Knowling, Robert E. Jr. 1955(?)–
Robert E. Knowling Jr. 1955(?)–
In the early 1990s the world was changed forever as the Internet became a functioning communications tool that could be accessed by any person with a computer and a phone line. Many people fantasized that the Internet would become an international marketplace for the masses, where all businesses would meet and interact with a world wide customer base in a safe, extremely expedient manner. One man who has worked to make this fantasy a reality is Robert E. Knowling Jr., Since the mid-1990s, he has worked with telephone and multimedia companies to improve Internet services, first improving dial-up connections and speeds, and then moving on to broadband connections, such as cable modems and DSL lines, which allow users to not only download web-pages instantaneously, but also to be connected to the Internet 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 1998 he became the CEO of Covad, a broadband provider, and in a year’s time he had increased the number of broadband lines going into homes and businesses around the United States from 1,000 to 100,000. According to Knowling, in an interview with Black Collegian magazine, with more and more businesses focusing on on-line sales combined with the increased number of people who buy anything and everything on the net, “The (telecommunications) revolution is well under way and if people don’t understand how it is affecting their lives, then they’re a part of those who are being left behind.” Even though Knowling resigned from Covad in 2000 due to an inability to reach estimated profits, he continues to work to extend the reach of broadband connections to every region in the United States, no matter how large or small.
Robert E. Knowling was born in the small rural community of Kokomo, Indiana, in the 1950s to a less than wealthy family. For most of his youth, he and his thirteen siblings lived in poverty, the family surviving off of welfare checks and the kindness of relatives. Knowling would eventually go to live with his grandparents in Missouri on their cotton and soybean farm, where he learned numerous lessons about hard work and the value of education. Knowling joked in an interview with www.allperson.com, “I’m one of the few CEOs who actually knows how to pick cotton.” It wasn’t long before Knowling also learned about the world around him and the hurdles he faced as an African American. During elementary school, a fishing lure that Knowling had brought in for “show and tell” became accidentally snagged in a young white girl’s sweater. Knowling’s teacher, assuming he had hooked the girl’s sweater on purpose, sent Knowling to the principal who proceeded to call Knowling numerous racial slurs as he beat him with a paddle, resulting in spinal injuries. It was this event that urged Knowling to become successful, for as he said to The Financial Times, he wanted to prove that an African American could succeed, despite racism, and continually told himself, “I need to become greater than they are and show them that I got through it and came out on top.”
It was clear to Knowling early on that he wanted more from life than those around him. “I look around at cousins and friends that I grew up with and I never
At a Glance…
Born c. 1955 in Kokomo, IN; married; 4 children. Education: Wabash College, Crawfordsville, IN, B.A., theology, 1976; Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, MBA.
Career: Indiana Bell, operator, engineer, and marketing executive, 1977-92; Ameritech, lead architect of re-engineering corporate transformation, 1992-94, vice president of network operations, 1994-96; US West, executive vice president of operations and technologies, 1996-98; Covad Communications Group, president/CEO, 1998-00; Internet Access Technologies, chairman/CEO, 2001–.
Memberships: Board of directors, Ariba Inc.; speaker, Digital Divide; board of directors, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International; advisory board, Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management; volunteer, YMCA; chair, National Service group for the YMCA.
Address: Office —Internet Access Technologies, 5450 Northwest Central, Suite 300, Houston, TX 77092.
wanted to be a part of the environment. I wanted to actually get out and go stake a fortune somewhere,” Knowling commented in an interview with Black Collegian magazine. He soon realized that education was the only defense against both poverty and racism and he worked hard in high school to excel at every subject and every extra-curricular activity. It paid off as he earned scholarships to help defer the cost of a college education. Knowling attended Wabash College in Indiana where he procured a bachelor’s degree in theology while he continued to shine in sports such as basketball, track, and even football. After college Knowling had many options, including a possible NBA career and an offer to be a place-kicker for the Denver Broncos football team. However, Knowling knew that he would never become a stand-out player, and chose instead to pursue a more business oriented occupation.
In the late 1970s the Bell corporation was the number one name in communications. It owned phone lines all over the United States and had almost cornered the market in providing telephone service to the nation. Knowling joined Indiana Bell in 1977 and slowly made a name for himself in the next decade. A multi-faceted employee, Knowling moved from department to department, picking up experience in all aspects of the company including marketing, operations, and even engineering. He survived the merger of Indiana Bell with the Ameritech Corporation and worked closely with Ameritech to get Indiana Bell up to the speed of the rest of the corporation. Hence, it was no surprise that in 1992, when Ameritech decided to reorganize and revamp their company that they promoted Knowling to be the lead architect of the project.
Knowling continued to climb the ladder at Ameritech when he was promoted after two years of company restructuring to the level of vice president of network operations. He continued to improve the Ameritech reputation for service and quality products in this position from 1994 through 1996. By that time Knowling had already made a name for himself in the telecommunications business and was highly recruited by numerous smaller telephone companies throughout the nation. He was lured away from Ameritech by US West Communications in 1996, becoming the company’s executive vice president of network operations and technology. Part of Knowling’s move was influenced by US West’s commitment to financing and assisting women and minority businesses. In early 1998 Knowling himself took over US West’s Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprise Program (MWBE) and made aggressive changes to ensure that the program would not only help the correct people but that the program itself would make more money to help more people. By July of 1998 Knowling had almost doubled the size of the MWBE program and was pushing US West to further develop their services to Internet providers. Knowling saw the Internet as the future of telecommunications and did not feel that telecommunications companies such as Ameritech and US West were fully seizing the opportunity to capitalize on the new booming market.
In the late 1990s, due to the Telecom Reform Act that was passed by Congress, numerous companies began to pop-up around the nation challenging larger corporations such as Ameritech and the Bells in the expanding market to provide customers with high-speed Internet connections. One such company, Covad, founded in 1996, knew that they needed a motivated and true business-minded leader to get their company properly off the ground. After a long courting process, Covad finally convinced Knowling in the summer of 1998 to leave US West and sign on as Covad’s president and CEO. According to Robert Hawk, Covad board member, in Black Collegian magazine, Covad and Knowling were a perfect fit because Covad, “… is a colorless, creedless environment. People with talent have a place, and nobody looks beyond talent. You’re hungry for whoever can make a contribution, whoever can lead, whoever can design, develop, sell, build, and manage.”
When Knowling took over Covad, the company was still working on a very small scale. They were known in few regions and only had 1,000 DSL broadband lines installed, bringing in annual revenue of $27,000. Knowling knew there was a much bigger market need for high-speed Internet connections and that Covad could easily be the company to slip in and become a major provider in this area. In an interview in 1999 with www.allperson.com Knowling said, “I plan to make Covad the largest, most pervasive broadband company in the world.” By the end of 1999, Knowling proved that he was well on his way to accomplishing his goal. Covad had installed more than 100,000 lines between the summer of 1998 and the winter of 1999, and revenues had soared to $66.5 million. Covad was also pushing to ensure that it could continue to survive in the market by lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to force large corporate telephone companies to share their already existing lines with competitive start-up companies rather then make the start-up companies buy stand alone lines at outrageous prices.
Knowling was also not unwilling to make controversial moves if he thought that they would give Covad a foothold in communities where high-speed Internet connections were only provided by two or fewer companies. In 2000 Knowling purchased the Internet service provider BlueStar, which allowed Covad to move into the southeastern region of the United States where Covad had yet to find distributors. Knowling felt that the only way that Covad would continue to grow as a company was to reach new markets where eventually more and more people would need Covad’s services. The purchase did however take a good deal of capital away from Covad’s revenue for the year and it was not long before this was reflected in the price of Covad’s stock which had risen steadily until that point.
Although it appeared that Knowling’s plans to nurture and grow Covad were on track, Knowling’s time at Covad was growing short. Even though Covad was bringing in more and more revenue then ever before in the history of the company, it was still falling short of the projected market expectations. Added to this in 2000 was increased competition from larger companies such as Ameritech and SBC Communications which were poised to eclipse Covad in 2000 as the largest service providers of broadband connections. It still seemed as if Covad could turn things around in the summer of 2000 as the industry continued to change and other smaller competitors dropped out of the market, but it was clear by the end of the third quarter that moves would have to be made to change the perspective of Covad on Wall Street.
On September 30, 2000, Knowling announced his resignation from Covad when it was revealed that the company had lost $189.9 million after the third quarter. This number surprised many people considering that Covad’s revenues had risen 15 percent in the third quarter alone, but even this was not enough to offset the extremely large forecast of potential growth in the Internet provider market. Covad was by far not the only telecommunications company to be hit hard by a floundering economy and a stock plummet of smaller telecommunications companies across the Nasdaq stock exchange as larger incumbent telecommunication companies pushed for bigger market shares. Knowling, understandably angry by the fact that he had been run out of the company on what solely seemed like a ploy to Covad shareholders that things would change, did make it clear to Black Collegian magazine that his resignation had everything to do with money and nothing to do with racism, stating, “At Covad Communications, if I don’t grow this enterprise and make it the next great admired company, my shareholders, quite frankly, could care less what color my skin is. Shareholders see one thing, and their color is green.”
Knowling did not stay out of the telecommunications game for long, bouncing back in February of 2001, as the chairman and CEO of Internet Access Technologies (IAT). IAT, a small start-up company that is looking to break into the office desktop software market through the Internet, is very reminiscent of Covad in its early days, with only a limited amount of employees and a small revenue coming in yearly. Knowling is looking to build up IAT as he was able to do with Covad, but knows that it will be an uphill struggle the entire way. However, Knowling is hoping that he has learned from his previous experience with Covad. “I didn’t get to complete a journey I was on and I’m disappointed in that regard,” he said in an interview with The Financial Times of his time with Covad. Later in the interview when asked if he was going to change the way he manages people he said, “I don’t think it has changed me as a person but I probably would do some things differently.”
Even though Knowling is busy with his new company, he still takes time out of his schedule to support organizations that promote young people to find employment in high level technologies jobs. To this end, Knowling has become a spokesperson for a group called Digital Divide which strives to bring all people up to speed on technology regardless of economic status, gender, or race. To Knowling, speaking at Digital Divide events is a way for him to spread his message that minorities need to start broadening their horizons in terms of fields to seek employment. Knowling told www.allperson.com, “Too many black children think of success in terms of athletics. But the world’s so full of opportunities—and you can have some of them too.” Knowling has proved this theory time and again during his career and with his continued drive for excellence will assure his place as a role model in the telecommunications field for years to come.
Black Enterprise, January 2001, p. 22.
Chief Executive, December 2000, p. 29.
Communications Today, June 30, 2000; November 2, 2000.
The Denver Post, February 12, 1998, p. A-18.
The Financial Times, August 29, 2001, p. 11.
Telephony, July 13, 1998.
Ariba-Enterprise Spend Money Solutions, www.ariba.com/company/exec_board_of.directors.cfm.cf
The Black Collegian Online www.black-collegian.com/career/robknowling201.shtml
Hispanic PR Wire, www.hispanicprwire.com/release_IAT_ENG.html
—Ralph G. Zerbonia
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