ZenFi and the Art of Business Management

Published on AGL Media Group

Managing a unique business partnership between a third-generation family-owned electrical contractor and a fast-growing wireless communications infrastructure provider poses challenges.

Victoria LamberthVictoria Lamberth fell into telecommunications through her family’s New York City business, Hugh O’Kane Electric. In Manhattan, people recognize Hugh O’Kane Electric’s white vans with a circle-k trifecta of red lightning bolts. Employees often park the vans near manholes. However, it is beneath the streets where the magic happens, Workers install, manage and repair power and communications systems that are part of the city’s formidable infrastructure.

Hugh O’Kane Electric is named for Lamberth’s grandfather, Hugh O’Kane Sr., who founded the company in 1946. The elder O’Kane lured Lamberth’s father into the business with a letter he wrote on United Airlines stationery while on a flight 37,000 feet above St. Louis. The letter implored the son to come to work for his father.

“My father jokingly says that he read the letter, and it was convincing,” Lamberth said. “More than that, he really wanted to go on a date with this woman back home named Meg.” With a smile, she added: “Who is now my mom.” Today, the framed letter hangs in a prominent place in the offices of the company.

Lamberth attended Boston College, where she majored in international studies with a minor in French. When she graduated, she lived in Australia and worked as a waitress. However, her path to global entrepreneurship led her straight back to New York and her family.

One day, when Lamberth voiced some complaints about what seemed to lie in her future, her father said, “I have a business partner who is looking for a right-hand person to come work for him and be a jack of all trades to help him grow a business” — much as his father once said to him. Lamberth said her father told her, “Go work for Ray LaChance. You won’t be working for anyone in our family. But you’ll get to see if this is something that you’re interested in doing.’”

Lamberth worked with LaChance at Lexent Metro Connect until its sale to Lightower Fiber Networks in 2010. Afterward, LaChance and Lamberth founded Metro Network Services, a telecom service firm focused on design, engineering and project management in support of wireless and wireline communications projects. They knew that they wanted to start a new fiber business, Lamberth said, but they needed some time to figure out the plan. With that in mind, Lamberth decided to go to business school.

After graduation, Lamberth returned to New York, a partner by her side, rejoining LaChance, the team and the family’s business. She was ready to hit the ground running.

Birth of ZenFi

Imagine the challenge of being part of a family business that your late grandfather founded over 70 years before and envisioning a future for that company in today’s technologically advanced world. In 1946, digging the streets of Manhattan to install the electrical foundation that powered buildings and street lamps was the work of men returning from war. Compare that to the Dot-com era when the company entered the telecommunications industry in the 1990s. Now, with over 30 years of experience building and installing New York City’s telecommunications infrastructure and with the shift to a more mobile world, digging the streets was not necessarily the vision of the future. Enabling wireless communications, an aboveground endeavor, was beginning to emerge as what we now know as the most important communications infrastructure requirement for today and tomorrow.

In early 2014, La Chance and Lamberth cofounded ZenFi Networks to address a problem to which communications infrastructure companies were slow to react: the integration and enablement of wireline and wireless communications solutions. At the time, it was well known that fiber and radio-frequency spectrum went hand-in-hand, but it wasn’t as prevalent as it was going to need to be.

Although the company was founded to support traditional mobile network operators (MNOs), ZenFi received its big break early on when supporting a Gigabit Wi-Fi initiative in New York City. The ZenFi team quickly realized that its unique design of fronthaul fiber architecture, coupled with wireless siting and distributed edge colocation, could solve a host of challenges beyond those the MNOs faced. This unique architecture, together with the team’s experience in building fiber networks, set the startup apart from industry giants competing on the Gigabit Wi-Fi project.

“We started as a group of six with just an idea,” Lamberth said. “At the time, everyone said, ‘Fiber is fiber; we don’t need more of it,’ but LaChance had a vision for the future that we all believed was true: Not all fiber networks are the same, and the MNOs would need a different type of network to support densification efforts. The Cross River Fiber team also saw this, and that led to our merger. Together we’ve created an unparalleled network in New York and New Jersey. We’re at the forefront of delivering communications infrastructure that is going to enable 5G networks. What could be more leading-edge technology than that?”
Speaking of her most proud accomplishments, aside from raising a family, Lamberth said she is proud of starting ZenFi, and all the more so of keeping it going in the beginning. “It’s been great to see the company grow and what we’ve done with the merger with Cross River in expanding the team,” she said. “It’s far beyond what I expected.” She said her most proud business accomplishment has been managing the merger with Cross River Fiber.

Family Challenges and Successes

Ultimately, Lamberth said, she is most proud of being a mother.

Lamberth said she met her husband while she was earning her MBA. She said she had her first child during her tenure as cofounder of ZenFi. Now a toddler, Lamberth’s son was born deaf. She and her husband tackled the challenge head-on with help from the audiologists at the Center for Hearing and Communications.

Since the day her son was born, the Center for Hearing and Communications has offered Lamberth and her family what she called a wonderful support system. Victoria’s son was an early candidate for hearing devices called cochlear implants, which were installed when he was eight weeks old. “One of the most amazing things about having a child that has any challenge is how quickly it becomes something super amazing,” Lamberth said.

Her son now can speak and hear as well as any two-year-old, and Lamberth credits the Center for Hearing and Communications. “They do beautiful work,” she said.

The Wrap

“We used to work primarily with copper, and now we work with fiber,” Lamberth said, reminiscing about the family business and reflecting upon where she is today. “Fiber-optic cables have changed, and the ducts and methods used to install them have evolved. We have not only kept up, but have been at the forefront of change. What we enable is something that my grandfather never would have envisioned when he started more than 70 years ago,”

Lamberth recalled what her grandfather told his grandchildren: “See all those lights on in the buildings? Someone has to go change each one of those bulbs. It might as well be you.”

“That always stuck with me,” Lamberth said. “I love that we’re a part of the fabric of New York City, and I hope we can continue to be for years to come.”