PRENTISS — A combination of cold calling and genuine Southern hospitality helped community leaders in Jefferson Davis County land a global telecommunications firm — and a loyal friend.
Doug Allen, executive director of the Jefferson County Community Development Association, and Prentiss Mayor Charlie Dumas were mulling ways to bring business back to the city of approximately 1,500 residents. In August 1999, the city’s largest employer, KLH, a wire harness company, shut down and moved its operations to Mexico.
“We’d just lost about 800 jobs with KLH, and another plant, with 150 jobs, had announced that it was closing, so we were in a bind,” said Allen. “But we had good facilities and an available workforce. We needed a company to call Prentiss home.”
After a deal fell through for a telecommunications company to lease a 45,000- square-foot city-owned building formerly occupied by KLH, Allen and Dumas began searching on the Internet for similar companies that might need a facility.
Last June, Allen sent letters to potential tenants, including Frank Stoup, president of Bloomfield Hill, Mich.-based Partners of Progress, a company that refurbishes and repairs wireless communication devices.
“Even though we’d recently established operations in Michigan and Puerto Rico, we were looking to expand further when I got a letter from Doug Allen,” said Stoup. “It was a rather inviting letter, telling me about Prentiss, Jefferson Davis County and Mississippi. After I talked to Doug by phone, I wanted to come down and see if everything he said was real. And it was.”
Stoup said many companies miss out on great opportunities by not giving rural communities a look.
“It’s often difficult for rural communities to attract businesses because of unfavorable pre-conceived notions,” he said. “Fortunately, someone like Doug Allen had the tenacity to stay with it and tell people what he had.”
A rainy day in Mississippi
On Stoup’s first visit to Prentiss to meet Allen and Dumas, it was a dreary, rainy day. Dumas met Stoup at the car with an umbrella to escort him inside.
“That really impressed me,” Stoup said. “How many places will a mayor meet a fellow at the car with an umbrella to keep him from getting wet. I’ve been all over and I can tell you: not many.”
Even though Stoup didn’t need the facility immediately, Allen and Stoup kept in contact once a month. After Partners of Progress negotiated a contract in March with Cingular Wireless, the second largest wireless company in the U.S., Stoup was ready to lease the facility in Prentiss, but Cingular wanted the work to be done in Memphis.
“We convinced Cingular execs that we had a facility available in Mississippi and didn’t see any reason we shouldn’t be capable of meeting their performance requirements in Prentiss rather than Memphis,” Stoup said. “They agreed, and we told the folks in Prentiss that we were ready to go.”
Within a month, the city had prepared the building. Allen helped expedite a Community Development Block Grant, a low-interest loan to purchase equipment.
On April 23, production began at the Prentiss plant. By mid-October, 54 employees, earning $8.50 to $15 per hour, were refurbishing and repairing 25,000 cell phones a month. By the end of the year, 120 employees will handle 50,000 phones a month, Stoup said.
“That will only fill half the building, so we have room to expand,” Stoup said.
Scott said a small, one-time ad in the local newspaper generated more than 2,000 applications.
“We chose to pay the same wages in Mississippi that we pay at our Michigan plant in hopes that the productivity gained from people’s willingness to work and hopefully the loyalty gained would be paid back to us with more input,” he said.
Stoup started Partners of Progress in the basement of his Michigan home in 1997. His daughter, Sandra Stoup, now plant manager of the Prentiss plant, the company’s largest facility, was his first employee.
“We worked on this idea to some people’s amusement,” Stoup said. “Several times, I heard, ‘Dad, when are you going to find a real job?’ We had a semi truck parked in the driveway storing phones. For six or seven months, we had people working in the basement, in the living room, at the dining room table or wherever.”
In four years, without the help of sales people or advertising, Partners of Progress opened four locations. (A fourth facility is located in Plainville, Ind.)
“We find the customers we want and certain customers find us,” Stoup said. “When a senior exec with Cingular met with us today, he told us we had the best facilities process, competitive costs and so on. That was what we wanted to hear. Our corporate commitment is to be the best because that leads to more people wanting to do business with you — and more jobs.”
Allen said, “They’ve been a real asset to the community. Cold calling paid off.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.