U.S. Cellular's new CEO ready for challenges ahead

U.S. Cellular’s new CEO Mary Dillon

with U.S. Cellular's new CEO Mary Dillon

In her first week on the job, U.S. Cellular's new CEO Mary Dillon visited U.S. Cellular retail stores in Chicago, stopped by the company call center in Knoxville, Tenn., and visited a tower site with a technician. The hard-charging Dillon is replacing longtime CEO John (Jack) Rooney, who announced in February he would retire. Dillon--whose background includes stints with McDonald's, where she served as global chief marketing executive, and with PepsiCo, as president of the Quaker Foods division--spoke with FierceWireless Editor in Chief Sue Marek earlier this week about her new role.

FierceWireless: Your background isn't in the wireless industry, so why did this position appeal to you?

Dillon: There were several reasons. I'm very impressed with this company and honored to be asked to lead it. This is a company based upon a strong culture of values and beliefs and winning in the marketplace, and that resonates with me.

My background has been in customer products. This may be a new industry--wireless--but I focused my entire career on understanding and driving customer loyalty. You put that together with U.S. Cellular at this time, in this competitive industry, and it felt like the perfect time and the perfect opportunity.

FierceWireless: Was there anything in particular in your background that prepared you for this job? Regional operators such as U.S. Cellular seem to be feeling a lot of pressure right now.

Dillon: In my 25 years of experience, I've run different types of businesses--different sizes, complexity and in different competitive environments. Before McDonald's, I was president of Quaker Foods and I had a major operating role as part of PepsiCo, and so that experience gave me the experience of running a broad business. When I was at McDonald's it gave me a great global run and strong background in retail, which U.S. Cellular has as well. Every business I've worked for had lots of competition. Whatever position you hold in the marketplace, you have to be thinking about what the customer needs are and what the competitive offerings are and what your moves should be.

This certainly may be a more competitive, more fast-paced industry, but those dynamics have held true for other experiences that I've had.

Also, I have a great senior team here. I've been getting to know my folks, they are teaching me a lot and I have confidence that they know this industry inside and out. Together we will lead the company to the next level.

FierceWireless: Jack Rooney was CEO of U.S. Cellular for a very long time. What's it like to follow in someone's footsteps that has been in the industry so long?

Dillon: I feel lucky that I have inherited from Jack a company with this type of passion and associates that remain committed to this company. I spent last week meeting with associates around our company. I was in some retail stores in Chicago, I was at one of our call centers in Knoxville, Tenn., and in our engineering sites in the area. I also went to a cell site with a technician that was showing me how things work. What I saw last week was that this is a dynamic organization that Jack built is genuine and palpable. You can't make something like this happen overnight. I see this as a great opportunity for me to build on something Jack has created. The values fit with my own and I hope it will be easy for me to continue on that legacy.

FierceWireless: Do you plan to implement any major changes?

Dillon: It's way too early to say. This is only day 5 on the job. I'm in learning mode and really focused on the future.

FierceWireless: What do you think is the biggest challenge for U.S. Cellular in today's market?

Dillon: It's a dynamic, competitive market and customers are expecting more and more every day. We understand that. For us, it's about continuing to find new ways to show that we really have their back. I'm pleased that I think we are on the right track here. As I look at our marketing and our offerings, I'm thinking about how U.S. Cellular is a company that shows folks that we believe in them, and we are trying to make their lives a bit easier. Whether it is a program such as the overage protection or battery swap, I think those are great, insightful ways  to show customers that we care about them. The challenge is to continue to do that and do more of it in the future.

FierceWireless: What do you envision for the first six months of the job? Are there certain things you want to accomplish by year-end?

Dillon: I would say it's really learning and meeting the associates, learning the industry and business and aligning with my team about our future plans. That's as specific as I can get with you about it. Certainly that is what it's about right now. I'm excited. It's fun and challenging. 

FierceWireless: The regulatory environment in wireless is a big topic right now. Do you have experience in regulated industries?

Dillon:  Again, I have great people on my team who can help with that. But the food industry is very regulated. There are different sets of issues, but I look forward to learning more.

FierceWireless: What about the consolidation in the industry? Over the past few years, we have seen a lot of consolidation among the top operators. U.S. Cellular stands out as one of the few remaining regional operators of significant size. Any thoughts on consolidation and U.S. Cellular's future?

Dillon: I've spent a lot of time with Ted Carlson (U.S. Cellular's chairman and president and CEO of parent company TDS) prior to joining the organization, and the Carlson family is very committed to this business for the long term. They have made that clear. We are about profitably growing the business. We have a great basis on which to work.

FierceWireless: You are probably the only female heading up a major U.S. carrier. How does that feel?

Dillon: That's what they tell me. I didn't know that. Don't you think that's cool?

FierceWireless: Yes, it's very cool. Congratulations.  

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