From soccer goals to business goals – lessons from the pitch applied to the data center.
It has often been said that the best leaders surround themselves with smart people. People who will challenge them and their decisions. People who they can respect and who have the knowledge and skills necessary to own and deliver results.
Surrounding himself with strong teammates is a lesson that Lee Kestler, chief commercial officer at Vantage Data Centers, learned on the soccer pitch when he was earning a living as a pro soccer player. And it’s one that has served him well as he’s advanced to a business development leader in the technology/data center industry.
An early pioneer in the sector, Lee has been integral in the evolution and growth of a number of data center companies. Today, he is spearheading the rapid growth of Vantage Data Centers. But – to hear him tell it – that result is more about the people he has surrounded himself with throughout his career.
We recently sat down with Lee to talk about the life lessons he learned on a soccer field, the qualities that enabled his success in the data center industry and the influential people that made it possible.
Here is what he had to say:
Data Centers Today (DCT): Can you tell our readers about your professional background and how you got into the data center industry?
Lee Kestler: I had been a computer science major in college prior to dropping out to pursue soccer as a career. Realizing my limits in that field, I wanted to find a path into technology. Exploring the tech landscape, I saw an opportunity in the wireless industry. Wireless was just starting to pick up and sales jobs were plentiful.
I spent four and a half years and learned a lot. That was my real first introduction to selling in the technology marketplace and it was also where I met Michael Shaw – who was a colleague and remains a very good friend. From wireless, Michael invited me to join him at Exodus Communications, which was a fledging retail data center/hosting company expanding quickly. I thought the internet might just be a fad, but he convinced me to give it a try.
I was hired in early 1999 and was fortunate to join a stellar team with inside sales and engineering expertise second to none. With their support, I was able to become one of the top reps in my first year.
During this time, I believe my success was directly related to my ability to utilize the resources around me. I was not a technologist, but I learned quickly to leverage the knowledge of that team. I would recognize the prospect’s key stakeholders, connect the right technical folks and manage the contact plan from discovery through closure. This style has been very valuable through my career.
A few years later, I was recruited for a business development role at DuPont Fabros Technology. Lammot du Pont and Hossein Fateh were building a new wholesale data center REIT – similar in structure to a Digital Realty Trust. There were not a lot of massive data centers back then like there are today. It was quite a leap of faith, but I believed in their vision and in the team they were assembling. So, I left a comfortable position at Savvis – where I had a lot of resources at my disposal – to become the lone gunman for this emerging wholesale data center company that was betting big on this new wholesale model.
The growth and success of DuPont Fabros Technology – and its subsequent sale to Digital Realty – set the stage for what is now this hyperscale data center business that Vantage has become an extremely large player in.
DCT: At Vantage, what is your role and where have you been focusing your time?
Lee Kestler: When I first started here in January 2018, I joined an energetic team at Vantage that had a vision or roadmap for growing the business and settled in to establish a new brand identity. Vantage had purchased land in Ashburn and was “full speed ahead” with a new campus. In addition, we were exploring other critical markets for our list of strategic accounts and were aggressively hiring the right people to grow the company.
Within 90 days, our team finished the plan and went to work. Our head of HR, Drew Cushing, was “a machine” helping to process a tremendous volume of North American hires as the train picked up speed. On the sales team front, we recruited Steve Conner as the VP of sales and solution engineering. We also hired Mark Freeman, a veteran marketing executive with a successful track record in hyperscale data center branding, to position the new Vantage with a clear global message.
That was a big part of our executive team responsibility . . . finding the right people who could hit the ground running, integrate into our culture and measure the results through execution.
DCT: What would you consider your largest challenges since joining Vantage, and what would you consider your largest successes?
Lee Kestler: The senior leadership and investors in the company are people who have extensive operational experience and are laser-focused on the financial aspects of executing on the vision. My job is to monetize the vision while some of the development is still in process. That can be a challenge, but it is under control.
I think my largest success is working with the people that make the day-to-day decisions that are impactful to our team’s achievements. I say that sincerely.
I mentioned Steve and Mark already, but business operations are a critical component for our team. Recruiting Drake Kuhn to manage our team’s business was instrumental. He was a consultant at Booz Allen, possesses strong financial acumen and software management, and aggregates our activities to enable the team’s success. Seth Pederson has over a decade of senior leadership and superior account management expertise. Bo Yu, who speaks Mandarin, is an outstanding hire focusing on our APAC efforts. Our Canadian operation is led by senior executive Maxime Guévin who has done a great job not only running sales, but helping us with government, utility and real estate development. Combining this group, along with some others, with the Silicon Valley sales legend, Joe Haar, helps me sleep well knowing we have the horsepower to deliver results.
DCT: You said earlier that you were a professional soccer player. What lessons did you learn from that experience, and how do you apply them to your current career and role in the company?
Lee Kestler: Having a real job is easier, no doubt. But the interesting thing about being a professional soccer player is that you’re really an entrepreneur. You’re selling yourself and trying to find a way to contribute to a team.
As I said, I dropped out of college to pursue soccer. I turned pro at 19 and I learned pretty quickly that – while you might be a big wheel in your home town – when you get out in the real world with players from all over the globe vying for a few jobs, you’re nothing but a spoke! I learned quickly to appreciate the expertise and the talent that I was around and to play to my strengths while leveraging others, both of which have been helpful to my own success.
DCT: What personality traits or characteristics do you think are essential for a successful leader in the data center industry?
Lee Kestler: I believe a good leader must look across the leadership spectrum of what you control and be able to manage and appreciate the people that can execute for you. You need to be vulnerable enough as a leader to delegate to those experts who you lead and be collaborative. If you’re not, you’re probably not going to succeed.
The senior leadership and investors in the company are people who have extensive operational experience and are laser-focused on the financial aspects of executing on the vision.Lee Kestler, Chief Commercial Officer
DCT: Things are obviously a little different right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you successfully manage a remote sales team?
Lee Kestler: When managing a remote sales team, you need to proactively interact with your team. As a manager – I maintain consistent communication with each, and we meet as a group, too. I have professionals on my team, so remote work is not a real challenge.
DCT: You’re someone who’s been a longtime advocate for green initiatives and environmental stewardship. Why is this a challenge for data center providers? Do you think data center providers need to focus and improve when it comes sustainability?
Lee Kestler: Yes, the reason that data centers have a challenge in this regard is because they’re big consumers of energy.
We can’t make energy, but as a company and an industry, we can exert influence to enable improvements in generation sources that are better for the environment. Vantage choses to make smart investments, like with our wind and solar lights and solar-charging panels.
For data centers, we need to continue to focus on things that we can control that drive efficiencies – cooling systems are a good example. These are small, measurable methods to improving energy efficiency.
DCT:Who has had the biggest influence on you as a leader?
Lee Kestler: That’s an interesting question. It’s not just one person, but I’m going to narrow it down to three. Each of the three played a very significant role in my career since I transitioned to the data center industry.
The first is Steve Conner. He’s a constant learner. He was there when I needed him in the early days of Exodus. When I knew I had to build Vantage’s sales and marketing team, and I needed somebody that could match what customers truly need, he was the first choice. He’s extremely smart. He’s humble. He’s knowledgeable. And he has been very influential over the last 20 years that I’ve known him.
The second person is Bob Berlinsky. He oversaw construction at DuPont Fabros Technology, and I owe him a tremendous debt for what I learned about data center development, which is a huge value-add for me professionally.
And last, but not least, is my wife, Christie Kestler. An engineer by education, she was a leader of the technical teams/professional services folks at CenturyLink. She’s been very influential because I could always rely on her to help me understand much of the technical talk I would hear during the day. It is a very valuable tool for me to be able to tap her expertise and business acumen.
Collectively, those three have been very influential on me as a leader.
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