August 2011

The People of Hargray. Think 1981.

Author: Paul DeVere | Photographer: Photography by Anne

There was no “Town of Hilton Head Island.” The island was still an unincorporated “suburb” of Beaufort County. It wouldn’t become a town until 1983. Space Shuttle Columbia shot into the Florida sky to begin an extraordinary, and sometimes tragic, program of manned space flight that ended in July of this year. The full-time population of Hilton Head Island was about 12,000. Bluffton was still a “State of Mind.” MTV made its debut. IBM first introduced the 5150, better known as the PC.
Construction Engineer Debora Cooler started to work for Hargray in 1981.

She started out as an assignment clerk and worked her way well up the telecommunications ladder. “We do design work for all the cables and oversee the scheduling and oversee the contractors that bury our cables. We approve invoices; we apply for all the permits, such as DOT permits and private easements and coordinate with getting all the crews going on jobs. We also work jointly with the local power companies and we get on the same track with them,” Cooler explained. She said that as she worked her way up in the engineering department, Hargray gave her the opportunity to be trained for the next assignment that awaited her.

“Yes,” engineer Cooler proudly admitted with a smile, “I have my own hard hat and steel toe shoes.”

And for years, Hargray employees had to make sure they had loose change in their pockets. If they wanted to call the main office when they were on a service call, they had the use one of Hargray’s pay phones and use their own dimes.
“Yes there were pay phones then, owned by Hargray. What Hargray didn’t have,” Cooler laughed, “was computers. I tell people that and they say, ‘What?’”
Twenty years ago, Hargray had 450 pay phones on Hilton Head Island and it only cost a dime to make a phone call. “I was the pay phone guy,” remembered Baylor O’Cain, who has worked for Hargray for 20 years, “but they’re a thing of the past.”

Watch the Video of our shoot with Hargray!

He is now a network technician at the central office, making sure data, dial tones and television get to Hargray’s customers.
Back in 1958, the year Hargray brought telephone service to Hilton Head, that was it: telephone service, “land lines” as they are called. But with IPTV (Internet Protocol Television), the Internet, and wireless everything, it seems astounding what Hargray has done to keep up with the information age explosion.

O’Cain recalled how Jane Jude, now in the IT department, brought news of something called the Internet. “She’s really sharp and says, ‘There’s this thing called the Internet coming.’ And people were like ‘What’s the Internet?” And Jane says, ‘We really need to get it, it’s really going to be big.’ And here we are now,” O’Cain said, slightly shaking his head and smiling.

While Bluffton had telephone service by 1949, it wasn’t until 1960 that the small Hargray Telephone Company opened its first office on Hilton Head Island. Today, the company employs close to 400 people in a service area that includes Hilton Head, Bluffton, Ridgeland, Beaufort, Estill and Pooler, Georgia. The trucks bearing the large red “H” (a fleet of 450) are a very familiar sight for Hilton Head and Bluffton residents.

While Hargray Communications built and maintains an outstanding example of a good corporate citizen in the communities it serves, being the only game in town for decades when it came to telephone services was sometimes problematic. Construction leader Al Wentlein has been with the company for two decades. He said being a Hargray employee gives him a sense of pride and integrity. He loves troubleshooting and feels he is at his best when faced with the impossible. “When I can walk out there and resolve the issue within a matter of hours, that’s what I enjoy. You have people who are so very satisfied and happy with everything you do. Then you have that one customer who thinks you are the dog of the world.” Turning a situation like that around is what Wentlein lives for.

As telephones became telephone “systems” in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Hargray was in the business of selling those systems. Christy O’Quinn, a 20-year employee and now a customer account manager in the business department, said she remembered when she first began working for the company. “I was the person that would go out and train the customer on how to use their phones, and then by default, when it came to recording their phone systems, their messages, nobody wanted to speak, so I became the ‘voice of Hargray’ so to speak. I recorded all the voice messages.”

Founded in 1947 in Hardeeville, South Carolina, Hargray was a family-owned business until 2007, when it was sold to Quadrangle Capital Partners, a private equity firm. For decades, Hargray was known for its tremendous generosity to education and charities in the communities it served. Maybe one of the greatest testaments to the Hargray’s commitment to education is the Hargray building, the centerpiece of the south campus of USCB. The question many asked, both inside and outside the company, was: Would outside ownership change the character of the company, not only in terms of community involvement, but the way Hargray took care of its own?

According to construction engineer, Gary DeLong, who has been with the company for 25 years, the answer would be “no.” That’s because, as he put it, it’s the people. “Yes, we went from a family atmosphere to a corporate atmosphere. Now we are in the corporate world, like the rest of the world is, but we are doing very well with it. It is still the same company. The people I work with are just phenomenal. I mean, we all work together, and we all come up with great answers to get the job done and to benefit the customer.”
The front line of those “great answers” is Winifred Whitsett, who has been with Hargray for two decades. As call center supervisor, her staff handles all the questions—and complaints. It’s usually the latter. When the Internet goes down, when there’s an e-mail problem, when a land line doesn’t work, you either talk to Whitsett or one of her staff.

“We handle all areas,” she said. Hargray takes care of their employees and their customers. “One thing I like about my job is, if there is an issue, say for example like on the street, I ran into a customer that didn’t know I worked at Hargray until I say I work at Hargray, and they talk about something that happened and that we were able to resolve the issues right away versus having to call to another state. We are local they say. That response is a reward.”
There’s an old joke about a lady in the produce section of a supermarket. It was a time in the 1970s when fresh food prices were exceptionally high. She exclaimed, “What do we need farmers for? Look at all this stuff!”

Public utilities, especially companies like Hargray, are the brunt of the public’s ire when something doesn’t work. Hargray employees are somewhat invisible until something needs fixing. But that’s fine with 25-year veterans like Pamela Hamilton and Jackie Wright. Hamilton is a plant center supervisor. Wright is a plant coordinator who works for Hamilton. They both are the “unseen” people, just a few who make it all work: Internet, phone, television. They represent the “farmers” who fill the communication “basket.”

Hamilton said, “If you call into the business office you will get a representative and she will ask you how she can help. You can say, ‘Well I need phone, cable TV and Internet at 20 Arrow Road.’ At that time, an order will be placed. They will assign the orders, and Jackie [Wright] makes sure it will get wired. Then it will come back to dispatch and we will make sure that the order is scheduled on time. All we do is call the customer, make sure that the order is written correctly and that the customer knows what date and time we will be there.” Hamilton and Wright are truly the front line for Hargray.

While many of Hargray’s employees came to the company from a variety of different geographical areas with a variety of talents and for a variety of reasons, Wright started at home. She was born and reared on Hilton Head Island. “I was born on Hilton Head almost 50 years ago in a house, [delivered] by a mid-wife. I am one of the few natives left. I went to school here all of my life.”

“My family has a lot of cemeteries here—our ancestors—and we would like to trace our roots all the way back. The one in Harbour Town is actually my family’s and it is still there… well, most of it is still there. This is where my great-great grandmother raised her children, which was my great grandmother. They were born where Harbour Town is now. Then they came from Harbour Town to Spanish Wells. The graves are still there [at Harbour Town],” Wright said.

Hamilton and Wright recalled their first year with Hargray. “I love helping the customers. I love to ‘hear’ a smile on their face, when I can give them the scheduling date and time that they want. When I first went to Hargray, I had no experience in telephone work at all. I must say that the first time I was able to get the customer dial tone from the office just thrilled me,” Hamilton said.

Wright smiled, remembering her first years. “We had this big board, like Green Acres, to pull in; we had cords. It would light up and you would have to say ‘hold on.’ That is the board I got trained on. It was the dinosaur,” Wright said, laughing.
What may be the most extraordinary quality Hargray has exhibited over the years, in terms of staffing, whether it was family-owned or part of a corporation, is to promote within. While employees have said the culture of Hargray has changed somewhat since the Quadrangle purchase, the relatively new owners knew a good thing when they saw it. The staff appreciated that.

Matt Gajewski, an operations analyst for Hargray, may have said it best. “I like the fact that we are still, I think, small enough so that pretty much everybody knows everybody. It feels like a small, working community, as opposed to like, for instance, Corning Ware (where Gajewski worked for several years). You could work there (Corning) for 10 years and still not come close to meeting everybody. It is still some corporate culture, but it is smaller. Everybody knows everybody from the top down.”

Twenty-five-year veteran Jack Abernathy recalled his introduction to Hilton Head. “This vice president of the company I was working for came up to me and said, ‘I am going to Hilton Head tomorrow’. And I said, ‘Where the heck is Hilton Head?’ He said, ‘It’s down on the beach.’ I said, ‘Well, take me with you.’” Twenty-five years later, Abernathy has no regrets.

The story of Hargray, from its humble beginnings in Ridgeland to an unusually dynamic communications entity that tries to combine the local culture and local sensitivity to a communications explosion never experienced before in the Lowcountry—or for that matter, lower Manhattan—the people of Hargray seem to make the impossible happen. Every day.

In 2009, Hargray introduced a new training program, Hargray University, to help bring extensive training to front line employees. The program arose from a desire to focus on investing in the company’s employees and improving the customer experience. Hargray adopted a new mission in 2008: To Envision and Deliver Customer Delight. To achieve its mission, Hargray had to make sure its people were getting all the tools they needed to be successful and then use them in each and every customer interaction.

“We needed to focus on becoming more consistent and thorough,” explains Andrea Imdacha, a member of Hargray’s marketing team and the one of the program’s founders. “We’ve always conducted training, but much of what we did was unstructured, relying on institutional knowledge and apprenticing. We needed to develop a program that provided consistent approaches to training for all customer-facing personnel.”

Initially focusing on classroom-based training, today’s Hargray University is a broad program offering a variety of options for employees interested in growing professionally. “The program’s evolution has been amazing,” notes Imdacha. “We’ve got a fabulous online portal for training now, the Hargray University Learning Center, and we offer classes and other training opportunities for things like job knowledge, time management, and interpersonal skills. It’s not just about Hargray products anymore. Now, it’s about helping our employees to grow as people.”

Today, the training curriculum is expansive and includes certification programs, professional skills enhancement, college credit courses from Technical College of the Lowcountry, interactive sales training and monthly product and promotions training.

“Hargray has always had a strong and proud heritage of being an active member of the community”, states Eddie Andrews, Director of Marketing. “We consider it a privilege to be affiliated with so many charities and organizations intent on helping those who may need a hand. For decades, our employees have taken great pride in playing an active role in volunteerism as well as helping with fund raising efforts and community relations. We provide financial resources, yes, but it’s about more than just money; it’s about the desire to want to make a difference – and our employees and executives absolutely want to be difference makers in our community.”

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