SunCom’s commitment to Charleston wasn’t a hard sell.
In fact, the decision to relocate its regional headquarters to Daniel Island and add 250 workers to its payroll was a no-brainer, says the president of the fast-growing wireless phone provider.
“This was a great opportunity for us,” said Steve J. McNulty, the president of the Berwyn, Pa.,-based firm. The company, which is affiliated with AT&T Wireless, also looked at Georgia, North Carolina, Columbia and Greenville before choosing Charleston.
“We kept coming back to Charleston,” he said. “The economy is vibrant here, the labor pool is excellent and there are a number of colleges” that provide educational opportunities for its employees.
SunCom, which is owned by Triton PCS Holdings Inc., was launched in 1997. It opened its regional headquarters here more than two years ago in Parkshore Centre west of the Ashley.
It quickly ran out of room and decided more space was needed. SunCom looked elsewhere, but Charleston’s location played a pivotal role in keeping the headquarters here. The company serves an area from northern Virginia to Atlanta, so transportation was key.
“I-95 runs through the heart of our properties,” he said.
SunCom’s decision to move to Daniel Island by next spring in a $13.5 million, 100,000-square-foot office complex was a tremendous boost to the region, said Gary Crossley, area director for the S.C. Employment Security Commission.
Several area plants, including Rapid Granulator and Broyhill, have closed recently, idling hundreds of workers.
“It’s good news,” Crossley said. “Tech companies like SunCom are more immune to downturns than the manufacturing sector. They have fewer production workers. Theirs are more diversified, skilled workers.”
GROWING, NOT SLOWING
The firm, considered part of the “new economy” sector, isn’t behaving like its dot-com brethren that have fallen by the wayside. Revenues, customers, stock prices and number of employees are all on the rise.
“It’s a good quality technology-intensive company that’s growing despite the slowing of the economy,” said David Ginn, president of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. “Wireless communications is the wave of the future, and SunCom is thriving in our business climate. … It’s a good example of how a technology-intensive company can be successful in our region.”
In 1999, SunCom reported revenues of $133 million. Last year they swelled to $357 million. “In 2001, we’ll surpass half a billion,” McNulty said.
Although it’s only been in business a little more than two years here, it has already attracted 38,745 customers locally. It has more than 500,000 customers and is “fast approaching 600,000,” McNulty said.
SunCom’s roaming traffic – measured in minutes of use – nearly tripled to 370 million minutes last year. And when parent company Triton’s stock was originally offered two years ago, it traded at $18. It’s now hovering around $40.
When SunCom began here, it had about 135 workers serving South Carolina and parts of North Carolina and Georgia. It’s up to 500 and will increase to 600 by the time of the relocation, McNulty said. Most of the local employees are spread between Parkshore and temporary offices on Daniel Island and its retail stores.
The new hires include administration, customer service, engineering, sales, marketing and management positions.
But SunCom is not the only player in this market – at least five other wireless competitors are here.
McNulty said SunCom’s biggest rivals here are Verizon and Cingular. He wouldn’t divulge his company’s market share, but said SunCom is ahead of the pack.
“We see ourselves as the market leader … We’re well positioned.”
SunCom plans to maintain a competitive edge in several ways, according to McNulty:
• Being cash-flow positive. That makes the company highly attractive to investors.
“We exceed our revenues quarter after quarter. We outperform” street or analysts’ expectations, he said.
• Building a high-quality network.
“In the wireless industry you typically invest 100 towers per million people. In our markets we build 160 towers per million,” he said. The additional towers allow for greater range in making telephone calls and cut down on clutter, he said.
• Having customer-care centers. SunCom has an office in North Charleston with 175 employees who answer calls, send out invoices and deal with customers. It has other centers in Richmond, Va., and Clarksville, Tenn.
“We’re the only wireless company that has a dedicated customer-care center in the Charleston area,” McNulty said. “Ninety percent of all our calls are answered on the first ring.”
Those call centers also help cut down on the “churn” rate, or the rate at which customers change companies. SunCom’s is less than 2 percent, below the national average of more than 3 percent, McNulty said.
• Its relationship with AT&T.
AT&T has an equity stake of 18 percent, McNulty said. “It has outstanding standards. We’re set to exceed them. We believe that gives us additional value.”
McNulty said that more than 50 million people visit SunCom’s market area each year, many of them on vacation. “The majority of them travel by road,” he said.
Whenever an AT&T customer makes a call on his or her wireless phone in that area, the SunCom towers provide the power to transmit them. SunCom gets a fee based on its agreements with AT&T.
• Convenient locations.
SunCom has five retail stores in Charleston and is always looking for additional stores, McNulty said.
The typical attrition rate in the industry runs about 40 percent. SunCom’s runs below half of that, McNulty said.
SunCom starts new employees for its customer care centers at $12 an hour. They are trained for 2 1/2 months before they get on the phone.
“We don’t want to play football with our customers,” McNulty said. “Each employee is empowered to make decisions” and not pass the customer to someone else.
Some of the company’s benefits include a monthly allowance of up to $300 for workers who either have children or have older dependents to help pay for day care and paid paternity leave up to six weeks.
Employees are also urged to come up with new ideas on ways to improve the company. The company offers financial bonuses of up to $10,000 for them.
“We believe the best ideas in business are spawned by our employees,” Stecher said.
All the news about wireless communication devices hasn’t been good.
New York has banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. The law takes effect in November.
McNulty said that SunCom is in favor of any and all ordinances that relate to distractions to drivers. But he pointed to a recent study by AAA motor club that showed 20 percent of all driver distractions are caused by eating and drinking and 11 percent by changing the radio station or CDs.
“Less than 2 percent were related to wireless phone users,” he said.
He also said that wireless phones have helped people in distress.
“120,000 calls a day are made to 911 from wireless phones,” he said. “They save lives.”
Member of the AT&T Wireless Network
Business: Wireless communications provider
Area: Northern Virginia to Atlanta
Customer base: 500,000 subscribers
Last year’s revenues: $357 million
Headquarters: Berwyn, Pa.
Employees: 500 in Charleston and 1,700 nationwide