They've found a calling
From 15 employees in a small front office space in 1996, CallTech Communications Inc. has grown to fill 18,000 square feet with a staff of almost 500-anticipating revenues of $12 million this year. The four partners who run the company have managed to keep it all in check, even though the growth shows no sign of slowing.
By Joan Slattery Wall
It's not just a network of phone lines and computers that keeps CallTech Communications Inc. together. A partnership of owners and contacts has helped form and grow this Columbus-based company to more than $5.6 million and nearly 500 employees in less than three years.
Looking back, CallTech President C.J. Petitti says he never doubted the company's potential for success, but he credits the firm's partners for his unwavering confidence.
"I thought the chemistry we had here was not bound for not being successful," he says. "However, I would say the growth we had in the last year and a half-I never dreamed it would grow that fast."
Petitti first partnered with Todd Price, a friend and fellow business owner, in April 1995 to form local Internet service provider Netwalk, but the two saw the opportunity to start another technology-based business, one that would provide customer support using client brand names.
Price brought technology knowledge to the table; Petitti had the business savvy gained through Chaney & Petitti Insurance Services Agency Inc., where he is vice president. They were soon joined by Kent Bowen, whose work for Cincinnati's Provident Financial Group Inc. [formerly Provident Bank] added banking and business contacts to the mix.
About a year and a half after the company's founding came the big coup. Bob Massey, who had just left his position as president and CEO of CompuServe Inc., joined the partnership as executive vice president of business development.
In addition to sharing their talents, the four-along with Petitti's brother, Phil, who does not work for the company-pooled $20,000 each to grow the company.
And grow it has. Already, CallTech expects $12 million in revenues this year-10 times that of its first year in business, and more than double that of last year's sales.
But with growth come challenges. The CallTech partners had to quickly accommodate large new accounts and learn how to manage hundreds of employees.
Price and Petitti knew technology advances would increase the number of users needing help, which is why they decided to form a call center that would answer customer-support calls for clients.
To find CallTech's first client, Petitti in October 1995 approached Massey at CompuServe. Massey referred him to the member services department, which was looking to expand outsourced projects. Talks with CompuServe officials continued until February 1996, when they agreed to let CallTech run a 90-day pilot program providing customer-support services to the CompuServe Interactive division.
"By mid-May, they liked what we were doing, so they signed off on the pilot," Petitti says.
The growth that followed was fast. CompuServe Interactive generated a call volume of 5,000 the first month, Petitti says, but seven months later, CallTech was answering nearly 140,000 monthly calls. It was enough to give the start-up its first profits-and a need for more capital. CallTech secured a $250,000 line of credit through Bank One to finance receivables and equipment.
Through CompuServe, Petitti met CallTech's second client, CUC International Inc. [now Cendant Corp. in Stamford, Conn.], which brought 20,000 inbound marketing calls the first month.
The CompuServe connection paid off again for Price and Petitti in February 1997, with Massey's decision to join CallTech.
"All of a sudden, that gave us a major boost because Bob was not just tied locally. He could call anybody," Petitti says, noting that Massey recruited CallTech clients BellSouth.net, a division of BellSouth Corp. in Atlanta, and Priceline, an online buying service out of Connecticut.
CallTech's client base, which brings in 425,000 calls a month, also includes the Ohio Department of Development's Division of Travel and Tourism, for which CallTech answers calls to the 1-800-BUCKEYE line and to Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and Spry Inc., for which CallTech answers customer service and technical support calls.
Some of the clients are seasonally busy, allowing CallTech to shift responsibilities and keep its staff going year-round.
That flexibility is a plus for some clients, such as CompuServe, because CallTech can bring new products up to speed and fluctuate staffing with little notice, says Chris Miller, CompuServe's member services project manager, who handles the company's outsourcing.
"Besides the flexibility, they also seem to have a pretty good feel of the business that they're in-and not just at the upper level. It seems to disseminate to the agents on the phone," he says.
An uncertain time for CallTech came with the announcement in fall of 1997 of the CompuServe/AOL/WorldCom Inc. transaction. Petitti feared that move would result in the loss of the CompuServe account, which was bringing in 48 percent of his business.
"I did not want to take a step backwards, so I had some real concerns when that merger was announced," Petitti says. But CallTech ended up gaining all of CompuServe's technical support. Miller says the start-up's flexibility sealed the deal.
Such a fast-growing customer base meant one sure thing to the CallTech partners: They'd have to find some employees-fast.
"We don't have a product out there. It's people based," Petitti points out.
When the start-up sought CompuServe, Price and Petitti were among the 15 employees answering phones. Now, the staff is approaching 500.
Unlike many other Central Ohio businesses, CallTech has not struggled to fill its job openings.
"The reason, I believe, is [in] the generation we're hiring, there are a lot of people who are into online rather than flipping hamburgers," Petitti says.
In addition, Petitti networked in the right circles. Netwalk, which remains a separate company, once created an Internet access package for students at DeVry Institute of Technology and Franklin University. Petitti used these contacts to find employees with a working knowledge of computers. Current CallTech employees also help with recruiting since CallTech pays a $100 bonus once a candidate referred by an employee has been with the company for 90 days.
Learning to manage employees, Petitti says, has come through trial and error, although the partners have brought knowledge from their previous businesses.
One of their first major flubs, for example, was having supervisors on duty who oversaw the entire call center but didn't really get to know the employees, whose shifts span CallTech's seven-day, 24-hour operations.
"That did not work at all," Petitti says. Productivity, which decreased 15 to 20 percent under that system, has now increased more than 25 percent with the use of a team-leader concept in which managers work with 15 to 20 employees.
Petitti acknowledges that with so many employees at CallTech, the partners can no longer manage people hands on.
"Actually knowing who works here-that's a challenge," he says. Computers help.
"Employees can e-mail suggestions to the partners and project managers," Petitti says. To encourage those suggestions, CallTech pays $50 to $200 for new and creative ideas. Participation varies, but the partners receive as many as 10 suggestions each month. One suggestion, in fact, led to the implementation of the team-leader concept.
Computers also document calls, breaks, hours, payroll records, performance records and even photos of employees. The tight reins, which Petitti says went into effect within three months of CallTech's operations, allow the company to monitor productivity and work quality.
"We cannot afford to be rude to [customers]," he points out, explaining tha t doing so or being absent from work without calling in are grounds for immediate termination.
Another challenge: the physical space needed to hold all those employees.
CallTech occupied just a 1,500-square-foot front office on Marconi Boulevard in January 1996, but 13 months later the company's employees required 10,000 square feet of the building. This spring, the company moved to an 18,000-square-foot space in Hilliard, for which CallTech secured a $250,000 term loan through Bank One. Plans are in place to have additional offices in German Village with 10,000 square feet by the end of the year.
Petitti says the two locations will give CallTech an advantage of redundancy in case power goes out, as it has more than once since the company started. Petitti forecasts a third location-out of state, possibly in Pennsylvania-in 1999.
CallTech's ability to see the big picture is, in fact, one of the reasons that CompuServe has stayed with them, Miller notes.
"In my position, I work with multiple vendors, not just CallTech, and [CallTech] always ends up being more flexible," he says. "They're always there in my hip pocket, so to speak, when I need something."