The Heart of the Entrepreneur: Robert Nall with Heartland Tower, Inc. & TV25
David Vincent | Photographer
Upon getting to know him, you discover a successful entrepreneur who owns two businesses: Heartland Tower, Inc. and Heartland Broadcasting, LLC, branded TV25.
It all started when Nall was working in Kansas City for a company called Compuware as a “highly overpaid project management consultant,” Nall said.
At the time, Nall and one of his brothers were amateur ham radio operators. They not only had fun communicating with other ham operators across the city, the country, the world, and even into space, but also found their skills useful in times of an emergency when normal means of communications were down.
“Bad weather sometimes knocks out the traditional infrastructure of communication, and ham operators step in and help with communications and weather spotting if there is an emergency,” Nall said. “It’s kind of nerdy, but we liked playing with that kind of stuff.”
TOWERS FOR SALE
In 2002, Nall heard through his brother that American Tower had purchased a surplus of AT&T towers and was looking for potential buyers for some of the towers. Nall was already familiar with the value of radio towers because ham radio operators use them to communicate with each other, so he immediately took an interest and bought his first tower located in St. Marys, Kansas.
“The existing Topeka tower that had provided ham radio operators coverage was destroyed by weather,” Nall said. “The St. Marys tower was the closest one available to Topeka, and I had it in my heart to help out the ham community and public by providing space for them on the tower.”
Owners of these communication towers can generate revenue by leasing space on the tower to businesses in the communications industry. Nall said the business model is similar to leasing out apartment space, but on a vertical plane.
“Think of it like this, it is vertical real estate. The “penthouse” on the top of the tower leases for more money than the space below because it has a better “view” and can serve more people,” Nall said.
With the help of his dad and his two brothers, Nall was able to purchase several other towers. He purchased them in bundles, hoping to get at least one in the group that would be in an ideal location to lease space out to cell phone companies or anyone who had an FCC license that would need a tower to communicate.
Soon after Nall started his new business, Heartland Towers, Inc., the company he was working for in Kansas City closed its office, leaving the tower business as his sole source of income.
“Thank God for McDonald’s dollar menu or I would have starved to death!” Nall laughed.
Because of the lack of funds in those early years, Nall did the majority of the grunt work on the towers he purchased himself. He had to contend with back taxes, utilities, weed control, on-going maintenance and scrap metal thieves.
“The first years were real tough,” Nall said. “Weed control is terrible. If you don’t take care of a tower site for a season, it gets to be very overgrown. I still have the tennis shoes that are stained blue from the dye in the chemicals I used to spray the weeds.”
THE TURNING POINT
The following March, one of the towers Nall had purchased in a bundle turned out to be profitable when AT&T Wireless contracted to lease a tower in Basehor, Kansas. When American Tower discovered the intent of AT&T to lease the tower from Nall, they tried to get it back, but fortunately Nall had already finalized the sale.
“It was frustrating because American Tower was trying to lease space on a tower that they no longer owned,” Nall said. “I had that one tower producing income and 42 other towers that were making zero money. I was excited and then also scared that I was going to mess something up with the 42 vacant towers.”
Nall’s second big break came a few months later in June of that same year. A new cellular company based in Nebraska took some interest in some of Nall’s towers.
“Several of my Nebraska sites matched perfectly with their expansion plans, but they wanted to own the assets and not lease the space,” Nall said. “They told me if I did not sell a chain of five towers, they would build towers right next to mine.”
Nall sold the chain of towers to the company. That sale allowed him to pay off all of his loans and purchase a brand new truck.
“That really was a turning point for me,” Nall said.
100+ TOWERS STRONG
Today Nall owns or manages more than 100 towers all over the central United States. Even though he has seen significant growth, Nall still helps out his fellow ham operator friends by providing space to them and to many others as well.
“I provide nearly three quarters of a million dollars annually in tower and equipment space to ham radio operators and emergency services, and I provide space to county governments at a discount,” Nall said. “What comes around goes around, and I enjoy paying it forward.”
TV25 IS BORN
Seven years after purchasing his first tower, Nall was informed by a friend who owns towers in southwest Kansas that the FCC had opened an application window where members of the public could apply for a television broadcast station license. Since Nall already owned towers on which he could easily place television transmitters, the idea of owning a TV station seemed feasible.
The FCC broadcast license application did not include major population areas such as Topeka and Kansas City, but Nall had several other options.
“My St. Marys tower was in the perfect spot, just outside of the major population areas. My very first tower I purchased was now the tower I needed to use to put in an application,” Nall said.
Nall put in three license applications, hoping to get at least one, and received all three allowing Nall to create the television station TV25 .
“Part of the expense you have when you build a TV station is the tower. Since I already had all of the tower infrastructure in place, it did not cost me anything additional. It was my ‘you only live once moment.’ I’ve got the means, I’ve got the ability, and I’ve got the knowledge. Let’s start a TV station!” Nall said.
Nall began by placing a transmitter on the St. Marys tower and then moving his transmitters 30 miles at a time, per FCC rules, until the transmitters ended up serving higher populated areas. Nall did most of this work himself.
“It’s a long process, especially when you are relocating transmitters and equipment. There are all sorts of engineering and field work to get it to the final locations,” Nall said.
With his three transmitters placed in Topeka, South Kansas City and North Kansas City, Nall was able to broadcast signals covering Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City reaching more than 2.6 million viewers.
Shortly after transmitting his first live signal in January of 2014, Nall decided to ask long-time friend Brian Short to be his TV25 business partner. Since then, Nall and Short have grown TV25 from broadcasting one network to broadcasting 12 networks.
“The really cool achievement is that we are the only station in the whole United States that is actually transmitting 12 networks on a single TV channel,” Nall said.
TV25 uses state-of-the art multiplex transmitters to allow reception of multiple networks on a single TV channel, which allows viewers to choose from 12 separate networks. The networks start at channel 25.1 and go through channel 25.12. TV25 is free to the public and provides low cost advertising opportunities for local businesses.
“TV has been around for a long time, and television signals and the frequencies have stayed pretty much the same. It’s the technology behind the scenes that has changed,” Nall said. “The technology today allows you to do so much more. Brian and I are nerds, we like technology.”
Nall said he enjoys both of his businesses, but there will always be a soft spot in his heart for Heartland Towers, Inc., which brought him from relying on the McDonald’s dollar menu to survive to the success he enjoys today.
“It is interesting how I got myself into all of this without even realizing what I was getting myself into.” Nall joked. “I have been very lucky and blessed. I got into the tower business at the right time when technology was changing. I have worked hard, done a lot of research, taught myself a lot of things along the way, and I am still learning every day.”