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When opportunity knocks Featured

8:58am EDT December 23, 2005
Ray Hexamer knows how to take advantage of a savvy business opportunity when he sees one, as evidenced by his recent acquisitions.

The CEO of Akron-based First Communications LLC managed last summer’s acquisition of Uniontown’s Acction Communications, closely followed by last fall’s purchase of the Midwest assets of ATX/CoreComm, including its customer base in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

With 155 employees in its Akron, Columbus and Cleveland offices, Hexamer expects the telecommunications service provider to produce annual revenue of between $80 million and $100 million this year.

Now that ATX/CoreComm’s transition into First Communications is nearly complete, Hexamer says each department — from the care department to the truck roll employees who visit customers — is initiating its new employees into First Communications’ way of dealing with customer issues.

“To be a member of the First Communications fraternity, this is how you have to treat the customer,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Hexamer about how he managed the Midwest ATX/CoreComm acquisition and how he grew his company by super-servicing his customers.

How do acquisitions affect your strategic growth plan?
We’re continuing to look at a number of acquisitions. In the telecom industry, there’s a lot of change going on, and with change comes opportunity.

There’s a lot of consolidation going on. There have been some regulatory changes. Some of the big phone companies are merging to make mega-companies.

When that’s happening, you usually have two groups of folks. You have the folks who are in the business who look up and say, ‘The sky is falling.’ And there are other ones, like First Communications, who look and say, ‘There are some opportunities here.’

Providing great service, exceeding the customer’s expectations — there’s always going to be a need for that, no matter what happens in the business environment in which you’re competing.

How does customer service help you compete?
There’s a place for the huge guy, but there’s always a place for a company like ours on the service end — taking care of the customers, (offering) an alternative. We’ve gone into businesses that need huge amounts of bandwidth or need some type of service to guarantee that they don’t lose (telecommunications) service.

Cantor Fitzgerald (a New York financial services company) had one of the largest numbers of casualties in 9/11. [The firm lost two-thirds of its work force during the attacks on the World Trade Center.] The reason we [continue to] have their business is when that happened, we rerouted some of their calls here.

We tried to help them get back up and be able to operate their business as they were going through a personal tragedy. Since then, they’ve given us more business just because of how we performed.

They had other vendors who charged them higher rates because they had to super-service them. We didn’t, and they have remembered that.

We look at it as a partnership. If you’re a customer of ours, we’re in a partnership together. We’re with you in good times, and we’re with you in times where you may need some additional help from us.

How did attention to the care of your customers play a role in your Midwest ATX/CoreComm acquisition?
Their customer base matched well with where our customer base was. They were in bankruptcy, and we have a really great customer care and billing engine in place, so we are bringing them into First Communications and our system has gone very well. It’s been a great acquisition for us, along with Acction Communications, which we added in July 2005. This year, we’ve doubled our size.

I’ve been in business for going on 30 years, and we just have smart people who care about the customer and work hard every day. That technique would get you through anything in business, and that’s the technique we used to transition their customers and their employees to the way we do business.

Our mantra here is, ‘Be heard.’ We’ve found a real niche. Customers still like to have someone answer the phone, and all of our calls are answered by real people. There’s no automated ‘Touch 6, touch 7,’ and our goal is that all calls are answered within 90 seconds.

Since we’re a service business, there’s still a real need for that. As companies get so gigantic, they can’t manage their customer base. We feel there’s a great opportunity to super-serve customers and try to take care of them.

They call us, and somebody will pick up the phone and talk to them and solve their problem. That has never changed.

How did you prepare for your company’s expansion?
We didn’t sleep . We have a real good base of very smart people, so we put a transition team in place with our people and some folks from CoreComm.

We spent a lot of time planning on how to make this seamless to the customer. We ... have everybody moved over like they’ve been First Communications customers for years.

Right now, we have 130,000 customers. We have to work hard to super-service 130,000 customers every day, but it’s fun.

How did you train your employees to handle these new customers?
Since we don’t have an automated phone system, if the phone rings, somebody’s got to answer it. It wasn’t hard, other than adding new people and training them culturally on how we do business at First Communications.

Just as much as the customer wants service, if you hire the right kind of people, they like to give service. We had a gentleman who was a CoreComm customer who [sent a letter because he] had a problem with his business and phone listings. I called him, gave him my cell phone number and told him to call me.

When he called, he said, ‘I’m just a small business. I can’t believe I got the CEO’s cell phone number,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re a customer. You help pay the bills, and we want to take care of you.’

He said, ‘Even though I’ve had problems in the past, I’m going to stick with you because now I know there’s somebody there who cares about me.’ That’s how our employees culturally feel about each and every customer. If we make mistakes, we try to fix them.

HOW TO REACH: First Communications LLC, (800) 860-1261 or www.firstcomm.com