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October 2007
Building New Networks
By Ellison Clary

     She climbed from the projects to the president’s office. Along the way, she participated in the transformation of a telephone company into a multimedia communications provider.

     As an infant, her family moved her from the Deep South to the West Coast to pursue a better education. Now that she’s left California to be president of AT&T North Carolina, Cynthia Marshall is impressed with the public schools her children attend in this southern state.

     Events seem to run full-circle for Marshall, in her career as well as her life. Perhaps it’s because of her drive to excel and her passion to help others. As her guide, Marshall paraphrases a passage from the Gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

     Marshall’s been given the reins of AT&T’s Tar Heel operations. AT&T North Carolina resulted from the 2006 acquisition of BellSouth by AT&T. Marshall took over as North Carolina president on January 5 of this year, with a main office in Raleigh. “Our company likes our state presidents to be in the capital,” she says simply.

     Still, she allots 40 to 50 percent of her time for her center city Charlotte office. “My goodness,” she exclaims. “If you spend a week in Charlotte, you just know this place is hopping.” So she and husband Ken Marshall are looking for a home in Charlotte to compliment their residence in the Raleigh suburb of Cary.

     But make no mistake, Marshall says, she’s serious about being president of AT&T throughout North Carolina, and regularly visits cities such as Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Wilmington and Asheville.

     She has assembled what amounts to a chamber of commerce report on North Carolina and uses it within AT&T to attract more resources to her new state.

     “My friends tease me,” smiles the executive who left a senior vice president position on the West Coast. “They’re so used to me advocating for California. Now they hear me say, ‘We need this in North Carolina.’”


Connecting in Carolina

     Marshall often gets what she asks for. AT&T announced this summer that it will invest $350 million in North Carolina to begin building an infrastructure for video service from the phone company. On top of that, AT&T plans to spend $78 million on new and upgraded wireless communication towers around the state.

     Drawing on her affinity for cooperating with both elected and appointed government officials, Marshall characterizes those initiatives as the direct result of progressive legislation from the N.C. General Assembly and enlightened policies from the N.C. Utilities Commission.

     Marshall also believes strongly in bolstering the AT&T record for community involvement. Through July, she could count more than $250,000 in AT&T hilanthropic gifts to North Carolina for 2007. Beneficiaries included the Wake Education Partnership and the Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education.

     Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, praises the civic leadership that AT&T and Marshall have provided for Charlotte. “She has stepped up quietly and proactively,” he says.

     As for her Raleigh main office, Morgan says, “Few have noticed it, and it hasn’t mattered.” On a personal note, he adds, “I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her.”

     Other recent AT&T contributions in Charlotte have gone to the Latin American Chamber and the Charlotte Urban League. Marshall was the event’s honorary chair recently when The Charlotte Post Foundation honored former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt with its Luminary–Lifetime Achievement award.

     The proceeds from that banquet support and encourage African Americans in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to excel academically and to continue their education in college.

    “Cynthia Marshall is energetic and spontaneous,” says Gerald Johnson, publisher of The Charlotte Post, which created The Charlotte Post Foundation. “The impact of AT&T and Cynthia in this community will be huge because of the resources the company can allocate. We will all benefit from those resources.”


Aiming High

     Though she was born in Birmingham, Ala., her parents moved Marshall, her two sisters and brother to the bay area suburb of Richmond, Calif., when she was three months old. They wanted to get their children out of the Deep South of 1960 and its racial chasms. They hoped to find better schools on the West Coast.

      Their train trip ended in a housing project where a younger sister and brother came along. In the summer before her junior year in high school, when her older siblings were already on their own, Marshall came home to find her father had moved out, leaving nothing for her mother, her younger sister, her younger brother and herself except one mattress.

     “I got on a mission,” Marshall remembers. “I said, ‘I’m going to be the president of something one day.’”

     Marshall graduated as the top student in her school district and, from five scholarship offers, she chose the University of California at Berkeley, mainly because it was just 20 miles from home. Though the 30,000 enrollment was only 1 percent African-American, Marshall got along famously, becoming the school’s first black cheerleader.

     Because of her high school concentration in math, Marshall started college as an engineering major. Soon she decided she wanted to be a businesswoman and switched to business administration. She also enjoyed classes relating to organizational behavior and industrial relations, so she wrote her own second major in human relations.

     When she graduated in 1981, Marshall picked Pacific Telephone & Telegraph from 13 job offers. “It gave me the opportunity to be a manager walking in the door, at 21 years old,” she says. “And it offered the most money.”

     She supervised mostly older women in operator services with a shift of 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. “Those ladies taught me how to be a manager,” she remembers. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

     Soon Marshall married, and that matrimonial union with Ken Marshall of Fresno, Calif., also completed a circle. The former Cynthia Smith had met Ken Marshall at a convention of Distributive Education Clubs of America while in high school. He decided to attend San Francisco State University to be close to her at Cal, but she told him she had to concentrate on her studies and didn’t want a boyfriend.

     She added that she’d call him on the day she finished college, but when she kept that promise and invited him to her graduation party, he had a hard time remembering her.

     Here’s how she recalls it: “He said, ‘I’m engaged.’ I said, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was going to call you the day I graduate? The party’s at 6.’ I hung up.”

     She and Ken Marshall married in April 1983.


Going Up the Line

     Meanwhile, Cynthia Marshall’s career was progressing. Offered a promotion in the operators section, she turned it down for a lateral move into Network Engineering and Planning.

     “Someone told me the best thing you can do in your first five or six years with the company is learn the business,” she explains matter-of-factly.

     Marshall won promotions in engineering but then was tapped to be part of a “rainbow recruiting team” that targeted bright college students. “There was an Asian woman, a white male, a Hispanic female and me,” she smiles. “I ended up doing all this hiring for the Operations Department. I thought, ‘I want to go there.’”

     So she wangled a switch from human resources into operations and remained there for 10 years before the company recruited her for its Regulatory/External Affairs section. She was working with California lawmakers in 1997 when SBC Communications, the successor to Southwestern Bell, acquired her company, which had become Pacific Bell.

     SBC executive Bill Blase identified Marshall as the person he wanted at his right hand during the integration of the two companies. She helped Blase, now senior executive vice president for human resources at AT&T, meld California into the new, larger SBC, and earned a series of promotions.

     Meanwhile, the communications industry evolved through new technologies and multiple mergers. SBC and BellSouth created Cingular from their wireless operations. SBC acquired AT&T, transforming itself into the new AT&T which, in 2006, acquired both BellSouth and the remainder of Cingular.

     Marshall was senior vice president for Regulatory and Constituency Relations for AT&T in California when she got the call to lead AT&T in North Carolina, one of nine former BellSouth states.


Retrospect in Perspective

     Along the way, the Marshalls had ended unsuccessful efforts at building a family of their own and decided to adopt. Son Anthony, now 15, had been abandoned in a rundown hotel and they took him in before he turned 3. Later, they found his older brother, who chose not to be adopted by the Marshalls but to visit with the family often.

     One evening, Anthony and dad Ken were watching television news when they saw a story about an abandoned girl not yet 3 years old. Anthony convinced the Marshalls the girl needed a big brother. Soon that girl, now 12, was adopted and became Shirley Marshall. This fall, Anthony started 10th grade and Shirley began 7th, both in Cary.

     Ken Marshall has become a stay-at-home dad. He gave up his sales and technical support career to spend more time with the kids when the couple concluded that one of them needed to do that.

     All of this leads Marshall to muse periodically about her hurly-burly ride.

     “I started with a company that covered two states–California and Nevada,” she says. “We were pretty much focused on dial tone. We had a few million customers and we probably had 20,000 to 30,000 employees.

     “Fast forward 26 years and we have 301,000 employees.” She shakes her head. “We obviously do more than dial tone–voice, data, advanced services, we’re getting into the entertainment business, into wireless, you name it.

     “We’re a global company,” she continues. “We have millions of customers. Who would have envisioned our partnership in the launch of the iPhone?”

     AT&T is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone, the much awaited and tremendously popular gadget Apple introduced this year which combines an innovative touch-screen Internet interface with the media-playing capabilities of the iPod and the communication features of a cell phone. AT&T and Apple have entered into a multi-year partnership to provide the multifunctional wireless device with Wi-Fi, Visual Voice Mail and other innovative capabilities.

     Her challenge, Marshall says, is multi-pronged. Revenue growth, strong service and attention to community building initiatives are important. So is working with the N.C. Utilities Commission for more flexible pricing and updated service quality measurements, she adds, and says don’t forget preparations for video services.

     The future is in providing full-service communications, she believes, and only a few companies will make it. “I can’t predict which companies will be out there,” she says. “I can only tell you that we will be one of them.”

     As for Marshall’s future, she says she’d be happy if both her children graduated from North Carolina high schools before leaving the roost.

     And this may or may not be a prediction, but Marshall offers it as fact: “I asked my son what he wanted for his 15th birthday in June,” she says, “and he said, ‘I want to move to Charlotte.’”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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