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Executive Profile

Dwight Allen of Sprint: Calling Eastern North Carolina Home


By Suzanne Wood

Dwight Allen was just 8 years old and sitting with his mother in a movie theater in Goldsboro when Hurricane Hazel roared inland, wreaking havoc in dozens of Eastern North Carolina communities. It would be the last time that Allen, now 53, would be so blissfully sheltered from the impact of an Eastern North Carolina hurricane.

When Hurricane Floyd unleashed torrents of water into creeks and rivers in more than 40 eastern counties in September, Allen was a witness to history. As president of Sprint's Mid-Atlantic operations, he also felt the weight of responsibility for 60,000 local phone service customers in the affected counties as well as 350 employees whose homes were flooded. Sixty-five would end up homeless.

“When you saw it, you just couldn't believe it,” he says of his tour of Rocky Mount and Tarboro, where Sprint has call centers and other offices. “The water was almost up to the ceiling on Sunset Avenue in Rocky Mount (where the company has a facility). In Tarboro, the main business district was under water, and we saw a couple of animal bodies float by; the smell was rank. It was strange to see a restaurant where I used to eat when I was at Carolina Telephone under water.”

For Allen and his employees, the epic flooding proved just as frustrating as it was harrowing. “A lot of our call centers were flooded, and that's where people call for repairs,” he says. “We've served Eastern North Carolina for 100 years — 60,000 of our customers were out of service and our people couldn't help.”

Although Sprint crews worked diligently to restore service, high water stymied their efforts for days, leaving many residents without a way of calling authorities or getting in touch with loved ones. Even though the company received its share of complaints — and Allen was given the most difficult calls to field — most people understood Sprint's dilemma. “I had only about two callers I would consider unreasonable,” he reports. “You just try to talk to them and listen, give them fact-based information.”

In Sprint's case, the facts were that the company suffered a $30 million loss from storm damage, and it — like many of its employees — is still rebuilding. The company arranged temporary housing for the 19 employees whose situations were so dire they had to spend a night at shelters. Allen authorized the transformation of an exercise room at the company's regional headquarters in Wake Forest into a day care center for the children of employees who were temporarily commuting from Rocky Mount and Tarboro. A relief drive raised $131,000 in employee and Sprint contributions, and different work units throughout the company “adopted” fellow employees who were devastated by the hurricane.

“It was quite heartwarming to see everyone helping,” says Allen, an NCCBI director. “For several of our employees, who had grown up with nothing and had worked hard to make something of themselves, to see them lose all their stuff was just awful.”

Allen knows about working for everything you have. His father died when he was 6, leaving a 39-year-old widow with three growing boys to raise on her own. She supported the family as a bookkeeper for the county school system in Goldsboro. Allen did his part to help, since his brothers, who were more than 10 years older, moved on when he was still quite young. One of his jobs was to be the family's bill payer, something his mother insisted be done in person. So Allen would ride his bike around town, handing over envelopes of cash to the water department, the department store, wherever his mother had an account.

That early introduction to responsibility would pay off. As a junior in high school Allen was elected vice president of the student council; when he was a senior, he became president, and after graduation he headed off to UNC-Chapel Hill with an interest in studying law. He graduated from the Wake Forest University School of Law in 1971 and immediately joined a firm in Fayetteville, where he concentrated primarily on civil litigation. Fortuitously for him, many of his clients were public utilities.

After about three years, Allen and his wife, Robin, moved to Raleigh, where he worked as an attorney with both the Commission and Public staffs of the N.C. Utilities Commission. In 1979 he was named the first-ever general counsel for Carolina Telephone, a Sprint company, and also became secretary in 1980.

“When I graduated from law school, I had no idea I would go to work for a corporation,” he says. “In-house counsel was a new thing back then. I came to work for Carolina Telephone thinking I'd stay three years; I've stayed for 20.” He chuckles that he got into the utilities business “kind of by accident.”

Allen assumed his current position in January 1998, having moved up the ranks overseeing corporate communications, local revenue requirements and toll revenue/industry relations departments. By all accounts he has made the transition from law to top management well, coordinating all legal, regulatory and public affairs activities for the company. “We are highly regulated, so I think legal training (in my position) helps,” he notes. “Legal training helps you think analytically as well. The difficult thing about going into management is that legal work is very much hands-on. It's not delegateable work. With many issues in management, you have to rely on other people. Sometimes that's a difficult thing to do. The best thing you can do is get out of people's way.”

His most difficult challenge to date? “Trying to change the mindset of a protected monopoly to become a more competitive organization, not just be order-takers. Now we have to go out and convince people they have to do business with us rather than some other vendor.”

With deregulation, the Kansas City, Mo.-based company entered the long-distance market and today is the third-largest carrier in the country. Long-distance revenue makes up 50 percent of the company's $17 billion annual sales.

Allen's next big challenge will be managing his region's end of the recently announced merger with MCI WorldCom. Pending regulatory approval, MCI will purchase Sprint for approximately $129 billion, mostly in the form of stock. The new entity will be called WorldCom, and with projected revenues of $50 billion a year it will promote itself as a leader in global communications services, offering broadband “all-distance” services to residential and business customers as well as nationwide digital wireless and data services.

The new company is projected to realize $1.9 billion in annual cost savings in 2001, its first full year of operation. But that savings won't necessarily come at the expense of many North Carolina Sprint employees. “There will be some changes and realignments, sure, there always are when you merge and combine,” Allen says. “But most of Sprint's North Carolina employees are with the company's local phone service operations, and I don't think there will be as many changes in local operations.”

Whether the Sprint name will disappear from the landscape is one of many decisions executives of the two companies have yet to make, but Allen thinks it likely will remain in some form: “Sprint has a lot of equity invested in its brand.”

But the Sprint name isn't as old as the company itself, which this year marks its 100th anniversary. It began as United Telecom in Abilene, Texas, one of many small phone companies founded by forward-looking entrepreneurs motivated by the country's fast growth and improving technology. The company moved into North Carolina in 1969 with its acquisition of Carolina Telephone.

Taking a visitor on a tour of Sprint's airy, seven-year-old regional headquarters, beneath red and white banners proclaiming the company's centennial year, the sandy-haired, down-to-earth executive rattled off dates and events like the history buff he is.

“We are a high-tech company, but we have a rich history,” he says. “And I like the history of the industry.”

That interest has served him well, notes J. Billie Ray Jr., president for BellSouth in North Carolina. “One of his greatest strengths is that he has a long history with and knowledge of the telecommunications industry,” says Ray, who considers Allen “a good friend but a very able competitor.” Adds Ray: “He understands better than most folks the forces that are changing this industry. He has a creative and able mind, and he's able to see where those changes are going.”

When receiving visitors or making speeches, Allen drags out what he calls his “show and tell bag,” a kind of time capsule for the communications industry. He holds up a thick copper wire, similar to the kind used in the early days of phone service, and compares it to a bundle of smaller wires about the width of a forearm. Then, with a magician's flourish, he displays a tiny bundle of fiber-optic wires about the width and texture of guitar strings that can transmit 2.5 million messages a second.

In addition to the tremendous increase in the speed and ease of phone transmission that United Telecom's founder could scarcely have envisioned, Allen is excited about another change on the horizon. “We think the historical distinctions between long distance, local and wireless service will fade,” he says. “Distance is almost meaningless to our business right now. In a very short time customers will be buying bandwidth. It will be immaterial to the company whether they use it for voice, data or the Internet.”

Allen cites a new Sprint product called Integrated On-Demand Network, essentially an electrical outlet for telecommunications devices into which computers, phones, faxes and other machines can be plugged. Users are charged fees based on bandwidth, not minutes. Currently being test-marketed with some businesses, ION should be widely available in a few years.

By 2003, some forecasters predict 90 percent of telecommunications traffic will be data, up from just 10 percent in 1997. “This represents a very radical change in how people communicate,” Allen says. “It also changes how you design telephone equipment. Switches are currently designed for a holding time of three minutes — that's the length of a typical phone call. That's changed dramatically now. With the Internet, people stay on the line longer.”

Allen is enthusiastic about the increased capabilities of the new merged company. One benefit is that WorldCom will be able to roll out high-speed wireless Internet access. And perhaps more important to Allen, the combination of the two companies, with their existing wireless frequencies and widespread infrastructure, will be able to serve rural areas more cheaply.

Ever since Allen heard the late Terry Sanford proclaim Eastern North Carolina “a sleeping giant” during an address at his high school, he has had an abiding interest in the region his family calls home. Accordingly, he serves on the board of the Global TransPark, located in Kinston, and the Eastern Center for Regional Development (formerly the Eastern N.C. Chamber of Commerce), a 43-county organization promoting the region's economic self-sufficiency.

“I've worked with a lot of folks during my 20 years with the organization,” notes Robert Hackney, the center's executive director, “and I don't think I've ever met anyone more committed to the people of Eastern North Carolina. It's in his blood.”

When Allen was chairman of the organization a few years ago, he established a benefactor program, in which core members of the center would commit to a higher level of membership upfront, to ensure that the staff would have a steady cash flow to fund their advocacy work. Also during his tenure, the organization started holding annual legislative rallies to present their agenda and inspire local lawmakers to take the region's business issues to the table.

This dedication extends to the kind of career choices Allen has made, notes his friend Ed Finley, a Raleigh attorney. “I think he has had many opportunities to progress in (the former) United Telecom on a national level, but he is a North Carolina native and he wanted to stay in North Carolina,” says Finley.

While Allen's colleagues praise his brilliance as a lawyer-advocate and his strong leadership abilities, all describe him as a committed and involved family man. In fact, Allen's face lights up when discussing his two sons, or other's people's children, for that matter. Britton, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Maryland, and Brady, 15, is a sophomore at Millbrook High School in North Raleigh. The Allen household is the unofficial gathering place for the boys' friends, who play basketball and football in the backyard — sometimes with Allen himself — and consume enormous amounts of milk and snack foods.

Whenever he can, Allen plays tennis with Brady, including a recent three-hour marathon that he jokes left him in need of traction (“I can still beat him, but not for long”) and takes the family to their weekend home at Lake Gaston. “I'm kind of a water nut,” he admits. “Mostly I'll get out and piddle with my sailboats, or pull my kids around on their water skis.”

Robin Allen, to whom he's been married since both graduated from college in 1968, is a former public school teacher who now works part-time for an advocacy group for special-needs children. The couple are champions of public schools and have no regrets about not enrolling their sons in private schools. The only disappointment Allen expresses about Britton's choice of Maryland over Carolina is that “he grew up a Tar Heel fan, and he's turned on me!”

Read these previous Executive Profiles:

Charlie Green of High Point, founder and president of Classic Galleries

Abdul Rasheed of Raleigh, founder and president of the N.C. Community Development Initiative.

Dr. John Weems of Raleigh. long-time president of Meredith College.

Margaret Rudd of Southport, co-founder and president of Margaret Rudd & Associates Realtors

Stephen Miller of Asheville, senior vice president of The Biltmore Company.

Ralph Shelton of Greensboro, president and CEO of Southeast Fuels Inc.

Ed McMahan of Charlotte, vice chairman of Little & Associates Architects.

Barry Eveland of Research Triangle Park, senior state executive for IBM.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the December 1999 issue of the North Carolina Magazine.

 

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