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20 years at SDN: What trends CEO Shlanta adopted, avoided

A 20-year look back at technology reveals generations of change at SDN Communications. Remember 1998’s deafening squeal of dial-up internet modems? How about long-distance?

Personal cell phones like the Nokia 6130 would barely qualify as “dumb” phones by today’s standards.

Those vintage technologies consumed the attention of SDN’s new Technical Planning and Operations Director Mark Shlanta when he first walked in the front door on July 17, 1998. Two years later, he ascended to chief executive officer and put the small company on one of the fastest growth trajectories in the region. Under his leadership, SDN:

  • Increased revenue twelvefold;
  • Grew infrastructure value by 824 percent;
  • Boosted employment from 14 to 165 employees;
  • Expanded into three Sioux Falls office buildings, plus offices in Pierre and Rapid City;
  • Built two data centers;
  • Transformed data delivery from the common 56K circuit to 100+ Gigs.

Change at that speed requires vision, good partnerships and a steady hand of leadership. Mark delivers all three.

Mark Shlanta - Data Center Tour


Long before the federal government coined the phrase “anchor institutions,” Mark convinced SDN’s Board of Managers to connect hospitals, schools, libraries and town halls to fiber.

“Someday they will need a higher level of connectivity,” he said.

When the Great Recession hit, he escalated the timeline for reaching unserved communities through the stimulus package’s 2008 Broadband Technologies Opportunity Grant (BTOP), which required a $5 million SDN match at a time when businesses that had cash, sat on it.

BTOP Groundbreaking 2010


Mark forms relationships easily. He exudes authenticity, which yields trust. It has served him well with SDN’s board and has expanded SDN into southern Minnesota. Three years ago, the independent telephone companies covering the southern third of that state asked SDN to interconnect their seven networks. They took note of the advanced technology and sales South Dakota companies enjoyed under Mark’s leadership.

Whether it’s at national conferences, universities, or the halls of Congress, others see Mark as a technologist and futurist.

Mark Shalanta - 2011 - SDN Communications


His quiet manner hasn’t gone unnoticed in the community either. The Boy Scouts of America Sioux Council, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the Sioux Falls Catholic Schools Board of Education, Xcel Energy, Avera Health, the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, and Forward Sioux Falls all sought and benefit from his service.

Twenty years atop any organization might age a lesser CEO. Not Mark. Sure, his hair might be grayer, and he shaved off the mustache about five years ago, but his outlook changed little in two decades. While he’s quick to adopt technological change, some employees might wish he had readily adopted other 1998 trends such as:

  • The untucked shirt coming into vogue. No, Mark never embraced that.
  • Casual Fridays, which started with another engineer: Bill Gates. Mark allows it for employees, but that’s just another fashion trend he’s averted. (Some of our employees think he mows the lawn in slacks and a tie!)

Business attire aside, SDN employees are thankful Mark is a technology trendsetter. That has helped SDN grow and deliver on its brand promise: Reliable Broadband Provider, Cybersecurity Leader.

Take the words bookended in that brand promise and they also define Mark: Reliable Leader.