Independent financial executive of the year

Adele Skolits

Shentel

Adele Skolits is loaded with contradictions in the most charming way. Much like her employer, Shenandoah Telecommunications Company, known as Shentel. It’s a publicly traded entity, but it’s headquartered in Edinburg, VA, population 1,059, according to the 2013 Census. Edinburg recently underwent a growth spurt—between the 2010 and 2013 Census it added 18 people. Honest. Skolits sums it up well: “We may be the only company listed on the NASDAQ that’s headquartered in a town without a stoplight.”

Then there’s Skolits herself, raised in a suburb of Washington, DC, but living and working in the country, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just 100 miles west of the nation’s capital, but in a completely different world. Another contradiction, Skolits is not your typical financial type. Yes, she has a facility for numbers, but also has a rep as a very good storyteller with a warm personality. And while Skolits interacts regularly with Wall Street, she’s also on call at home. “I can hardly pump gas or get my hair done without having to answer questions from our shareholders,” she says of her neighbors. You’ll understand why in a moment.

Skolits is not your typical CFO in another important way. As her colleague Chris Kyle says, “Good CFOs always have data-driven answers about how companies can improve their margins or ROI.” But “great CFOs ask the tough questions that help drive operational improvements that can deliver those higher margins and better ROIs. They are constantly learning, pulling data and research to glean best practices and metrics that can be used for internal evaluations—and improvements. Adele does all this with great enthusiasm… she’s been pivotal to Shentel’s continuing success,” Kyle says.

To appreciate some of these delightful contradictions it’s helpful to know Shentel began in 1902 as Farmers Mutual Telephone System. To be a customer, you had to buy one share of stock, for $10, not an inconsiderable sum (one inflation calculator equates it to $277 today). Had you held that share, or more likely inherited it from your great grandparents, you would own 8,600 shares today, due to stock splits. Many of Skolits’s neighbors are those lucky shareholders, hence questions at the gas station and hairdresser.

In 1980, Shentel began offering cable to about 16K homes passed. When Skolits arrived 8 years ago after a stop at Comcast Cellular among others, cable generated just 10% of Shentel’s revenue. Sprint, a partner, was generating about 80%. “Shentel was a public company behaving like a private one,” she says. There were no earnings calls, for example. Skolits changed that fast. In addition, Shentel “decided to diversify… we thought broadband was the place to be.” It bought cable systems in “under-served communities” and then upgraded them to the triple play. Most offered video only. Today Shentel has some 124K cable RGUs spread over VA, WV and MD. Cable contributes 26% of Shentel’s revenue. The plan worked, as evidenced by more outside investors attracted by a steadily climbing stock, which closed at $32.23, June 19.

While Skolits, her fellow senior managers and the board deserve much of the credit, there were other factors. Shentel had been conservatively managed, with little debt. And the majority of shareholders—individuals like Skolits’s neighbors—were patient, giving it time to make acquisitions. Wall Street analysts were less patient, demanding quick returns. It’s not a surprise the individual shareholders took a long-term view. Heck, they’d owned their shares for 100+ years.

–          Seth Arenstein


–          Fast Facts

–          uForbes named Shentel one of the Top 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in America in 2013 and 2014. It has 700 employees.

–          uWith her hobbies of gardening and biking, Skolitis says there are few better places to live than Edinburg. She grows “impractical plants… perennials.”

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