William R. Roberts, the man named to succeed Sherry F. Bellamy as head of Verizon's operations in Maryland, has a full plate as he takes the helm. Local workers' unions are just sitting down to bargain for new contracts; parent company Bell Atlantic Corp. completed its merger with GTE Corp. yesterday to form the nation's largest local service provider, Verizon Communications; and the new Goliath plans a big push to sell digital subscriber line, or DSL, services. Also on the table for the months ahead will be efforts to win support for regulatory approvals to market long-distance services in Maryland and other states.
"Throughout his career, Bill has been a dynamic leader with a vision for the company," said Geoff Gould, Verizon's senior vice president for state and local government relations. "He's very customer-focused and understands that reliability is a table stake in this competitive environment."
Roberts' Maryland roots should also serve him well in the new post as president of Verizon's Maryland operations, said Gould. Roberts, 44, grew up in Unionville, a small town outside Easton that his ancestors, Civil War-era slaves and Union Army fighters, founded. He graduated from Morgan State University and met his wife of 22 years, Cherie, in Baltimore.
Of any skill, it is Roberts' lobbying experience - his ability to build consensus for complex and controversial issues - that may be most tested in the new post.
As Verizon Communications, Maryland's predominant local telephone service provider, moves into a new era of national telecommunications, the company faces some tough challenges.
For one, Verizon's Maryland operations face increasing competition from industry stalwarts such as WorldCom Inc., which has regulatory clearance to offer local service in Maryland. Also, up- starts are gaining business customers with packaged offers of high-speed Internet lines, voice and DSL, a service that transmits video and television signals over standard copper lines.
Roberts said in an interview yesterday after being named to succeed Bellamy, who is becoming vice president and general counsel with Verizon, that he sees his top priority in the new post as positioning the Maryland operation for a move into long-distance.
With 2.8 million customers in the state, the company has a huge base to sell potentially lucrative long-distance and other services.
The goal, said Roberts: to become a one-stop shop where local-service customers can also sign up for long-distance and Internet services, as well as new services and products as they become available. The challenge: to not let local-service quality suffer as long-distance and other services are added.
To get into the long-distance market, Verizon must gain Federal Communications Commission approval for each state where it wants to offer such service. It already has that approval in New York. But before seeking FCC approval, Verizon will need to get the backing of the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in Maryland, and elected officials, especially members of Maryland's congressional delegation.
Roberts said yesterday that he expects Verizon to apply for long-distance approval in the spring. One of his jobs will be to run point on garnering PSC and elected official backing in Maryland, said Gould.
As a Washington-based lobbyist for Bell Atlantic these past three years, Roberts is no stranger to what it takes to build political support for complex telecommunications issues and proposals. But, he said, he keeps it simple.
"My philosophy is to be honest. I'll tell our side and then present the opponents' side. I find that type of balance builds relationships and builds trust," Roberts said. "One thing I've found is that no one likes surprises, so I really think it's important to provide all the information upfront. That also builds trust."
Gould also praised Roberts' volunteer work in the Washington area.
Roberts, who began his telecommunications career in 1980 with C&P; Telephone in Washington, sits on a number of civic boards, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the Organization of Chinese Americans. While these groups hold center stage in national issues, it's the local charity work that Roberts says has really caught his passions.
He's particularly proud of founding an organization that provides outreach programs for homebound senior citizens in southeast and southwest Washington, sending police cadets and other public service trainees into homes to read, cook and comfort seniors too ill, frail or old to get outside.
"Community service is really an important part of this job," said Roberts. "Turning one life around at a time."