The tale of Tritel’s rise reads like a Cinderella story. But, as William M. “Billy” Mounger II recalls, it took years of long hours and hard work to make it look easy.
“We may have set a record for starting a company, creating an employee base of more than 800 employees, building out in nine of 10 major markets with 800 cell sites and 38 stores, raising high-yield bonds, a senior bank syndication, and doing an IPO — all within the same year,” said Mounger, 43, CEO of Tritel Inc., marketing as SunCom/AT&T, who was selected by Ernst & Young as one of Mississippi’s leading entrepreneurs. “It was quite a year. The whole team worked very hard.”
Years before Mounger built a telecommunications empire in record time, he found himself at a crossroads. After graduating magna cum laude with a political science degree from Vanderbilt University, Mounger had his choice of studying at various business and law schools.
“I thought about law school very hard, but I felt my calling was not to be an attorney,” he said. “Law is a great field, but I wanted to create a business, something out of nothing, I guess. Law is not a bad tool for that but I didn’t see where it would help me that much. It didn’t seem to capture an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Instead of pursuing an MBA or a law degree, Mounger elected to pursue a master of arts degree from the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. Around the same time, in the early to mid-1980s, he made his first wireless investments.
“An interesting degree for a business person, isn’t it?” Mounger said. “I wanted to learn more about the Bible, and about biblical ethics, and apply that to whatever I did.”
The Jackson Prep alum, who learned to use computers when punch cards were required to run programs, recalled always being interested in communications, even before high school, he said.
“I didn’t know what would come of it, but I knew it excited me,” he said. “In college, I was trying to figure out what I could do to make the greatest positive impact on the world from a spiritual — and business — perspective, and I knew the communications business had potential.”
In the early 1990s, Mounger teamed up with fellow Jacksonians E.B. Martin Jr. and Jerry M. Sullivan Jr. to establish Mercury Communications, a company that developed, built and operated rural cellular markets that were distributed during the original FCC cellular license lottery. In 1998, the trio founded Tritel.
But it wasn’t until Jan. 7, 1999, after five years of courting AT&T, and “being dead on the operating table several times, we thought,” Mounger quipped, that Tritel inked a deal with AT&T to develop its wireless licenses in parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Mounger knew AT&T was on the fast track to build digital markets across the country, and he knew branding in a competitive marketplace was a key consideration in raising capital.
“We had many trials and tribulations leading up to our start date,” Mounger said. “It was touch-and-go with AT&T because they had several strategy changes within their company while trying to decide what to do. I think they were open to buy a Bell company, like BellSouth, Western Bell, or both, and they held off until they saw that wasn’t going to happen. Then, we had to raise $1 billion in capital. It took a long time to get something going with AT&T, but when it did, it moved quickly.”
The decision to go public happened very quickly, Mounger said.
“When we talked in October, we planned an IPO sometime in 2000,” he said. “The stock market was going very well and wireless stocks like ours were going very well. Our bankers told us it was a good time, so around mid-December, we started selling stocks at $18 a share. It traded well, as high as the low $30s and has recently settled around the high $20s.”
In February, Tritel announced its intent to merge with TeleCorp into a new company: TeleCorp PCS. TeleCorp, with markets in New Orleans, Memphis and Arkansas, fit well with Tritel’s footprint and market. Both companies were traded publicly, affiliated with AT&T and marketed PCS services under the SunCom brand in the southeastern U.S.
“The change will be exciting and will present new challenges,” Mounger said. “It’s a whole new step. Jackson operations will take on even more once the two companies are officially combined and grow.”
The combined footprint will stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, cover 35 million people in 14 states and Puerto Rico and encompass 16 of the top 100 markets in the U.S. By the end of April, both companies — each less than two years old — listed 332,000 SunCom subscribers, more than 1,900 employees, 1,524 cell sites, 11 switches, 96 SunCom stores and almost 1,600 retail outlets.
“Our management team, our partnership with TeleCorp, our relationship with AT&T Wireless, our strong capital base and our understanding of our demographically attractive markets give us an unparalleled opportunity to build a company that will generate exceptional shareholder value,” Mounger said.
Tritel will retain its customer care center in Flowood, regional technical operations center in Madison and downtown Jackson corporate headquarters. When the all-stock, tax-free transaction closes later this year, Jerry Vento, chairman and CEO of TeleCorp, will serve as CEO. Mounger, who will continue to reside in Jackson with his wife, Cissye, and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 6, will serve as chairman of the board.
“We’re excited about rolling out more wireless data this year,” he said. “We’ve been testing some different systems, such as mobile originated short message service to send, in addition to receiving, e-mails by phone, and we’re hoping to roll out fun and exciting wireless data and wireless Internet applications later this year.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.