Face Value

Interview with Andrea Custis of Verizon Avenue

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Ask anyone in this industry and they’ll tell you that multifamily is a relationship business. Relationships to residents, employees, investors, and the community are the key elements that drive the industry and differentiate the winners from the also-rans.
In her role at Verizon Avenue, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Verizon solely dedicated to providing bundled communications services to multiple dwelling units (MDUs) nationwide, Andrea L. Custis lives and breathes through relationships. Since joining Verizon Avenue last January, Custis has infused her energetic personality and philosophy into every aspect of Verizon Avenue’s operations. In the forefront of her strategic approach is the building of strong working relationships with the apartment owners and managers Verizon Avenue serves. Custis introduced the “Premier Owners Program” to reward owners and managers and has visited scores of apartment communities since assuming the leadership of the company. Employees and customers alike characterize her as a dynamic and approachable individual who has a knack for translating issues into terms that can be dealt with readily and for finding solutions to problems.
If being one of the leaders of a major division of one of the largest telecommunications firms in the country weren’t enough, Custis is a woman president and an African American, a combination rarely found in the upper reaches of mainstream corporate management. Her very existence symbolizes Verizon’s corporate culture and strong support for diversity.
“I’m a very focused and disciplined individual,” says Custis. “From Catholic school to college then graduate school and in my professional career I’ve tried to give more than 100 percent to anything I’ve undertaken. My father always said, “Take your best and make it better — ‘rev it up a notch’ — and that has been my philosophy.”
She began her career at Bell of Pennsylvania in 1977 as a management trainee and advanced through assignments in Human Resources, Sales and Operations. Custis earned a B.S. Degree in psychology from Morgan State University and a Masters in Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She conducted research in Impression formation at Princeton University and attended the Leadership Institute at Boston University.

A SYMBOL OF DIVERSITY
When asked about the problems she has faced being an African American woman in business, Custis takes a positive perspective.
“There are always two ways of looking at anything and this is no different,” says Custis. “You can either see being black and a woman as an obstacle or an asset. Is the glass half empty or half full? I see how special I am to have been born as an African American woman. If others don’t see it as an asset, I have an obligation to not tolerate that view. If you encounter behavior that is incorrect you need to stand up and speak up. It’s not always easy, but it is necessary.”
Custis was surprised when she first entered the multifamily business to see little presence of women and minorities in key positions with apartment firms.
“When you don’t see many women or people of color in a business environment that picture does not mirror our society,” adds Custis. “I’m encouraged to see education and awakening to the fact that diversity is good business. At Verizon Avenue, our staff mirrors our customers. Society has made progress in this area but there is still a long way to go and there are pockets that need more progress. In the end, the most important thing comes down to how we treat each other.”
When asked how she has dealt with adversity, Custis responds with a proactive answer that places the problem where she feels it belongs: “Some people are mean-spirited, I can’t control their behavior, but I can control mine. You have the choice to control your own destiny, take the high road and do the right thing. My favorite quote from Maya Angelou sums it all up nicely — ‘Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.’ And I believe that.”
Others appear to agree with Andrea as well. In 1995, she received the Black Achiever of Business and Education Award, followed by being recognized for her tireless efforts in the African American community by the NAACP in 1996. In 2002, The Network Journal cited her as one of the 25 most influential women in business. A dedicated supporter of civic and communal organizations, Custis was recently awarded the prestigious honor of being invited to join the Board of Trustees at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Custis’ message is unmistakable. Opportunities for women and minorities are out there and need to be pursued.
“People fear taking risks,” says Custis. “I say go for it. What’s the worse that could happen? If you don’t try, you’ll never know. I like challenges, tackling things that are tough. What do you have to lose? After 13 years in human resources, I took a risk and went into operations. I asked for it, and that has made the difference for me.”

VERIZON AVENUE’S PATH TO MARKET LEADER
By creating a separate entity to serve the telecommunications needs of multifamily properties, Verizon sought to invest the company with an entrepreneurial sensibility that would free the firm to form close working partnerships with apartment owners and managers and be able to provide the close, high level of customer service usually associated with smaller companies. A $67 billion telecommunications giant, Verizon created Verizon Avenue and integrated it with its acquisition of OnePoint Communications, a former leader in providing bundled telecom services to the apartment industry, in December of 2000.
The goal was to offer apartment owners and managers a single point of contact at Verizon to resolve issues and acquire communications amenities for apartment residents. The company has more than 1.1 million units under contract. Verizon Avenue offers competitively priced telecom bundles with the added ability to provide Internet access via different solutions to suit the needs of the property owner and residents. Verizon Online is available to many of these properties, bringing with it a rich feature set and competitive price. For properties that cannot be served with the Verizon Online product, Verizon Avenue installs DSL facilities on the property owner’s premises, eliminating the distance problems experienced by customers who live more than three miles from a central office.
The company offers one-stop shopping to residents at contracted properties for local telephone, long distance, and high-speed Internet services. Verizon Avenue contracts with owners who serve as sales agents to the residents of their properties. Once the contract is in place, Verizon Avenue works directly with the leasing office as a channel to sell services to new move-ins as well as existing residents.
After more than a decade of intense competition followed by consolidation and a shakeout within the volatile multifamily telecommunications services market, Verizon Avenue’s reliability and stability have become reassuring traits to apartment firms.
“We did some interesting research on the Verizon brand and found it had a high recognition factor in the multifamily sector as well as a comfort factor,” says Custis.
Custis has been a pioneer in approaching the multifamily market from a resident quality of life perspective rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of the technology.
“We’re not selling technology,” says Custis, “we’re selling connectivity, communication, quality of life for residents. Our customers want to know what will it do for me? How will it improve my life? It’s all about what will help the resident be better informed, more entertained, and more closely connected to their friends and family as part of their living experience at a multifamily community. It’s not about the technology, that’s just the delivery system. High-speed Internet service is an amenity for communities that now ranks higher than pools or anything else, it’s become so integral to our lives, so widely used and relied upon, that it’s become a part of who we are and how we live.”
Under Custis’ leadership, Verizon Avenue is continually pursuing the development of new and innovative products for its customers.
“Innovation is as much in the delivery of the product as in the product itself,” says Custis. “We not only continue to upgrade our technology but how we deliver it as well. Our services are customized down to the property level. In this industry one size fits all does not work and we take our services and make them work for the property. To succeed in this, we take care to listen closely to our customers to help shape the products and services they want and the experience they expect from Verizon.” The MDU telecommunications market is a constantly changing, highly competitive arena where customers demand the latest and greatest features, faster speeds, greater band-width, more content, and the list goes on. With more than 20% of the U.S. population residing in apartments, residents have the numbers to command attention. Verizon Avenue and its competitors are already focusing on the next generation of telecom services and Andrea Custis says some cool and exciting things will be coming from Verizon Avenue in the near future.

Author: Barry Kipnis