Cooperatives: A Community Pillar

Strong communities support innovation, and a rising tide lifts all boats. One of the differences of the cooperative business model is the focus on service over profits. Through the cooperative principle of Concern for Community, cooperatives like BEK Communications invest in their local communities through reliable service and beyond.

NISC President and CEO Doug Remboldt sat down with Derrick Buluwa, CEO and General Manager at BEK Communications, to discuss how BEK embodies the cooperative principle of Concern for Community, as well as Buluwa’s philosophy around leadership development and service.

BEK Communications is a telecommunications cooperative based in Bismarck, North Dakota, that has been providing service to the local community for over 70 years. What started as telephone service has expanded to cable television, internet, cloud services and more.

Community is the heart of BEK’s mission. Every year, they donate thousands of dollars in grants, community outreach and economic development, sponsor events, provide branded materials for fundraisers, award scholarships to college-bound students and deliver free services to local government entities.

“The cooperative model is members serving members,” Buluwa said. “We all live there, we all use the same services. Nobody else was going to give us service, and that really hasn’t changed. It didn’t change on the deployment of phone service, it didn’t change on the deployment of internet, and it didn’t change on the deployment of television broadcasting, which happens to be one of the unique things that we do. Also, cybersecurity, nobody likes to serve the rural areas for cybersecurity. Everybody’s after the big cities, but no one takes care of the rural. So, all of our products, all of our services, really come out of the needs of our marketplace.”

BEK Cares

The importance of broadband providers in their local communities was amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of the country worked  and completed school from home, broadband providers were busier than ever. BEK responded with a new program, BEK Cares.

“At that time, we were running 18-hour days, we had hundreds and thousands of new customers that needed the level of broadband that they never knew they needed to have,” Buluwa shared. “For our employees, we said, you’re going to go to work at six o’clock in the morning, and you’re not coming home until ten o’clock at night, so pick any restaurant off of this list in our service territory and surrounding communities, and you can walk in there, have breakfast, lunch, or dinner, we’ll pay the bill.”

This initiative not only supported BEK’s hardworking employees, but it also supported local restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that were struggling during the pandemic.

“To me, what you’re talking about there demonstrates not only the commitment to your members, but to your employees and to the broader community as well,” Remboldt responded. “Those restaurants didn’t have people coming through the doors. If it wasn’t for people that were going out of their way to make sure that they had some business, they wouldn’t survive.”

BEK Sports

When Buluwa took over as CEO and General Manager at BEK, he noticed something peculiar. The cooperative provided cable television to its members, but none of the content came from the communities it served.

“We set out to figure out how can we bring the content, the sports, the shows, the news, really the information from our rural communities to a television platform to give to all of our members,” he said.

BEK Sports now streams North Dakota high school sporting events not only locally but to over 40 countries through their app, allowing grandparents and family members to cheer on their favorite teams even when they can’t attend the games.

“BEK Sports is an opportunity for my parents and a lot of their friends who are at an age where traveling to grandkids’ sporting events in the middle of the winter in North Dakota is not the best idea, to stay connected,” Remboldt shared. “And they are able to see their grandchildren and their neighbors’ grandchildren compete and do that in a safe environment. And to me, when you look at what you have brought to this community, that’s just amazing. Beyond that, you’re creating those jobs in the community. That embodies everything we talk about when we say, ‘Concern for Community,’ and I admire what you all have done.”

Leadership Development

Over the course of his career, Buluwa has helped develop leaders that are now paving the way for organizations across the country.

“It’s our responsibility within our organizations to really focus on succession planning and leadership development,” Remboldt said. “And sometimes that means those people are leaders and successors within your organization. Sometimes they go on to other organizations.”

“Discipline has been a significant driver in successes that I’ve had,” Buluwa said. “Also being able to get everybody wrapped around a vision. Getting everybody to buy in, and to spend the time to get them to see the vision and buy into the vision, that’s hard. Today, I’m at the best place I’ve ever been, I have a leadership team of five executive leaders and they all buy into the vision.”

Buluwa said that his goal is for his board to have a pool of qualified internal candidates ready to replace him when he eventually retires. But at the end of the day, he wants his employees to be successful in whatever route they choose, even if that means leaving BEK.

“I want those guys to take what we’ve done together and deploy it someplace else if they want,” Buluwa said. “The people I’ve worked with that have gone on to lead other organizations and I stay in touch with all the time, and when we have phone calls, sometimes they teach me things and sometimes I teach them things.”

“I think that’s one of the neatest things about this cooperative business model is we do things together,” Remboldt said. “We do things with each other for each other. And sometimes that means losing a good person to go work at another organization. But together, we’re better anyway.”