Making Connections

Louis McCarren, president of Verizon Vermont, started out in law, dabbled in politics and wound up running a telecommunications company in a state that's revving up its technological capabilities

by Portland Helmich

Louise McCarren, president of Verizon Vermont, has traded in her law books for communication manuals. She is now in charge of 1,000 employees and a payroll of $35 million a year.

If the complex and lightning-quick changes occurring in the tele- communications industry require that employees be adaptable, these developments also demand company presidents be chameleonic, wearing multiple hats and switching gears continually in pursuit of providing the most cutting edge technologies to customers. When it comes to this kind of versatility, Louise McCarren might be in a class all by herself. As president of Verizon Vermont, McCarren has a breadth of experience that few can claim, and she brings it all to bear as she runs a company with approximately 1,000 employees, more than 260,000 customers, and more than $35 million in annual payroll.

Louise McCarren McCarren "talks to you like you're a regular person and not like you're a subordinate, and she sits with us at the lunch table. I like that."

A native Californian, McCarren has lived in Vermont for nearly 30 years. During that time, she's developed her ability to adapt to new situations a trait she is quick to use in her current position. "Part of my doing so many different things," she explains, "is about wanting to stay in Vermont. If you want to live here, you've got to be flexible about what you do."

When McCarren moved East from California in 1973, she worked as a legal services lawyer for Vermont Legal Aid and later served as an assistant public defender for Chittenden County. She then spent three years as director of the New England Regional Energy Project, providing legal and economic assistance on energy issues to New England Legal Services attorneys.

Private practice followed. While handling domestic relations cases at Blodgett and McCarren, she co-wrote a book entitled The Non-Lawyer's Guide to Getting a Divorce in Vermont. "If you go back to the 1970s," she recalls, "Family Court did not exist. The Superior Court was in charge of all divorces, so there was no information available for couples who had a simple divorce and wanted to handle it themselves." (The book was self-published and is no longer in print). In 1981, then-Gov. Richard Snelling appointed her chair of the Vermont Public Service Board, where she served as Vermont's chief regulator of public utilities for six years. Once again, McCarren saw a need and worked to fill it. "It was a fast-moving and exciting time," she says. "Fuel prices were escalating, so what we did was change the way people paid for electricity to better reflect the cost of producing it." As chief regulator, she pushed an initiative called "rate design,"where bills are differentiated between summer and winter, and customers pay higher rates when they use more electricity.

In the late '80s, the attorney took on a job as senior vice president of Chittenden Bank in Burlington and later returned to private practice. In 1990, she ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican, losing in the primary. "It was an incredible experience," she says. "I loved campaigning. It was really one of the most fascinating things I ever did."

Soon after, she went back into state government and worked as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service until Snelling died in office in 1991. "There, I was on the other side of utility regulation," she explains. "I was responsible for public advocacy in all public utility proceedings in the state." About the time Snelling died, Tom Salmon became president of the University of Vermont, and McCarren went to work as his special projects assistant for two years.

"Part of my doing so many different things is about wanting to stay in Vermont. If you want to live here, you've got to be flexible about what you do."
Louise McCarren

From 1993 to 1996, McCarren worked as a consultant for NYNEX on a major regulatory project in New York City that had her commuting weekly. "Basically, I was an integral part of pioneering performance-based regulation," McCarren says. "Instead of the government setting the rates, you let the company not have any earnings constraints so it has incentive to become more efficient." McCarren says when the position of president of NYNEX Vermont became available in 1997, her broad professional background, understanding of regulatory issues, and knowledge of Vermont made her the logical choice. (Shortly thereafter, NYNEX merged with Bell Atlantic; in 2000, Bell Atlantic joined with GTE to form Verizon Communications.)

As president, McCarren still has her hands in a bit of everything. Financials, earnings, government affairs, customer relations and service quality are some of the areas for which she is responsible. "Service quality is very important to us," she says. "We look at that every day. 'Did we install your phone in five days? Did we fix it in 24 hours? Did we answer your call in 20 seconds? Do you get dial tone as soon as you pick up?'"

The company is also concerned about the construction program in Vermont, says McCarren, who oversees a $50 million-a-year capital program that makes sure there are enough "facilities" wires, loops, switching to meet the constant demand for faster and more diversified services. McCarren says the industry is exploding, as more technologies than ever before are providing service.

Lynette Picucci, left, and Noel McCann discuss one of Verizon's 260,000 accounts. McCarren says the company is only as successful as its employees because, "they are the face of Verizon to our customers."

"A good example is cable television companies," she says. "They now provide high-speed access to the Internet, and that's in direct competition to a product we provide, called DSL." Passing data back and forth, McCarren explains, can be accomplished in one of three ways: coaxial cable, land line copper, or wireless. The latter two are her domain, representing Verizon Vermont's wire line and wireless entities. "The growth in demand is extraordinary," she says. "You're constantly making sure your customers are getting what they need when they want it.

"It is difficult," she acknowledges, "because we're converting a network that was built entirely for voice traffic to a network that must carry not only voice, but high-speed data. Growth today is more in data and less in voice. In a voice-only world, the average time people stayed on the phone was four minutes. In today's world, though, people are hopping on the Internet for an average of 40 minutes. You need a different kind of network to serve that." Case in point: In 1999, eight T3s (high-speed, high-capacity pipes that carry data and voice) were built in Vermont; in the first two months of 2000, 58 were constructed.

Verizon Vermont is not only concerned with meeting the mounting demands of its retail customers, but with those of its wholesale customers, as well. As decreed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, incumbent local telephone companies must make their facilities available for sale to competitors, who can then resell them to their customers. In the case of Verizon Vermont, this means dealing with companies like Adelphia Business Solutions, National Mobile and AT&T. On this end, as well, McCarren is up to speed. "We've got a number of cases in front of the Public Service Board that we have to get through which determine service quality standards to our wholesale customers," she notes.

McCarren says she enjoys working in telecommunications because it's a "good news" industry. "It's great to be in a field where you're providing something that people need and want," she remarks. "We're helping to make their lives easier and their businesses more efficient. I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to make communications in Vermont first class."

"First class" is how some professional associates describe her. "She's one of the best business strategists I've ever met," says Bill Schubart, chairman and CEO of Resolution Inc. "Louise has been on our board of directors for three years. She's the kind of person who can comprehensively see why something will work and why something could break down. Rather than take an adversarial stance, she can say, 'I understand your point of view. Now let's do what makes sense for both of us.' She takes the Sturm und Drang out of it and goes right to the end game."

Anita Rodrigue is one of 1,000 employees with Verizon Vermont. The company is looking to develop long-distance service by showing it's open to competition.

Liz Robert, CEO of Vermont Teddy Bear Co., met McCarren in 1983, when the local Verizon president was teaching a business law course at UVM. Robert was her teaching assistant; in 1990, she served as her campaign manager. "I don't think it's money or fame that makes Louise tick," Robert says. "It's the gratification of making a contribution to a larger order." Robert speculates that McCarren has done as well as she has because of some inherent qualities. "It's a combination of high energy and intelligence," she notes. "She's one of the smartest people I've ever met." Moreover, adds Robert, "Louise is action-oriented. I won't say she makes decisions quickly, because she's very thoughtful, but she makes things happen."

The third of four children, McCarren grew up in San Mateo, Calif. "I'm a sixth generation Californian," she says. "All four of my grandparents were born in San Francisco." Her mother was a homemaker; her father owned a construction company. Though McCarren doesn't recall having a burning desire to become an attorney, she attended law school at UCLA soon after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in agricultural economics in 1969. "It was unusual for women to go into law at that time, so it was an interesting challenge," she recalls. "The real reason, though, is that I had originally hoped to work in my father's construction business. A law background would have been really helpful there." McCarren never realized that dream because her father died in an accident shortly after she graduated in 1972.

McCarren's move to Vermont was prompted by her first husband, who came to do cardiology research at UVM. In 2002, she will have been married to her current husband, Edward Amidon, a representative in the Legislature, for 25 years. They have four grown children: two daughters from his first marriage, a son from hers, and a son together. The earlier demands of juggling a family and a career appear to have been as natural for her as the demands of juggling Verizon Vermont's regulatory affairs with its service quality standards. "It's always been second nature for me to balance everything," she admits. "I feel fortunate to have been able to contribute to the changes women have made over time. Now they can go anywhere and do anything they want to do, and that's how it should be."

Though McCarren sits at the top of Verizon Vermont's headquarters in South Burlington, she makes a concerted effort not to forget the people who work below her (one floor down) in the customer service center. "It really matters to me that our employees feel valued," she says. "They are the face of Verizon to our customers." The amiable president says she talks to employees about their roles in Verizon and by "treating everything they do with the respect it deserves." Service representatives Joe Smith and Shawna Greene have taken notice. "She talks to you like you're a regular person and not like you're a subordinate," Smith says, "and she sits with us at the lunch table. I like that."

Greene concurs. "She's supportive inside the company and out. When my mom was sick in the hospital, she always asked how I was and what she could do for me."

As McCarren looks into Verizon Vermont's future, she is clear about what needs to be done. "Our challenges are to continue to deploy new technology to the state, make sure we have the facilities in place for the increasing high-speed data usage consumers need and want, maintain a reliable network, and provide excellent customer service," she says without skipping a beat. The company will present a case to the Vermont Public Service Board later this year focusing on its inability to carry out-of-state calls. "We can't provide long-distance service until we can demonstrate that our markets are open to competition," the president notes.

McCarren, who describes herself as "moderately proficient" on the computer, plans to learn "a lot more" about technology and the never-ending changes occurring in the telecommunications marketplace. "I'm constantly having to work to keep up," she remarks not with a sigh, but with an air of anticipation and self-assuredness that surely comes from years of professional self-reinvention.

It's hard to imagine that McCarren wouldn't be up to the task. With personal interests as diverse as her professional ones gardening, skiing, triathlons, wilderness canoe trips it is obvious that she revels in crossing new frontiers. "I took up playing women's hockey this year," she says. "It's great fun, but I'm pretty miserable at it." •

Originally published in May 2001 Business People-Vermont