WRITTEN BY MIKE PIEKARSKI | PHOTOS COURTESY OF AIROSMITH
Staying successful in the current business climate — what with a recent pandemic, a global supply-chain problem, a lack of workers, and inflation concerns — has been extremely challenging for a large number of companies, many of which are just trying to ride out the economic storm.
Fortunately for Saratoga Springs businesswoman Margaret Smith, that negative circumstance does not apply to her and her ever-growing company, Airosmith Development, a site-acquisition and “utility infrastructure developer,” as she calls it. “’Utility,’ meaning telecommunications: wireless and fiber (optic).”
To say Airosmith is expanding is like saying the ground gets wet when it rains. Though it built its main headquarters — a large blue office at 318 West Avenue in Saratoga — in 2021, the company soon outgrew that, necessitating the acquisition of another building across the street to house its steadily increasing contingent of employees. From an original one-person enterprise in 2004, the company now employs more than 150 and has a steady need for new workers.
“Companies are consistently reaching out to us, trying to give us work,” says Smith, Airosmith’s president and CEO. “There’s still significant demand for people to have their networks work. (The demand) is definitely not going away. We’re growing at a pretty fast clip. We’re adding offices and staff consistently, month over month.”
In addition to its Saratoga buildings, Airosmith now has two regional offices (in Mahwah, N.J., and Cary, N.C.) and a satellite location (in Bluffton, S.C.). And the demand for Airosmith’s services is not abating.
“Think of a cell tower, or if you’re adding antennas to a hospital,” says Smith. “We negotiate an agreement on behalf of our client — a lease, let’s say. We do all the engineering, construction drawings, structural analysis, surveys — any due diligence needed to build the site. Our broadband group designs fiber paths, and we do all the engineering behind it and the real estate (acquisition) and permitting (such as easements and pole attachment agreements).”
For instance, concerning the company’s technical field services as mentioned on its website, Smith says a crew “might have to go to a cell tower, climb it, evaluate all the equipment that’s on it, measure it and understand every nut and bolt that’s up there, and then they’ll give that (info) to the engineering team so they can then run the structural analysis on it. They’ll find out the weight and size of it, then calculate the wind load (the intensity of the wind pressure on the surface of a structure) behind it to evaluate the structural integrity of the site.”
The company currently is working on 5G (the fifth generation of cellphone technology), “and there’s already (talk) about 6G and what that’s going to look like,” Smith says.
Airosmith also has dabbled in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, but Smith is unsure if the company intends to continue down that path. “We’ve built a few Level 2s (240-volt outlet stations),” she says. “We’ve managed to build out several pieces of them. It’s a business we’re looking to further develop, but it’s not our bread and butter right now.”
Thus far, Airosmith’s main focus — acquiring sites for companies that need more cellphone towers and helping those firms procure the appropriate infrastructure — appears to be a recipe for success. Witness its range of clients: from telecommunications behemoths AT&T and Verizon to nationally known firms such as T-Mobile, Charter Communications, and the Dish Network. But the firm also works for smaller entities, such as Fairport Municipal Electric, a small power company in northwestern New York for which Airosmith is doing fiber design.
Though it has clients across the country, “our sweet spot is the Northeast and the East Coast,” says Smith, who adds that her company has been seeking significant expansion in the Carolinas and Florida.
The reason behind the mad rush for more cell towers and services? Smith thinks she knows. From the wireless perspective, “it’s the insatiable demand for data,” she says. “There’s the need for more cell sites, more infrastructure.” From the fiber-optic perspective, “you need fiber to connect all of this together.”
And because of the backing of the federal government, the telecommunications industry is thriving. “We’re very bullish on our future because there’s so much need, so much money being put into it,” Smith says.
Its success has led to Airosmith being named as one of the 5,000 fastest growing private companies in America for five straight years (2017-2021) by Inc. magazine and chosen as among the top 50 fastest growing women owned/led companies in 2019 by the WPO (Women Presidents Organization). Airosmith is a certified Women’s Business Enterprise, a New York state-certified WBE, and a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. For her part, Smith was honored with the Women Who Mean Business award in 2018 by Albany Business Review and KeyBank’s Key4Women Achieve award the same year.
That recognition, though well-deserved, is not what Smith could have anticipated two decades earlier, when she was earning a modest living doing corporate training as a contractor in Boston and Albany.
When Smith was asked in 2000 if she would be willing to present a zoning application to a municipal board for a cellphone tower application — something she knew little about — she was game. “I said, ‘Sure. I’ll do it,’ and that was it,” Smith recalls. “That’s all I needed,” she adds with a laugh. “There was the opportunity. There was a lot of need. It was a natural fit for me.”
For Smith, who was born and raised in Albany, finding that niche was not easy. After graduating in 1992 from Le Moyne College in DeWitt, N.Y., with a degree in political science, she worked for a time waitressing and bartending before landing a job under New York state Assemblyman Dick Gottfried when she was 24. In the late 1990s, she moved to Boston and maintained multiple miscellaneous jobs, including running a night school program at a regional technical school in the adult education field. Five years later, after returning to the Capital Region and settling in Saratoga Springs, Smith launched her company from her house in a room above her garage.
“I started Airosmith in 2004 thinking I would try to develop medium- and small-scale wind turbines,” Smith recalls. “I thought wireless would slow, and this would be the next big thing. A wind turbine is basically a tower with blades, and most of the site development process is the same, so it seemed like a natural progression. I inked a deal with a blade manufacturer and set out to sell the equipment. I needed a name that jumped out, and I thought this was just cheesy enough to do that. However, after about nine months, I realized I’d never make a living doing this and went right back into wireless.”
That proved to be right decision, and Smith has not looked back.
“I’ve had a job since fourth grade, delivering newspapers (from her home on Albany’s Manning Boulevard for the now-defunct Knickerbocker News),” she says. “I’ve consistently worked my entire life, so (the Airosmith chapter of her life) has just been another jump-in-and-do-some-hard-work (endeavor).”
Despite her company’s success, Smith admits that the business environment “is challenging, there’s no question.” And Airosmith was not impervious to the effects of the pandemic.
“From a COVID perspective, what really hurt us was, when everyone needed to be remote, when people needed their networks more than ever, all the municipalities that issue us building permits — which develops the network — were closed or had reduced staff or limited hours. So we were still at full capacity, but then we hit this bottleneck just trying to get the permits.”
As for inflation, “I and my staff — we can all feel it.” Smith says. “While everything is going up, our prices are not. It’s more of a volume gig for us. We just have to get that much more work. If you think about your cellphone plan, those prices have only gone down. (Wireless companies) need to put more and more money into their networks. One way we’ve done that is to reduce our pricing but keep getting more volume. You just have to do more with less.”
When not focused on her job, the Airosmith founder has been known to mingle.
“I love the community; I love the area,” says Smith, a board member of Saratoga Hospital and Wellspring as well as business groups the WPO and Sage.
During her many meetings with other area business leaders, the exchange of ideas, Smith says, is “really important” and beneficial. Concerning what lies ahead for the business community, Smith is generally optimistic.
“I don’t sense pessimism at all. There’s definitely concern about labor shortages and the supply chain – that pinch is being felt. But, overall, it’s business as usual: You made it through COVID, (so) keep going!” she says with a laugh.
As for her thoughts on what makes her company stand out, Smith is quick to deflect attention from herself.
“It’s the people,” she says. “I’ve had absolutely amazing luck to be able to hire unbelievably talented, dedicated people. They all act and think like business owners, which is so rare.” The long and the short of it is: It’s fun. I get to collaborate with the greatest people on earth.”