By Rick Killion, Prairie Business MagazinePublished Monday, October 01, 2007
Our founder breathed his own personal philosophy into this company," recalls Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for Midcontinent Communication, "and it was epitomized by company gatherings where he was a prominent figure . . . serving coffee and soft drinks to the employees. It wasn't about HIM, it was about serving others and that has maintained us since Eddie Ruben founded the company in 1931 in Minneapolis as the Wellworth Theater Company."
After arriving in Sioux Falls, SD to open a movie theater, Mr. Ruben formed Midcontinent Broadcasting Company, bought KELO AM in 1952, and obtained the first television broadcasting license in South Dakota (KELO-TV), going on the air in 1953. Midcontinent entered the cable television business in the 60s and continued to build and purchase systems through the 90's. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Midcontinent Media Inc. became a 50 percent partner with Comcast Corporation, the largest cable TV company in the United States, with Midcontinent maintained as the managing partner from Minneapolis and Sioux Falls, where its operational headquarters just moved into a new facility this summer.
"With our deep roots in the Dakotas, we entered the telephone services business in 1982 as an interexchange long distance provider and are now a total network communications company serving 200 communities, primarily in the Dakotas with over 800 employees, including 500 staff members in five locations here in Sioux Falls," explains Simmons, a native of Litchfield, MN and graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Simmons was hired by Midcontinent about 20 years ago to work in the radio division, staying on to attain his current position.
"We spend a lot of time considering our employees," he acknowledges. "Our human resource department surveys them and we have a rather extensive training program with all kinds of trainers for things like customer service, safety, technical/field operations. They travel around an awful lot, making sure employees are well-prepared before they go into the field."
The efforts at employee training and recognition have paid off handsomely for the networked communications firm (now completely removed from its broadcasting roots). Since moving into its new, state-of-the-art complex in northwest Sioux Falls, just off Interstate 29 on Louise Avenue, the operations of Midcontinent have taken on a decidedly aggressive stance and hiring is accelerating.
Moving from 28,000 square feet in its old headquarters to over 55,000 square feet in the new digs, the layout for Midcontinent's assorted teams of employees is well-planned and well-executed in a structure that is decidedly 'green' in its design and construction for maximum energy efficiency . . . with lights that automatically turn on and off depending on the use within each room.
"We are a customer service company, pure and simple," Simmons stresses. "How each of us does our job makes all the difference in the world to the many people in small towns all over the Dakotas. Most of these communities are getting beyond survival and are working on quality of life issues."
Contributing to quality of life is another point of pride for Simmons and the managers of Midcontinent, including the Chief Operating Officer, also based at the new Sioux Falls facility, the chairman of the board in the Twin Cities (Larry Benson, son-in-law to founder Eddie Ruben), and Pat McAdaragh, a Sioux Falls native who now serves as president and chief executive officer.
"Mr. Ruben was always very much involved in the communities we served, both economically and through volunteerism," notes McAdaragh, a Sioux Falls native and graduate of Augustana College there. "Each of our employees comes to work every day expecting to have a good experience, finding their place in the company and encouraged to take some risks. At the same time, we hope they will continue to exemplify that spirit of community involvement wherever they live and work."
Once a year Simmons and the other managers examine applications from nonprofit organizations scattered across the service territory, selecting causes for donations from the Midcontinent Media Foundation, which was founded in 1987 and has contributed over $2 million to small communities.
"When you make a grant out there in rural America, you really make a difference," Simmons notes with some pride. "People want to hold a parade in your honor. I've been back to some small towns where our grant enabled the purchase of new playground equipment and there was a plaque acknowledging our donation - much to my surprise and delight! We also ask our people to be servant leaders, which is part of my job . . . to go out and represent the firm when our staff on the ground doesn't always feel prepared in front of a crowd."