Four years after expanding from the USA into Africa, Atlas Tower has built an enviable reputation for delivering reliable, robust infrastructure for cellular networks at an impressive speed. Today, 300 towers later, the company has three regional offices and contracts with all four of South Africa’s major cellular networks: Vodacom, Cell C, Telkom and MTN.
With a robust pipeline and growth expected to reach 500 sites by 2019, CEO Nathan Foster is bullish about the future. His confidence is well-founded: the demand for towers is predicated on the fact that so many people throughout the continent, and especially South Africa, are using personal wireless devices. Not surprisingly, the networks are competing furiously in a race to sign them up.
“Smartphones, laptops, iPads, commercial Wi-Fi devices—there is a vast array of different products and end users. Our business model is to quickly build the passive infrastructure that is necessary for the wireless networks of tomorrow. You could say, we are building the roads, and they are building the cars and we are both serving the people,” says Foster.
Foster, who, together with CSO, Randi Clendennen, have been doing business in South Africa since 2014. They decided in 2013 that the South African market offered some potential first-mover benefits.
“We evaluated the market trends, network needs and determined there was a fit for our business model,” elaborates Clendennen. “There are varying factors to ensure a successful start-up, but the key components are market timing, a firm business model, and quickly developing an exceptional team.”
The development of our business did not go without its challenges, as Clendennen acknowledges. “Every country, every market, will have its own dynamics and obstacles. We as a company needed to prove to our clients that our unique business model would support their modern network requirements. These opportunities allowed us to exceed expectations and continue to establish a presence by delivering quality, speed and innovation.”
Atlas Tower made its move to South Africa as the first step in planned African expansion. Foster elaborates: “We have had very successful midsized niche tower businesses in the United States since 2007, but the market there has been mature since 2003. I think we’ve proven that our build to suit methodology has flourished at the right time in South Africa. It seems operators are turning the corner and investing more into 4G and soon 5G technologies at the same time our asset portfolio is changing. Our business model, systems, and processes work, and we’ve been lucky enough to hire some of the best staff in the country.
“South Africa provides us with the kind of regulatory environment that we believe drives value. From a business point of view, we wish all of the SADC was one big South Africa but, unfortunately, it’s not,” Foster says jokingly.
In addition to the formidable achievements already mentioned, Atlas Tower has been a driver of change in the South African tower industry, as their success has inspired other companies to compete within the tower-building space. Describing these changes, Foster says “in the last three years, we’ve seen enormous growth in competition. We are the second-largest tower company in South Africa and, at most, there are half-dozen on our heels. Three years ago, our business model was a hard sell to the wireless operators, but today, it’s accepted and utilised.”
Despite the increased competition, Atlas Tower leads the market, thanks to the experience the team brings, the exceptional customer service and the sheer speed with which they are able to get towers in the air.
“The biggest factor in our favour,” continues Clendennen, “and one that allows our growth continuum is our capability to meet the needs, expectations and timelines of our customers, the mobile network operators.”
“We focus on the simplicity of leasing as part of our differentiator,” adds Foster.
This commitment to excellence was recognized in October 2018 when Atlas Tower won the “Build to Suit Tower Company of the Year” category at the inaugural TowerXchange Industry Awards. “Atlas Tower has achieved an impressive organic growth rate unsurpassed anywhere in sub-¬Saharan Africa,” commented the judges.
The company is now expanding into other SADC countries, each of which comes with its own particular set of challenges. Their South African business and the prospects of growth in other countries has warranted permanently relocating to South Africa. Thus allowing the American business to be managed by trusted staff in the States.
What Foster and Clendennen don’t mention is how much their team benefits from the combined experience and leadership skills of these two modest but adventurous entrepreneurs. Clendennen was Executive Vice-President of Wi-Blue before joining Atlas Tower and has a solid background in business and team development: “Building organic companies, generating exponential revenue growth and facilitating successful corporate exits.”
Foster, for his part, has been in the wireless network industry for 22 years: “I had started a services company back in 2006 and, following that, we started the first Atlas Tower company in 2007 and we haven’t looked back. Personally, I’ve been in the wireless network industry, building and developing wireless networks since 1995.”
So what has this dynamic American duo learned from their exposure to doing business in this country?
Foster comments succinctly: “We are a company that builds and operates wireless infrastructure. Once our towers are built, we manage them.
“By keeping the business simple, we have found our model works just as well in Africa as it does in the US. We intend to stay true to our businesses’ core fundamentals by delivering the best carrier neutral wireless infrastructure in the region,” he concludes.