In 2009, while working as a senior project manager for a Pennsylvania-based engineering firm, Brian Hortonremembers flying over Maine in a helicopter, in awe of the vast wilderness while seeing nothing but trees for miles.
For Horton, it was hard to believe that this rural state was a placed visited by terrorists in advance of the horrific attacks of 9/11. Contracted for a job by the U.S Department of Homeland Security, he was responsible for selecting sites to install 60 radio towers to improve communications—and prevent that crisis from ever happening again.
That experience quickly came in handy when he joined Leaf Communications, a full-service telecom company, in 2019. Promoted to vice president of construction management in January, Horton’s plies his experience in construction management with the unique design needs of the burgeoning 5G space.
To date, the company—headquartered in San Clemente, California—has provided construction management services including small cell, macrocell modifications and outdoor distributed antenna systems projects in 20 states so far.
“I fell in love with operations from the start,” Horton told Blueprint in February. “Now at Leaf, I have the opportunity to put all of my experiences under one umbrella. It was a good fit and now we’re in a position to get many great programs off the ground.”
With the cellular industry deemed essential during COVID-19, business has been steady for Leaf, including designing and building out networks for wireless carriers; supporting emergency response communication initiatives networks; and expanding signals in urban areas. The company has even laid down technology in active seismic areas to alert communities of earthquake activity.
Now, with wireless carriers racing to establish their own 5G networks, Leaf’s construction management services are in high demand—particularly throughout the South, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast.
Horton’s division handles more than 3,000 project requests annually, performing services such as cell tower site selection; real estate lease negotiation; construction management; and system testing, just to name a few. He’s typically involved in each project’s initial design work, unless a wireless carrier wants its own designer. Then he connects with the provider’s team to ensure things go smoothly.
He also oversees all aspects of construction management, working with general contractors to make sure the job’s done right. His goal is to manage all major carriers in every state and to provide services to each major market.
“Some carriers have internal people working for them, or others ask us to do it all,” says Horton. “Regardless of the project requirements, our work will be thorough.”
Tapping into talent
Given the sheer scope of Leaf’s projects, teamwork is critical.
“Nothing falls through the cracks,” Horton says. “Our capabilities set us apart from other providers—not just the amount of projects we tackle, but also the skills of our team. We can analyze how to save time, money and energy on our client’s behalf—often as much as 50 percent.”
Horton currently manages a team of 15, who together tout more than 100 years of industry experience. Whenever a new employee is hired, Horton works alongside them for a week, training them on everything from cell tower installation to testing protocols. After that, he connects with each team of employees weekly to make sure the team’s goals are being met.
In the hyper-competitive telecom field, where providers want systems designed and installed quickly, keeping pace with demand can be challenging. The end of 2020 was particularly intense, Horton says, requiring several meetings on Zoom, FaceTime and WebEx to strategize with clients.
Often the team has to adapt to service requests in each territory, Horton says, noting state regulations vary in the telecom industry and can change rapidly which influences projects.
“By keeping our team up to date on the latest state and federal laws I trust them to do the job well. They know how to be proactive rather than reactive to meet our goals,” he says.
Power of perspective
Horton gained an appreciation for those in the field on the frontlines of telecom construction because he’s been there himself, working in a variety of locations and circumstances.
After earning degrees in economics and industrial management from Carnegie Mellon University in 1994, Horton immediately went to work. He gained a decade’s worth of experience in project management and operations at companies including DRG Construction, Wycliffe Enterprises, Pernix Group, JLL and Centerline Solutions.
After 9/11, Horton rounded out his education with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Anti-terrorism Level 1 training as well as LEED G.A. certification through the U.S Green Building Council.
“That experience helps,” says Horton. “I’m fortunate to learn from intelligent people throughout the industry—from the carriers to the factories that make the cell towers. It’s allowed me to cultivate conversations to create the team we have now. Leaf’s construction management team succeeds because good people taught me what’s important.”
To this day, Horton can’t resist field visits, whether he’s checking on tower installations in northern Maine or helping establish better cellphone service in the mountains around Telluride, Colorado.
“I love staying connected to the on-site challenges,” says Horton. “It feels good connecting people—to help them feel safe and have technology at their fingertips to stay in contact wherever they are.”
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