Marty Essen of Victor grasps opportunity
Ten years ago, Marty Essen was running a talent agency in Minneapolis.
Business was bad. Essen's company, Twin City Talent, booked primarily regional rock bands playing nightclubs around the Midwest. The national drinking age had recently been raised to 21 and bar crowds had thinned considerably.
"The whole industry just crashed," Essen said recently from his home office near Victor. "It was time to do something else."
So Essen, with nearly no experience in the industry, started a telecommunications company.
"One day we were Twin City Talent and the next day we were Essen Communications," he said. "Basically, business is business."
Essen first focused on marketing operator services for public pay phones. Within two years, the company had enough business to make a "comfortable" profit. Then the Federal Communications Commission adopted new payphone regulations and the industry stumbled badly. Across the country, pay-phone operator services went of business.
Essen simply morphed. The company began marketing long distance service to business and residential customers.
About the same time, Essen and his wife visited Montana, relaxing at a cabin near Sula, just north of the Idaho border in the Bitterroot Valley. On the way back to Minneapolis, Essen suggested to his wife a move to Montana.
"I mostly did it just to get a rise out of her," he said. "Instead, she said it was a great idea. Next thing I knew, we were contacting a Realtor in Hamilton and looking for a piece of property."
As Essen got settled in, his company held on to its Minneapolis customer and began looking for Montana long-distance customers. About the same time, long-distance rates were falling rapidly, more than 70 percent between 1993 and 1998. Again, Essen found himself in a troubled business.
"By then I was used to diversifying, so that's what we did," he said.
His ticket out of the downturn in the long-distance business was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated local phone service and gave consumers a choice in phone service. Nationwide, competitive local exchange carriers, known as CLECs, took off. But not in Montana.
In fact, Essen was looking without luck for a CLEC to partner with. When he couldn't find one, he became one. Telephone customers now find the name Essen Communications Corp. on the cover of the Qwest phone book, along with Qwest, AT&T and MCI.
"We found Montanans were really open to the idea of having a new phone company," Essen said.
City offices in Hamilton, Cut Bank and Conrad soon switched to Essen, which offered a 8.333 percent discount from Qwest's local rates. Interestingly, Qwest's infrastructure of wire and telephone line is Essen's lifeblood.
"Essentially, what deregulation did was make Qwest be treated as sort of a public network," Essen said. "We get everything at wholesale from Qwest. Then, whatever they charge the customer, we charge less."
Essen's customer base has grown to about 1,500, customers handled by his three-person company.
"We handle billing and customer service, and everything we do we do on the phone," Essen said. "We'd be comfortable with 2,000 customers, but we don't really want any more than that."
Indeed, Essen turns down about half of its potential customers because of their credit ratings.
"We can afford to only take on the people who pay their bills," he said.
After 10 years in business, Marty Essen is pleased with the outlook for his business. But should the outlook darken, Essen will be ready.
"We've changed before," he said. "I don't think we'll have to change, but if we do, we're ready."