’re still using.

A lot of what I did was the planning and creating the systems behind the scenes that kept that stuff in the air. There was a lot of doing, “What ifs…” What if we come in tomorrow and 30% of our poles are lying on the ground? What is our plan to get them back up?

I remember having meetings with New York State Electric and Gas because we worked together on all of our infrastructure work. I posed them the question, “How are we doing this?” I said, “Right now we do it one pole at a time, what if we have to put up 2,000?”

JWN: Did that happen?

SF: It did. Frankly, it did not happen in our territory specifically, but literally within six months of having that conversation the ice storm happened. I’ll never forget it because when they left, my outside plant supervisor said, “What do you just sit up in your office and think up shit like this?” I said, “Yeah, that is kind of part of my job.”

Six months later the North Country of New York had 60 – 75% of the poles on the ground. We learned a lot because we sent a lot of guys up there. It was not fun stuff, but it was good to learn on someone else’s dime. It was a bit prophetic but the good news was somebody else was living it, not us.

That kind of thinking comes in handy when I prepare the insurance or the risk based plan for people. What if you die too soon or too late? It is about getting my clients and myself into the moment and thinking, this literally could happen this afternoon.

Most people are like, “Why are you talking about this stuff?” But, it has to be thought about. If we wait until it happens then it is too late. The things we need to do are things that don’t seem like they need to be done right now. We need to be thinking about, planning for, and implementing procedures so that those things are taken care of before they ever happen. That makes the risk based planning that we do the hardest thing because it is kind of abstract and seems unbelievable. Yet, that is exactly what we have to do. We need to motivate people to fix that.

I need to get them to imagine a pain that they hope never happens and get them to do something about it. You’ve got to bring a certain belief to the table that that needs to be done. Again, I think my previous history helped prepare me for that. I saw the results of good and bad plans.

As well, the operations experience helped. This is a relationship business. No question about it. And, it is an emotionally driven business. However, it is full of transactions. There are a series of transactions that go into every relationship. How good are we at managing those transactions?

Again, back to my old business, we had 8,000 clients so we put out 8,000 bills every month that had to be straightened out. We had to get all the $.20 toll calls to San Francisco from Washington D.C. accurately billed. We had to do that 250,000 to 300,000 times a month. There were a lot of moving parts that we had to get right. We got pretty good at it over there.

It is the same thing here. How are we making sure the loop gets closed? The people that do this business though are not necessarily transaction type people though. They are relationship people. It is a little rarer to find someone with both strengths.

JWN: What are some of your goals?

SF: We would like to grow this business into a more sustainable business where it doesn’t depend day to day on whether or not clients did a particular piece of business with us. There are pieces of our business that are recurring and others that are one-ups. We would like to be in the $4-$5 million range of annual revenue. We are aiming to build the size of the practice and the nature of it.

We believe it is easier to focus on the client if you have primarily a recurring business structure (one through portfolio management), rather than one that pays you in spurts like the premium business.

JWN: Now you have three children whose names start with ‘D.’ Any reason for that?

SF: Nothing magical about that. The first two had a D and we couldn’t let the last one go without one. It didn’t make sense.

JWN: How old are your children?

SF: They are 6, 8, and 10.

JWN: Being a Deposit guy, what attracted you to running for the Board of Education at Windsor Central School?

SF: Well, there are probably three things. The first is I thought I had something to offer. I have been on four or five different pretty significant non-profit boards. So I’ve been in that governance role before. I felt I had something to offer and I wanted to offer it.

And then the other reasons are really two or four however you want to look at it. My three boys are going to come up through this district so I have a vested interest in making it the best place it can be.

The third is Jason Andrews (the current Superintendant at Windsor and VIP). I’ve had some interaction with that guy for different reasons in the past. And, I’ve been hearing about him even before my interactions. My observations are that that is a good guy, he is going places and he can make a difference. But, he needs a board behind him to help him do what he is capable of doing. That guy deserves a good board.

I fashion myself a good board member, so I want to be there to help him and help that school district. In turn it will help my kids, the community, so on and so forth. In a way it is kind of personal to both my kids and to Jason, even though I don’t really know him that well yet. But, he is the kind of guy that is going to get things done and I think I can help.

JWN: What are some of your hobbies?

SF: You know, my fun is spending time with my kids and outdoors; whether it is fishing, hunting, or riding the four wheelers. I did enjoy golfing at one point in time before my kids were around, but now I don’t do it as much.

JWN: Who are a few people you would like to meet?

SF: I hadn’t really thought about that before you asked me in the email. Some people that have been influential to me to date have been my partner Steve Guinan, my dad because of how he acted as a business man and interacted with people in general, and my grandfather. And, of course my mother has been great.

In terms of three people I would like to meet; Jack Welch, Jesus Christ, and the Dalai Lama.

JWN: What are some books that have been helpful?

SF: I did a talk a few years ago and I have a list of about 35 books that I’ve read in the last few years that I felt were good books. A good book I just finished was Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. Another good book is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It is amazing how much we know about a situation but we discount it and push it back. This is a good book that talks about making decisions from the gut.

Maybe students coming out of school do this more than I did, but reading books like this more is essential. I’ve got thirty different books that I’ve read which I would quote as “self-help” books, but that title doesn’t do them justice. There is thinking that has been done about particular subject matter that is so far more developed than our own is that you have to read that stuff. I wish I read more books like these when I was in my twenties.

JWN: In closing, what is a bit of information you would like to offer our readership?

SF: Say what you mean and mean what you say. I uphold myself to that principle and it has served me well.

Stephen P. Feehan


Financial Advisor

Northwestern Mutual Financial Network

99 Hawley Street, Suite 200

Binghamton, NY 13901-3917

Phone: 607.231.7300