Tracy Nolan, the new general manager for Sprint’s Chicago region, credits her professional success to being thrown into “un-comfort zones.”
A big one came early on when she told her parents that, after coming close to completing an accounting degree, she wanted to change her major in her senior year at Clarkson University in Pottsdam, New York.
“I’m fairly outgoing, and I realized that sitting and calculating numbers didn’t fit what I wanted to do long-term,” says Nolan, 51, who ran a department store chain in upstate New York and once advised women executives on their outfits at Casual Corner before moving into telecommunications.
She previously worked in Chicago as Verizon’s regional president and is back in the city now, after 13 years. She’s responsible for “Sprint for Chicago,” an initiative that will extend into 2016 to enhance the carrier’s network, open 115 new stores (including 54 in former Radio Shack sites), boost advertising and marketing and hire 540 new employees throughout the Chicago region. (Sprint is now hiring for sales and operations jobs — details online at www.sprint.com/jobs.)
She’s married to John Bednarski, 63, a retired pro hockey player who was a defenseman for the New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Rochester Americans and former color commentator for the Americans. Bednarski has followed Nolan in her career moves since she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2006 to launch the wireless telecommunications division of American Communications Network, a direct seller of mobile, satellite and Internet service.
An edited transcript of her interview with Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy follows.
Question: What’s the biggest challenge of directing a team of 900 employees, from sales to IT to marketing?
Answer: Hiring and integrating everyone into the same culture and making sure everyone is focused on giving superior service. We have to make sure we’re supporting customers with the right staff, network and products and services, and having distribution where customers want.
Q: You’ve had to right a ship in the past.
A: I was the last operating executive at [the upstate New York department store chain] B. Forman Co. after it was bought out by The May Department Stores Co. — from 1992 to 1994. I was one of the youngest and the only woman executive. We had to close 27 locations and let everyone go. The B. Forman employees had been part of the parent company, McCurdy’s, for as long as 20 years. It involved handling employees through a difficult time. We’d have pot-luck lunches and celebrate when someone got a new job.
People have different needs. You have to treat people with respect and dignity through good and bad times.
Then, I was recruited for my retail experience as director of stores at Frontier Cellular in 1995. And after Frontier sold it, I was chosen regional president for Bell Atlantic Mobile. Bell Atlantic wanted us to change everything. We integrated everything from the back office and the marketing team to human resources benefits. Within six months, the company had had three different names in upstate New York.
Verizon asked me to take over the Chicago market for them in 2001 — two days after 9/11. I was president of the Illinois-Wisconsin region for Verizon. I took over four markets that were coming together — Alltel, GTE, Ameritech and PrimeCo.
They had had three leaders in the previous two years. They hadn’t consolidated any back-office functions. They were not No. 1 in market share. They weren’t winning.
We had people and cultural issues. We had management who employees didn’t trust. Management didn’t trust the employees. I had to make really hard leadership changes.
We had customer-satisfaction issues and distribution issues. We didn’t have the right distribution.
We did achieve No. 1 in market share and grew total revenue significantly by the time I left in 2006.
I left because other things were more important, like family. My husband was still in upstate New York, and his children were finishing high school in the next year and a half.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: One of the hardest things for me is exercise and running. I now like working out. I’ve done a half-marathon. I don’t do them fast, but I finish. I did the February 2014 Disney Princess half-marathon with my best friends and my sister.
I have grandchildren from my step-daughter. They live here in town. I can go to their events. I’m baby-sitting tomorrow.
I love to cook. I am crafty. I love to do crafts. I do a lot of floral displays. My house is filled with displays. I try to knit. I have knitted one blanket. It took me four years, and I love to do it.