Gary Hess and American Tower Corporation: “It Started With Just One Tower”


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Before the three major tower companies began consolidating the industry, there was just one man on a mission trying to save a radio station, Gary Hess. Gary believed in the success of the tower industry before it even existed and, as a result, he became a co-founder for one of the top three wireless tower companies in the United States: American Tower Corporation. The “aha” moment came to him while working at SJR Communications trying to take FM radio stations, improve them, and make them market competitive. However, this wasn’t easy. Broadcasters did not want to lease space to their competitors. “Back then you didn’t have a lot to work with other than the television towers in the same market. I got turned down left and right. It became quite a problem, and then the light bulb went off realizing that I’m not the only one doing this and everyone else is getting the same rejection. They had little or no interest in leasing their towers.” The TV market was booming during this time and Gary saw an opportunity and had the chance to test his theory when the company bought a Dallas FM from the legendary broadcaster, Gordon Mclendon.

“Back then Dallas and Forth Worth were merging together as one market so timing couldn’t have been better. I told my people, ‘we need a big tower, it’s a big market. Let me build a tower that I can put our competition and television stations on and we’re going to make all kinds of money.’ They said ‘yes’ and I did it and that tower, in its second year, was billing over one million dollars,” Gary explained. His influence in the budding tower industry flourished when he was introduced to Steve Dodge, who had just started American Radio Systems. Steve needed a tower for the newly acquired radio station, WIRK, in West Palm Beach, Florida. “My job was to build and upgrade the radio stations Steve was buying and aggregating. That’s where American Tower was created. The predecessor company where I was the Director of Engineering was already building these towers for the radio stations. About a year and a half later we sold the 104 radio stations that we’d accumulated to CBS but we kept the towers and we were off to the races.”

While acquiring, building, leasing, and selling towers may be an everyday occurrence to people in the business today, Gary pioneered this new industry with sheer determination, a great partner in Steve Dodge, and a brilliant idea. “It was my mission to get a tower for WIRK and save the station from literally having no place to broadcast from. And we just kept building and building and building” Gary said. “Again, we built towers for rental because the idea was, ‘don’t go through the permitting process to build a single use tower.’ Being able to build a stronger tower for tenants was just part of the plan from the start.”

Even though today American Tower Corporation is a multi-billion dollar company with towers on 5 continents and in 13 countries, it didn’t start out as a global endeavor. Gary wanted to build a tower on every exit of I95 from West Palm Beach to Melbourne, Florida. This was the first time the team was building towers that didn’t have a broadcast connection. After these 11 sites were completed, Steve asked Gary, “Why are you stopping in Melbourne? Just keep going. Keep building. We can get the funds, just keep building.” And he did. Gary, along with Jim Eisenstein, officially started American Tower Corporation on July 4, 1996. “In the early days, I was pretty much a one-man band. For the first few months, American Tower Corporation was a cardboard box in the back of my car. That was American Tower and that’s when I was on a mission to save the West Palm Beach radio station. I literally would drive from Melbourne to West Palm every other day and I had this cardboard box with the folders in it.”

Gary attributes his success to the optimistic outlook and steady support from Steve Dodge, but it also had a lot to do with their shared vision. Gary and Steve didn’t have a narrow point of view when it came to towers. Their plan all along was to build towers and lease as much space on them as possible. American Tower Corporation took off from there. “They all start with one tower and ours was the WIRK tower in West Palm Beach,” Gary said.

See Gary Hess’s views on the future of the tower industry in tomorrow’s issue.

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