Cheri Beranek

Cheri Beranek

She’s grown a telecom startup into a go-to firm for rural broadband connectivity.

CLEARFIELD INC.

Founded | 2008

Headquarters | Brooklyn Park

Employees | 500 (100 in Minnesota)

Revenue | $93.1 million

Company overview | Provides fiber-based digital connectivity technology primarily for the rural telecom market


Cheri Beranek’s 30-plus years as a tech industry executive would have astonished her younger self. While pursuing a master’s degree in mass communications at North Dakota State University, she was determined that she’d “never work with computers and numbers.”

But when she took a job in 1987 as a marketing specialist with Fargo-based Great Plains Software, “I was hooked. Technology changes so fast. It never allows you to get bored.” Though not a technologist per se, Beranek realized that her communication talents could “take [technology concepts] from bits and bytes and turn it into value.”

She put those talents to work at a succession of small tech firms that experienced high-speed growth during the 1990s tech boom. In 2008, she helped launch Brooklyn Park-based Clearfield as its first—and so far, only—president and CEO. Clearfield specializes in telecommunications fiber technology for community broadband—digital connectivity installed and managed by independent rural telecoms. During the pandemic, demand for its products has skyrocketed. The publicly traded company (Nasdaq: CLFD) posted record fiscal-year revenue of $93.1 million in 2020, a 9.3 percent increase over fiscal 2019, and it has continued to break records in sales and net income in 2021.

She always looked beyond the corner: ‘where could we go next?’ And she never came to me with a problem without ideas for a solution.

—Sal Mondelli, executive coach, Bailey Group

The company’s success is largely the fruit of Beranek’s leadership style, which she describes as “collaborative, but up to a point.” When Clearfield launched, she recalls, “I wrote the values to the company on a sheet of paper on an airplane. These are the values of the company; either you belong here or you don’t.” The primary value she listed was listening. “We build on that listening so that we can collaborate.”   

Speaking of collaboration, Beranek gives plenty of credit to Johnny Hill, the company’s co-founder, COO, and “the technologist behind the innovation. We’re really good yin and yang.” She also lauds board chair Ron Roth, who tapped her to be Clearfield’s CEO. “Over the course of the past 13 years, he’s given me enough rope to let me figure things out, but not enough to hang myself,” Beranek says.

She had to figure out some big things right out of the gate. Jan. 2, 2008, wasn’t “a great time to start a company,” Beranek notes. The Great Recession had just begun, and Clearfield was a spin-off from a publicly traded tech company that had struggled and recently shut down. It wasn’t awash in cash. The ’90s were definitely over.

But Clearfield did have a technology to build on. This was the Clearfield Cassette, a modular “building block” for fiber networks. Clearfield’s much larger competitors supply bulkheads of 288 and 576 fiber management ports designed for installations in dense urban areas. The Clearfield Cassette, by contrast, has 12 ports. This allows telecoms to install fiber in much smaller markets, adding connections as needed.

Beranek emulated her small-telecom customers by running Clearfield lean; it’s a point of pride that the company has been profitable each of its 13 years. “I’ve called myself cheap.” Beranek says. “But our board chairman told me, ‘No, you’re frugal. There’s a big difference.’ ”

Roth also saw a tech leader with a deep understanding of customers and their needs. Beranek began developing that understanding in 1988, when she moved back from North Dakota to her native Minnesota. For the next eight years, she sharpened her tech-marketing skills at two fast-growing young firms, Hopkins-based Digi International and Plymouth-based Tricord Systems. In 1996, Minnetonka-based connectivity services company Transition Networks tapped her to be vice president of marketing. Sal Mondelli, Transition Networks’ CEO at the time, recalls that hiring Beranek was crucial to the company’s growth. “When you want to get to the next level, you have to have people who have been there before,” says Mondelli, an executive coach and consultant with the Golden Valley-based Bailey Group.

During Beranek’s four years at Transition Networks, she helped steer product line development that resulted in media conversion revenue growing from $3 million to $40 million and total company sales to nearly $50 million. She also demonstrated the traits that would make her a successful CEO who could sustain a business through thick and thin. “She was always bringing a business sense to what we were doing,” Mondelli recalls. “She always looked beyond the corner: ‘Where could we go next?’ And she never came to me with a problem without ideas for a solution.”

At Clearfield, Beranek has pushed for solutions that reduce small telecoms’ labor costs. In 2013, the company introduced Field Shield, a system that simplifies installations so that “customers [can] get fiber to where it was not previously economically viable,” Beranek says. And if an irrigation installer, say, accidentally cuts a line, telecom workers can cut out the six inches or so where the break is and reconnect the fiber.

“We always like to say that our competitors have fabulous engineers and fabulous scientists,” Beranek says. “We’re different because we wear jeans and work boots, and we know what it’s like in the field.”

Even with innovations like Field Shield, Clearfield grew slowly. In 2016, the company began to hit its stride. Beranek had set a revenue goal of $42 million, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. Her team responded by hitting $53 million. “We’re a community that wants to work together,” she says. “I think that’s the reason why we made it to that point. And I think it’s a reason why we could grow from there.”

That year, Beranek also had to face a big challenge: a lawsuit for alleged patent infringement on one of the Clearfield components. While the firm’s attorneys didn’t believe the part infringed, rather than fight a lengthy and costly lawsuit, Clearfield technologists responded by changing that part for a new design. “It actually made our product much better,” Beranek says. “As a result, we got a lot of visibility and a lot of respect from the marketplace— from our competitors and from our customers. It showed that we designed a high-quality product.”

As a female tech-industry CEO, Beranek is in a very small sorority. A frequent speaker at tech events, she encourages women to pursue careers in the field. “You don’t need to be an engineer to work in technology. If you can provide the technology benefit and can help drive the technology solutions, you can be a woman in this marketplace and be recognized.” At Clearfield, women fill about a quarter of professional positions.

When her own daughters were young, Beranek made sure they learned that “science and math are fun.” Both now have doctorates, one in physical therapy, the other in pharmacy. She also has two sons, one an engineer at 3M, her youngest at Target and pursuing a business management career “like Mom,” she notes. 

Beranek, 58, expects to keep managing Clearfield for some time. There are plenty of growth opportunities she wants the company to pursue. Community broadband remains the biggest, but it’s not the only one. Larger companies, notably Google and Verizon Wireless, have incorporated Clearfield’s modular connectivity products into their installations. “The possibilities are endless,” Beranek says. “My biggest challenge is knowing where to focus first to make sure that we continue to grow as systematically as we can.”


Timeline

1962 Born in New Ulm, Minnesota.

1987 Graduates from North Dakota State University, launches her tech career at Great Plains Software.

1988 Joins Twin Cities-based Digi International as marketing manager.

2008 Named CEO of Clearfield (Nasdaq: CLFD), which had been a subsidiary of Minnesota tech firm APA Enterprises.

2013 Clearfield introduces Field Shield, designed to make fiber network repairs easier and faster.

2016 Google uses Clearfield fiber network technology; revenue hits $53 million, a 33 percent gain over the previous year.

2016 Named Female Executive of the Year by the International Stevie Awards.

2017 Verizon Wireless incorporates Clearfield’s Field Shield technology to deliver broadband connectivity at U.S. Bank Stadium.

2020 Clearfield reports record fiscal year revenue of $93.1 million.

See the other 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees