At a time when executives in charge of car manufacturing in Detroit have never worked a day in a factory, and executives who greenlight movies in Hollywood have never worked a day on a film set, Cristina Lambert breaks the mold: She knows the telecommunications business from the bottom up.
"I began as a teller or cashier," says Ms. Lambert, currently CEO of Puerto Rico Telephone (PRT). "Then I went from teller to trainer to coordinator to customer service manager to state manager to general manager. I would say that over 30 years in the business, I have transitioned, starting from a very entry level. And through it all, I attended school and raised a family."
And more transitions lie ahead in the challenges facing Ms. Lambert, who recently was named to preside over an operation that has 5,200 employees, revenues of $1.26 billion, and has been estimated to control about 93 percent of the land-line market on an island that research firm Global Information calls "one of the most advanced and fastest-growing telecommunications market[s] in the [Latin American and Caribbean] region."
Despite front-runner status in a growing market, PRT's corporate culture poses a challenge to its progress. As recently as 1999, the company existed as a government-owned utility immune from market pressures. Ms. Lambert arrived that same year as part of a management team from Verizon, the utility's new majority owner, and she assumed the CEO position last November when her predecessor retired.
"The current challenge is to engage our employees in our business. In a government- or a highly-regulated environment, employees were not expected to get involved in the business. They were expected to do as they were told, and they did," says Ms. Lambert. "Now they must understand changes in the business, revenue streams, and technology. They must be advocates."
Verizon International officials say Ms. Lambert has moved quickly to do that. "She is undertaking a significant restructuring of that organization," says Jeanne Dennison, vice-president of human resources for Verizon International. "She has accepted that challenge by personally communicating with employees. She has criss-crossed the island to meet as many employees as possible."
For now, PRT confronts two sets of expectations – those of a government entity with social responsibilities to the public, and those of a corporate subsidiary accountable to headquarters. The duality even extends to its ownership: Verizon controls 52 percent of the stock, the government of Puerto Rico owns 28 percent, Banco Popular has 13 percent, and PRT employees have 7 percent.
But a life filled with transitioning has prepared Ms. Lambert for her role as PRT's change agent. She was born in Panama and came to the U.S. to attend Indiana University, later earning an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University. She joined Contel, a regional telecom operator, in 1974 and advanced through line positions such as district customer operations manager and director for process re-engineering. Contel merged with GTE in 1991, and Ms. Lambert served as general manager of GTE's Illinois operations. Before moving to Puerto Rico in 1999, she was GTE's assistant vice-president of customer care. In 2000, GTE merged with Bell Atlantic to form Verizon.
"Here is a lady who came from a small telephone company [Contel] and joined a large one [GTE]," says Oscar Gomez, vice-president of business compliance at Verizon and a longtime friend of Ms. Lambert. "She moved away from the element she was used to and took a big step in going to Puerto Rico."
Ms. Lambert also "succeeded in an environment that was predominantly male," Mr. Gomez notes, to become "the highest-ranking Hispanic female in the company [Verizon]." He attributes her success to a comprehensive knowledge of the telecommunications industry and a skill for relating with people.
For her part, Ms. Lambert credits a strong sense of identity. "The perception is that a woman must give up her identity to perform in an environment dominated by men. I don't believe that," she says. "Women must be who they are. That has helped me in my career, to maintain that understanding."
Identity also extends into dealing with her market's culture. "She relates to people in their own language, and her respect for what is unique to the Puerto Rican culture really comes across," says Ms. Dennison. "She's not a native to Puerto Rico, she's Panamanian, but her cultural sensitivity plays well."
Already Ms. Lambert has implemented significant change at PRT. Under her direction, the company has opened business service centers and introduced DSL Internet service, and bundled billing of services. Since its acquisition of Coqui.net, PRT.net has become the largest Internet service provider in the Caribbean.
Technology adds another ingredient to PRT's market. Phoebe Forsythe Isales, former chair of the Puerto Rico Telecommunications Regulatory Board, calls the island "one of the few places in the world where there are more cellular phones than land lines." She estimates the island has more than 1.5 million cellular phones but only 1.3 million regular telephones – and a large number of companies compete for those cellular customers.
"I see a tremendous change in the way we serve customers," says Ms. Lambert. "Right now, most of our voice traffic goes on a switch network. In the future, most of it will go wireless or through a database, as it does in the U.S. There will be a migration [of customers] to more broadband, while dial-up analog is going to diminish."
In the big picture, Ms. Lambert sees telecommunications as a catalyst for the development of Puerto Rico. "We are among the largest employers on island, so we have a social responsibility to the community," she says. "We have 13 call centers in low-income neighborhoods to address the 'Digital Divide.' We look more like the U.S. than Latin America, but we don't think for a minute Puerto Rico is not Latin."
Economically, "Puerto Rico is transitioning from a manufacturing base to a service base," she continues. "Puerto Rico Telephone is key to that transition." Ms. Forsythe, now a telecommunications consultant, adds: "When the island lost 936 [a provision in federal tax law], manufacturers lost incentives to set up plants here. So, the service sector and telecommunications are taking up the slack."
Ms. Lambert also sees progress ahead for Hispanic women in Corporate America, provided they are educated and ready to accept opportunities when they arise. "All of the statistics say the Hispanic population is growing fast. From that perspective, companies need to make reaching that market a priority," she says. "Hispanic women become key to any company's leadership team. The decision should be based on profitability - not 'Should she be a woman?' or 'Should she be Hispanic?' but 'Does this person know the market?'"
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