Things always take more time… anything you do is never as easy as it seems. When I started 4Connections, my goal was to sell my company in five years. It ended up taking longer, but in the end my company was more valuable.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gil Santaliz, CEO of NJFX.
As CEO of NJFX, Gil Santaliz helps telecommunications carriers diversify connectivity options to key hubs across North America, Europe, and South America. NJFX does something that no other facility can: provide a viable alternative for carriers and large organizations to design resilient network architectures and further ensure global networks stay operational. Santaliz’ innovative approach to thinking outside traditional telecom partnerships and network architecture, led him to establish NJFX’s unique offering.
Operating “Tier 3 by the Subsea,” NJFX is the world’s first colocation campus that strategically intersects a carrier-neutral subsea Cable Landing Station meet-me room with an independent Tier 3 colocation facility. Located 64 feet above sea level and Cat-5 hurricane resistant, the NJFX colocation facility has four subsea cables to Europe and South America, and seven independent U.S. fiber based backhaul providers. Santaliz is a member of the Submarine Networks EMEA 2020 Advisory Board, as well as the Pacific Telecommunications Council (PTC) Advisory Board. He earned a Bachelor of Science from Cornell University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As founder of a metro fiber network company called 4Connections LLC, I realized there was a lack of fiber route diversity between cable landing stations and North American networks. New York was the hotspot for internet landing points. A single point of connection means a single point of failure, and I knew this was something that needed to be solved.
Years later, I sold that company and retired at 42. But that didn’t last long! What I didn’t realize at the time is that it’s not really retirement, it’s investing in your life. Think about it. If someone gives you all the money you’re going to make for the rest of your life all at once, you have to figure out how to support your family long term. So, although you may not be working everyday, you still have to find a way to put that money to work. For me, there was no such thing as retirement. After getting involved with several projects, I realized what I truly enjoy is entrepreneurship — starting and running companies and bringing together the right team of people to make the business successful and rewarding. I also still had that idea about filling a need for infrastructure origination in New Jersey, so that is when I started putting together the foundation for starting NJFX.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting and somewhat surprising story that’s happened since I began my career is the explosion of technology and advances in technology in a relatively short time. What started with emails and faxes has since become even more important than electricity! As long as you have a way to connect to the internet, you are connected to the world. I was selling long-distance voice service for MCI in the 90s. Now, I am involved in critical IT infrastructure, from a regulatory, national security and global infrastructure perspective. Little did I know that within two decades, I would be in the center of the digital economy
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Becoming an entrepreneur was a turning point and having a successful business as an entrepreneur was a tipping point. As an entrepreneur, you may have a great idea, but executing on that ultimately means people have to be willing to pay for what you produce. At 4Connections, when we started signing hedge fund “bigwigs”, I realized we had something people really needed and wanted. In addition, in terms of being an entrepreneur — it’s important to make sure your family buys into the endeavour. The business can quickly become like another family member. You need to nurture that relationship with time and attention, and it definitely helps to have your family fully on board and supportive.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started 4Connections, I found myself in a situation where I needed to deliver a proposal the next day. It was a very high stakes,10-year deal that had the potential to make or break us. At the time, we were in the days of printer/fax/copier — no emails, no PC and definitely no IT department. That night, I wound up spending seven hours trying to figure out how to print and fax this proposal on a machine that was fairly new at the time. We bought that printer at the local office supply store. There was no one to call to help. I just had to figure it out. Needless to say, I did and the rest is history. The lesson here is tenacity and determination. You may find yourself in the trenches, figuring it out as you go. Be ready and willing to do that.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Think about where technology was 20 years ago. In 2000, we were all panicking about Y2K. Now we have tech giants like Amazon, Netflix and Facebook to name a few. We have come a long way in a relatively short time. The internet’s infrastructure must keep pace. We went from 1Tb or 2Tb systems to 300Tb systems. I am really excited about the latest generation of subsea cable system refresh projects. Many of the subsea cable systems in use today were deployed when the internet was in its infancy. The first real refresh of the internet age is happening right now. At our building, we are thrilled to welcome the first subsea cable to cross the North Atlantic in twenty years: HAVRUE/AEC2. We are launching the Nordic Gateway with this system. We will be taking advantage of that region’s sustainable resources. There is a new model of connectivity happening where the cable landing station becomes the hub. We are proud to be one of just a couple of cable landing station hubs in the world. This brings a truly resilient and diverse way to connect major carrier networks. And the goal is for the end user internet experience to be more widely available, better and faster.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- The CEO is not the boss. Before becoming an entrepreneur, I thought the title CEO meant you were the boss. But the CEO actually works for everyone else — for investors, customers, employees, regulators and others. Your job is to make sure everyone is getting what they need to make the orchestration of your company work. One example, when I hired one of my first employees, he needed to move from New York City to New Jersey. Little did I know that I would be helping him physically move. At one point, we needed to get his couch into his apartment. We actually thought about cutting the couch in half because we couldn’t get it inside. I had no idea I’d be a moving person to help my employees get situated! But I needed to build my team, and in the process I built a great foundation with a colleague that continues to this day.
- Have a plan A, B, C and D. Initially, 4Connections was going to be a construction entity to support AT&T projects, but it ended up becoming a direct competitor to AT&T. At the time, they were called GPU Telecom and I couldn’t get them to subscribe to my service of selling dark fiber. So, I became a competitor, investing in dark fiber and providing it to others. While it wasn’t my original plan, I actually became even more successful by adjusting my business model.
- I wish someone had told me that the business becomes like a new member of the family. You have to give it a seat at the table. The business has needs and wants, it has to be nurtured, and it must be accommodated, whether your family is planning vacation, a birthday, a milestone event or anything else — you can’t just walk away and leave it alone during that period. It needs constant attention.
- I learned that in starting and running a business, you are actually selling yourself, your character, sometimes more than your business. People want to assess your character so you have to be open to letting people in. I feel that people invest in me — sometimes, they have no idea what I do, but they know me, my family and my character and that’s what they’re betting on. I work hard to forge close relationships with my customers and partners and develop mutual trust. You have to be willing to do that. The saying “it’s just business” is not the best way to operate.
- Things always take more time… anything you do is never as easy as it seems. When I started 4Connections, my goal was to sell my company in five years. It ended up taking longer, but in the end my company was more valuable.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Well, you have to tie your lifestyle into your business. I love to play golf. I love wine. So, I incorporate those loves into my business relationships — I open a bottle of wine with my partners, golf regularly with them, it’s a way to enjoy life and the business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Steve Gelis ran an internet incubator in 1999. He has been a partner with me in my business and helped me negotiate and raise capital. I’ve always admired his negotiation tactics which are focused on developing win-win scenarios. In college, Dr. Moss at Cornell taught Psych 101. I always refer back to what he taught us about people. Understanding human behavior is important in determining why people do what they do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Thomas Friedman wrote a book called, “The World is Flat”. I think part of what he was conveying includes advances in technology to level the playing field. The internet will put us all on the same plane together. It’s going to continue. I am involved with the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau — a United Nations initiative. We are working to further connectivity around the world.
Some of the same people who started telecommunications PRE-internet, are still the leaders today. That represents an entire generation! I think of my daughter. She is what’s known as a digital native. She has never known a world without the internet. I want the digital native generation to be fully involved and immersed in our digital world. We need young faces and diverse faces in the telecommunications industry! There is a bright future ahead for all in this industry.
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