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Executive Profile: 
Krista Tillman, president, 
BellSouth North Carolina

"Twenty years ago I thought I had all of the answers. Now I know that I have none of the answers. The answers, I’ve come to find out, are in the various people sitting around me."

Phones & Finish Lines

A marathon runner on the side, BellSouth's Krista Tillman
has succeeded by dashing from one challenge to another

By Kevin Brafford

rom her glistening high-rise office in uptown Charlotte, Krista Tillman is afforded a bird’s eye view of the bustling business world that surrounds her. Not that she needs the help. Tillman is president of BellSouth’s North Carolina operations, a top-level corporate executive who at first glance would appear to be far removed from the ground-level engineer’s position she took with the company more than 25 years ago.

But this is one of those instances when perception and reality are worlds apart. While Tillman displays the vision and leadership required to effectively help run one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world, she’s also very much in her element working through what would seem to be the simplest of problems.

“There are no issues that are necessarily too small and no issues that she finds too big,” says Jack McMahon, vice president of BellSouth Business for North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. “Her interest level and her knowledge level are both very broadbased. She can talk to you about the business end of our company, about gardening, about education, about wines, about mathematics — just about anything. I don’t know where she gets all of that energy.”    

Tillman gets part of it from the three- to 10-mile runs she makes at 5:30 in the morning about five days a week. She gets part of it from a near 40-hour-a-week work schedule that began when she was an undergraduate at Georgia State University. And she gets part of it from a continued desire to learn.

“Twenty years ago,” she says, “I thought I had all of the answers. Now I know that I have none of the answers. The answers, I’ve come to find out, are in the various people sitting around me.”

Tillman was born in Kansas City, Kan., but she, her parents and her brother Kevin moved to Ohio after Krista’s first birthday. They lived there for six to seven years before moving to Atlanta, where her father, a decorated World War II veteran, worked for Crosley Electronics, makers of some of the first TV sets.

“My brother’s four years older than I am, and it’s interesting because we have a different idea of where we were raised,” she says. “When he thinks back, he thinks he grew up in Ohio. When I think back, I think I grew up in Atlanta.”

Tillman loved Atlanta. “We lived in the Stone Mountain area for awhile, and we lived in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs (all Atlanta suburbs). I never have been big on traffic, so I know all of the back streets of my old stomping grounds.”

She went to Georgia State University, a downtown commuter school known for its excellent teachers’ program, and earned her degree in mathematics. “Going to Georgia State was one of those things you just happen into,” she says. “We didn’t have much money for me to go on college on, so I worked from Day 1 for 30 to 40 hours a week. I started out at a dry cleaners’ — I can tell you all about the dry cleaning business — and then did clerical help in a big firm downtown. I didn’t have to work on Saturdays there, which was a big bonus.”

Tillman graduated and took a job teaching in the Atlanta area. “Because I was a teacher, the next logical thing to do was to start on my master’s degree,” she says. “I was going to do that at Georgia State, but I wasn’t happy with the program there, so I looked to transfer. Georgia Tech was really interested in having women in their graduate program at that time — their arms were open and it was like they said, ‘Please come and let’s make this work.’ We did and it was just fabulous.”

She earned her master’s in industrial engineering and found a new love as she learned. Still, she wasn’t sure what to make of her career. “I mean, what do you do with that?” she says, referring to her degree. “There weren’t a whole lot of companies to interview with, that’s for sure.”

One was Southern Bell, however, and Tillman’s interest was piqued when she became aware that “there was a software program someone in New Jersey with the company was working on that was similar to what I had worked on in my thesis.” A short time later, she was walking a new career path — as an engineer.

“I really had no intention going in of leaving teaching,” she says. “But something just didn’t feel right — the best way to describe it is that I was too young to teach. I felt like I was being asked to lower my teaching standards. I was told that if a kid was another year older, he or she needed to be another year ahead in school — it didn’t matter if they had their basic math skills.

“That seemed to happen too many times, and I didn’t want to go along with it. Coaches would come and bear down on you, or the administration or the math coordinator would say, ‘don’t worry about these kids over here; worry about those kids over there.’ You wouldn’t get in trouble for not going along with them, but I still didn’t like it. When you’re young, the world needs to be perfect, and that wasn’t a perfect world.

“I could do it now,” she adds. “I think you need to have a certain maturity in most cases to really excel as a teacher. For that reason, I’m a big proponent of people going into teaching as a second career. It takes a special energy.”

As McMahon notes, Tillman doesn’t lack for energy. That, mixed with talent and desire, made her ascension through the ranks at BellSouth seamless. She spent most of her years in Atlanta — sandwiched around a short stint in New Jersey — before moving to Charlotte in 2000.

“If you look back, I’ve been involved in so many aspects of the company,” she says. “I used to do the networking and the engineering stuff, then I did some research and public policy and planning work. Then I did some business-case work, and then some large-scale operation work. Most of the times when I changed jobs, they were lateral moves. It’s not written in stone anywhere where you have to steadily climb ‘a corporate ladder.’

“I feel very fortunate to have found everything I was looking for here at BellSouth. That’s what a large corporation can offer you — the chance to leave, so to speak, without actually leaving. What I’ve done is dramatically change the kind of assignments I’ve had. Each time the challenge has been uniquely different.”

Tillman says she’s never stopped learning, and by realizing that there was more to learn, she’s grown both personally and professionally. “When you’re young you think you know it all and you’re smarter than everybody else,” she says. “As you grow older and mature, you come to understand that the world’s never going to be perfect and that life isn’t always fair. Once you accept that, you can grow even more.

“My son (Garrett) is a sophomore in high school — he’s starting to deal with that now. He’ll come home from school and something’s gone wrong in his day and he’ll say, ‘Mom, this isn’t fair.’ And I’ll tell him he’s right, but that’s the way of the world.”

Some things in Tillman’s world don’t make a lot of sense today — chief among them is what she perceives as an imbalance in the way government regulates the telecommunications industry. She drives that point and others across in her many travels throughout the state — she’s also serving as chair of Charlotte Center City Partners — and has earned a reputation as a dynamite speaker.

“Krista is so impressive in so many areas,” says Tim Newman, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. “She can speak about our issues in depth, and she can speak about BellSouth issues in her next breath. She spoke to our Rotary Club about BellSouth and everyone in the room was shaking their heads because she was so knowledgeable.

“Her enthusiasm is infectious,” Newman adds, “and the people I work with really feed off of it. When she’s coming by our office, everyone gets excited. She’s a great example to follow — I have eight women on my team here and they see a real leader in Krista.”

So does Queens University, which in February named Tillman its 2002 Charlotte Businesswoman of the Year in honor of her civic, business and cultural contributions. Newman says the honor was richly deserved.

“When she first came to Charlotte, I was general manager of the Charlotte Knights (a minor-league baseball team) and she immediately impressed me,” he says. “Nothing hasn’t changed, and I don’t say those things just because she’s my boss. She challenges me when I need to be challenged and she encourages me when I need to be encouraged.”

When Tillman needs encouragement, she turns to her husband, Paul. The two met on a blind date in the 1980s and have been madly in love since. “I had a girlfriend who was working for BellSouth at the time, and she was dating a guy who was a friend of Paul’s,” she says. “It turns out that our paths had crossed many times, but we just never had met.”

Not surprising given where he lived, Paul was — and is — a huge Atlanta Braves fan. Some of their first dates were spent at the since-demolished Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, watching a team that at the time annually finished in last place.

“If there were 6,000 people there, it was a good day,” she remembers. “You’d sit around — there was always plenty of room to spread out — and get a suntan.

“What’s funny is that after we got married, we moved to New Jersey for a little while and that was the year (1991) the Braves went from worst to first. He suffered through all those years when they were awful, and now they were good and he was stuck in New Jersey. Well, toward the end of the season we were in the process of transferring back to Atlanta. A buddy of his had an extra ticket to a Saturday afternoon game, and Paul was in town so he went. And that’s the day the Braves clinched the National League West. I was so happy for him.”

These days, Paul’s a schoolteacher and an avid golfer, a game Krista says she’s “begrudgingly” learning how to play. “Paul is a golf addict. If he wasn’t teaching, he’d be playing every day.”

Although she’ll deny it, Tillman is a terrific athlete. She competed at a high level playing team tennis on weekends in Atlanta and has a goal this year of “getting a racket back in my hands on a regular basis.” But her specialty has been distance running — she’s competed in three New York City Marathons and says she’ll run another marathon somewhere, sometime before she hangs up her running shoes for good.

“It started innocently enough,” she says. “When I was at Georgia Tech, some of the folks in the master’s program with me would go out and run on the track. We’d run eight laps; that was two miles. Then when my parents got sick (they both died from cancer three months apart in 1983), I started adding distance to sort of help my mind settle.

“Through the years, I’ve found it to be a wonderful stress reliever. Even now, when I really need to think about something, I’ll go for a run. I’m more of a plodder now, but it still works for me.”

The Tillman family extends beyond Krista, Paul and Garrett to several family pets. “We usually have two dogs and two cats, but now we’re down to one cat,” she says. “Soon it’ll be two cats again.”

The favorite part of Krista’s day comes when her work is done. “We still have family dinners at our house,” she says. “The TV is always off and we sit at the table, just the three of us. Paul is the preferred cook — for taste reasons — and when my schedule puts me getting home late we’ll wait dinner until 7:30 or 8 o’clock just so we can eat together. After that, we’ll still sit around the table and talk for another 20 to 30 minutes. It’s a special time.”

Leaving Atlanta three years ago wasn’t easy, but moving to Charlotte softened the blow. “This is a wonderful place to live and work,” she says. “We don’t have family left in Atlanta, but we did leave behind a lot of good friends, and that wasn’t easy. But Atlanta has grown so large that it seems to have lost a lot of that community atmosphere. It’s refreshing to get it back again.”

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