Spring 2016

Investing Wisely in Telecom, Solar Power, and People

Meet Michael T. Prior ’92, CEO of Atlantic Tele-Network

Michael T. Prior ’92 has spent his career growing one of the most successful businesses most people have never heard of: Atlantic Tele-Network (ATN), a $1.2 billion company. Prior is president and CEO of the Beverly, Mass.–based firm, which provides telecommunications services to rural, niche, and other underserved markets and geographies in the United States, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

“I was always focused on getting into business,” said Prior. “I went to law school because I thought it would give me more intrinsic value than business school—the opportunity to learn a way of thinking.”

ATN provides both wireless and wireline connectivity to residential and business customers, including a range of mobile wireless solutions, local exchange services, and broadband Internet services. The company also has solar power systems in the United States that serve corporate, utility, and municipal customers, and it owns and operates terrestrial and submarine fiber-optic transport systems.

I went to law school because I thought it would give me intrinsic value—the opportunity to learn a way of thinking."

A Brooklyn native, Prior received his bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and attended the Law School as an International Business Law Fellow. He also served as an editor for the Brooklyn Journal of International Law. After graduation, he worked as a corporate attorney with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, first in New York, then London. He returned to New York after several years, remaining with the firm until he and his family decided to move out West in an effort to work in a smaller company environment.

After a short stint at a firm in Seattle, he took the leap into entrepreneurship, joining the seed investment and advisory company Comspace, which invested in new and developing telecom and satellite companies. His business savvy led him to Q Advisors LLC, a Denver-based investment banking and financial advisory firm that focuses on the technology and telecommunications sectors. Prior joined the firm as a partner in 2001.

Prior’s father, who was leading ATN, asked Q Advisors to analyze the company’s growth potential. After a presentation on risk and opportunities, the board pushed for Prior to become ATN’s chief financial officer. They wanted him to help the firm diversify its value, which was concentrated in the incumbent telephone company in Guyana.

“The company, which had an enterprise value of around $70 million, was running on a risky investment that was doing well,” Prior said. “But the company had no analyst coverage, no following, and it needed to diversify its sources of revenue. My job was to change that, and so I spent a lot of time looking at different deals, trying to get U.S. bankers and investors to pay attention, trying to lower the risk profile. In 2005, we acquired Commnet Wireless, which, with a $60 million investment, was a very large transaction for the company at that time. Less than a year after that deal, we did a stock offering and added some liquidity.”

Prior soon was named CEO of the company. Under his leadership, ATN has grown significantly by making other acquisitions of telecom assets. Now the company has also started to invest in renewable energy.

“My background has been transactional since my Cleary days,” Prior said. “So it makes sense that ATN runs almost like a portfolio of operating assets. We have succeeded by investing wisely in companies that have a positive long-term horizon. We believe that the renewables business has good basic economics, as well as real potential for growth and disruption.”

ATN currently employs more than 1,000 people across all its subsidiaries, including about 35 people in its Beverly headquarters.

“I’m proud of building ATN to the next level, in terms of profitability,” Prior said. “But I’m most proud about how we’ve managed to do that—we’ve built a great team, with smart people in a good-natured work environment. Everything else flows from that. I think the real secret of our success has been getting the right people in place.”

Prior’s career and life have come full circle back to the East Coast. He lives near his company’s Beverly office with his wife and two teenage sons; his older daughter lives and works in D.C. “We’re very happy to have settled here, and I’m glad it all started in Brooklyn,” he said.

—by Jen Swetzoff