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Game plan established in 1999 garnered success

NATCOM now a national leader in wireless communication

RIDGELAND – What began as a tiny pager repair service in 1989 has evolved into a leader in the wireless communications industry, and counts Silicon Valley businesses among its many clients.

In the last 18 months, executives at Ridgeland-based NATCOM Inc. have transformed a local pager repair and refurbishment shop into a national wireless communication device repair and refurbishment company. Before the year is over, 125 technicians will be added to NATCOM’s local workforce, which already numbers more than 300 employees.

“Ben Kern started Kern Pager Repair in 1989 with three technicians and an administrative assistant around the same time MobileComm sold to BellSouth,” said Bill Lee, executive vice president of finance and administration for NATCOM. “His job with MobileComm was going to be transferred to San Antonio and he didn’t want to move his family to Texas. The company found a niche and continued to grow, but in 1998, Kern developed leukemia and died unexpectedly. His son, Steve Kern, was left with responsibility of running the company. In its initial decade, Steve had seen the company evolve, and with the changing dynamics in the wireless communication industry, and the potential for the company to branch into other areas, he wanted to take the company to the next level.”

In 1999, Steve Grantham Sr. and Lee were brought into the company as investors and executives – Grantham was named CEO; Kern remained president; and Lee was named executive vice president of finance and administration.

More than $2 million was invested, primarily in infrastructure improvements, and the three worked to transition the existing product mix to include wireless Internet devices, such as advanced messaging units and cellular telephones.

In November 1999, NATCOM formed a nationwide distribution alliance with SkyTel to increase distribution and expand the use of SkyTel’s advanced messaging and prepaid paging products. At the same time, NATCOM appointed Jai P. Bhagat, a prominent figure in the telecommunications industry, as an advisory director.

In 2000, NATCOM became the first company authorized by Motorola to repair and refurbish their advanced two-way messaging devices.

“The mission of NATCOM is to be the leading provider of new Motorola pagers and paging products along with the best possible repair and maintenance service in the industry,” said Kern. “We believe that in order to develop and sustain our leadership position, we must be committed to providing a level of quality and service that exceeds our customer’s expectations while maintaining competitive pricing.”

Last year, NATCOM was also named a Nixxo authorized service center for warranty repair of Nixxo pagers, a USAlert authorized service center for warranty repair of Nova voice pagers, and a Glenayre authorized service center for warranty repair of the Accessmate and the Access Link II communication devices.

“In mid-1999, the company was running one eight-hour shift,” Lee said. “The facility is now running 20 hours a day.”

Lee attributed the company’s growth to a seven-step quality check process, which includes two quality control checks, and the company’s Xtranet service, a real-time, online system that allows the customer access to information about their product at every stage of production and shipping.

“No one else in our industry is providing this service, which allows customers access to not only specific orders, but to a tremendous amount of historical data,” Lee said.

The biggest challenge in growing the company has been finding the labor to train and developing a training program, Lee said.

The company’s total employment recently surpassed 400. More than 100 employees work at the company’s 35,000-square-foot repair facility in Orlando, opened in the mid-1990s.

“We’ve made significant strides by partnering with Holmes Community College and hiring a full-time training coordinator, and putting employees through rigorous training before they hit the floor,” he said.

To meet the demand of hiring 125 people within the next six to 12 months, NATCOM has contacted community colleges and technical schools within a 300-mile radius, and has hired technicians from Memphis to the Gulf Coast.

“The proposed community college cuts would be a blow to the progress we’ve made,” Lee said.

Even though other startup companies that have flourished in the tri-county area have considered moving corporate offices to larger metropolitan markets, Lee said NATCOM would stay put.

“We’ve never considered moving our corporate offices,” he said. “We have a tremendous history with a lot of employees who have been with us in excess of eight, nine and 10 years. We’ve made a tremendous investment in property, plant and equipment. We’ve already developed five acres of an eight-acre parcel of land owned along the Highland Colony Parkway. For instance, because of our growth, construction for additional parking will start in the middle of this month.”

NATCOM has drawings on hand to expand the existing 40,000-square-foot facility in Ridgeland by another 30,000 square feet on an as-needed basis.

“We have plans in the works for the next two to five years that should continue to significantly grow the company,” Lee said.

NATCOM is in negotiations with makers of other types of handheld devices, such as personal digital assistants, and has considered manufacturing wireless communication products, in addition to repair and refurbishment services.

“The wireless communication industry is such a dynamically emerging industry, and we’re trying to stay ahead of the game as it develops – on new technology and devices that the business and consumer public will use,” Lee said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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