Reflecting on 20 Years :

Steel in the Air's Journey of Helping Landowners with Cell Tower Leases

Just over 25 years ago, I got the idea for the first time to start what would become Steel in the Air, Inc.

I was a site acquisition agent for a wireless carrier, negotiating many leases for their market launch in St. Louis. Time and time again, I kept coming across landowners who didn’t know what they were doing.  Some would accept far less than the site was worth, some would push for ridiculous rent or terms and ultimately I would end up finding another property owner.  The idea just kept growing stronger in my head that landowners needed better representation. In 2003, after another wireless carrier delayed payments up to a year, the company I was with shut down.  My girlfriend then (now my wife) had been patient up to that point with my frequent travel but gave me a polite ultimatum that if we were to be together for the long term, I needed to reduce the travel.  And personally, I didn’t want to go to another market to negotiate leases on behalf of a carrier who saw landowners as obstacles, not partners. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention- and it was time for me to reinvent myself.

I started Steel in the Air in 2003 and incorporated twenty years ago this day.  I wish I could say that I knew what Steel in the Air would grow into- or that I was confident of the entire path of our success, but I would be lying if I did.  I also wish I could say that I was the expert I proclaimed myself to be with my first website back in 2004 (shown below- I coded it myself if you can’t tell 😊).  It’s easy to call oneself an expert, but it takes experience (and tons of data) to truly be one. 

I Owe a Debt of Gratitude to Many People.

But 20 years in, Steel in the Air, Inc. is among the 20% of businesses that make it to their 20th year anniversary. We have helped more landowners than any other consultant. This success though isn’t mine alone- there are a lot of people to thank.

  1. First and foremost, my wife and family.  It took some time for Steel in the Air to generate enough business that we didn’t need to depend upon my wife’s income. To my family for bearing with me when the days were long, or my attitude was less than optimal, or when we stopped on the side of the road to take another photo of a tower. 😊
  2. To the people that have worked at Steel in the Air over the years, some of which (Gypsy Mims and Michele Turek-Gerard) have been with me from nearly the beginning. They have helped take my vision of helping landowners with cell tower leases and expanded it greatly. They have consistently treated our clients, leads, and people with questions with respect.  They have helped build an environment where our focus is first on helping the landowner and second on making money by doing so.  Without excellent employees and contractors, Steel in the Air couldn’t have remotely come close to reaching all the landowners we have.
  3. To the 4,300 plus landowners who have trusted us over the years to guide them to better leases.  (and the 10,000 more who have contacted us over the last 20 years with questions or who didn’t immediately need our help)
  4. To my mentors over the years:  Bruce Wendt of SteelTree Partners, Rick Edwards of Cityscape Consultants (who passed away two years ago), and Doug Van Dyke of Leadership Simplified.  Each of them has had a significant influence on who I am today. I have learned far more from each of them, than they learned from me.

Our Great Clients.

Over the years, we have had the pleasure of working with so many clients, many of which stay in touch with us to this day even though they no longer have a tower or lease. Some of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person during our Wireless Dinners or when doing a site visit, and others who I have only heard their voices.  Some who have run-of-the mill situations, and others who have unique situations that required a delicate touch.  The common thread between all of them?  They all sought out help on a subject that they didn’t know much about themselves.  Three hundred of our clients have taken the time to provide written testimonials to our assistance to them.  Many more have expressed their appreciation directly.  Like the bell they ring at bars when someone provides great service, we live for the feedback we get from our clients.

Some of my favorite client memories include:

Over the 20 years, the industry has changed in many ways but remained the same in others. There is no doubt that there is far better information available to landowners today than there was 20 years ago.  I am confident that for every landowner we have had direct communication with, another 10-20 have visited our website and gained some type of information.  We have touched 5% or more of all cell tower leases in the United States. While bad behavior and practices still exist with some tower owners and industry vendors, it is harder for them to get away with it time and time again without someone calling attention to the practice.  As the industry finds new ways to take advantage of landowners (like prepaid leases), so too have we made sure to provide substantive information to help clients and non-clients recognize and respond to these tactics.  

The Future of Cell
Tower Lease Consulting.

With each new generation of technology, new concerns are raised as to the longevity of towers. But ultimately, the industry fundamentals are the same.  Towers are still needed despite the advances in 5G and small cells.  Macrocells are still the most critical component of day-to-day wireless communications (along with backhaul). Going forward, I don’t expect this to change measurably. The nuts and bolts at the cell site will change and the site economics may be tested, but ultimately, there is still significant value attached to most towers.  (And to answer one of the more frequent questions we get- satellite to cell phone communication will not make terrestrial based towers obsolete any time soon.) 

What will change though is the economics on tower development and operation.  As we identified in our study on the impact of inflation on tower economics this past year, towers aren’t as wildly profitable as they once were.  Carriers have wisely and aggressively negotiated better collocation master lease agreements and collocation leases with tower companies.  As the terms on those have changed, so too must the underlying landowner economics, especially in areas where there are no zoning regulations. 

In the next 20 years, we will continue to do what we have done in the past- which is stay abreast and ahead of market and industry changes.  We will continue to encourage thought-provoking dialogue on social media and our website/blog.  We will remain true to our ethical compass- never putting our interests in front of our clients.  We will continue to point out less than honorable behavior and practices in the industry.  We will continue to treat our employees with respect and compassion and be rewarded for their continued efforts.  In the face of an uncertain future full of potential and pitfalls of AI and 5G and revised tower economics, we will adapt.  As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Happy, Proud, and Content. 

In the next 20 years, we will continue to do what we have done in the past- which is stay abreast and ahead of market and industry changes.  We will continue to encourage thought-provoking dialogue on social media and our website/blog.  We will remain true to our ethical compass- never putting our interests in front of our clients.  We will continue to point out less than honorable behavior and practices in the industry.  We will continue to treat our employees with respect and compassion and be rewarded for their continued efforts.  In the face of an uncertain future full of potential and pitfalls of AI and 5G and revised tower economics, we will adapt.  As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Ultimately, I am humbled and proud of what we have accomplished and the sheer number of people whom we have connected with and helped.  I am amazed that I have been gifted by such extraordinary people who have chosen to work for me. I love the relationships that have been built over the last two decades with peers and people we end up on the other side of the table from.  I am floored by the fact that nearly 20,000 people (including many peers) now follow our content on LinkedIn with nearly 950,000 impressions on our posts in 2023.  We as a team at Steel in the Air come to work each day invigorated by our chosen profession. You can ask my wife- I am a much more content and happier person working on this side of the industry than where I was when she discouraged me from continuing to work for the “other side”. 

Our Team at Our Corporate Retreat in Asheville this Past Year.

To be candid, it’s hard not to sit here writing this without feeling immensely grateful and candidly, tearful in a happy way.  When I tell people what I do, it takes them a minute to figure it out.  They invariably say that they don’t know anyone else that does what I do or comment on what a niche business we have.  But they don’t realize that it was all purposeful. From the day the idea first popped up in my mind, I knew that there was a niche that married my skills with the ability to serve and help landowners as opposed to taking from them.  But it was the people that have chosen to work for Steel in the Air over the years that took SITA to the next level.   To all of you who have supported Steel in the Air, whether as a client, a partner, an employee, or contractor, or just a friend, I and we thank you profusely.  Please send us a line or reach out to us to let us know how you are doing!  We love to hear from those of you how have taken the time to stay in touch. And to those of you reading this who haven’t engaged our services, thank you for indulging me in reading this letter to the end.
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