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Executive Profile

Good Connections
Steve Parrott of Sprint believes success is a journey
and enjoys taking his employees along for the ride

By Suzanne M. Wood

In an era characterized by instability in the corporate world and insecurity in personal lives, Steve Parrott of Sprint has held fast to enduring American ideals. He has been with the same company for 25 years; he has been married to his hometown sweetheart for nearly 27 years; and aside from college, he has lived in only two different cities in his 50 years.

But rather than limiting his options, his background has proved an asset in the volatile telecommunications industry that is still reeling from the MCI WorldCom accounting scandal. In November 2000, Parrott was named state executive for Sprint’s North Carolina and South Carolina division following the retirement of Dwight Allen, who recommended him as his successor. North Carolina is the second-largest local phone service market for Sprint and the fourth-largest Sprint market overall, including local, long distance and wireless services as well as directory publishing and equipment distribution. Parrott’s responsibilities include regulatory and legislative affairs functions for all Sprint affiliates, as well as for legal, corporate communications and public affairs activities. Statewide, Sprint employs 6,500, including 894 in the Triangle.

“Our organization is the ‘face’ of Sprint in North and South Carolina to elected officials, customers, regulators and chambers of commerce,” he says. His is a visible position, one that requires him to join business and civic groups (he is on the board of NCCBI), become involved in economic development efforts, support causes with a business tie-in, and respond to customer concerns. “There are a lot of meetings,” he says, “but my favorite part of the job is interfacing with people, and not just politicians and regulators, but people in the community, too. Sprint has scholarship programs, including giving military personnel college scholarships. That’s when you know you’re in the right job — you go and hand out a scholarship and get to see the results.”

That kind of interaction is a heady departure from number crunching. Parrott, who has an accounting degree from the University of Tennessee, joined United Telephone Southeast, a Sprint company, as an accountant in 1977, in Bristol, Tenn., sister city to Bristol, Va., where he was raised. It was his second job out of college. He had dreams of opening his own business, and thought the telephone company job was a stepping stone. Then he got to know a senior colleague named Bill Smith, who became his mentor. “The best advice he ever gave me was ‘Broaden your base of experience; don’t just specialize,’” says Parrott.

Before Smith became president of United Telephone Southeast, he helped Parrott diversify his background by giving him a job in information services. By 1988, Parrott had risen to director of rate planning and rate case matters. In 1993, he packed up his family and came to Wake Forest to join the company’s Mid-Atlantic Operations as director of regulatory affairs for Tennessee and Virginia. It was a move he was happy to make, even though it meant leaving the community that had always been home to Parrott and his wife, Judy, who grew up directly across the street from each other just a few miles from Sprint’s Bristol, Tenn., office.

“I have wonderful, hard-working individuals in my organization that are like an extended family to me,” says Parrott, who lives in North Raleigh. “My wife was able to immediately find a preschool teaching position in music — the same job she had in Bristol prior to the move — and my two children have enjoyed attending public schools in Wake County.”

In addition to sending his children to public schools, Parrott makes his commitment to education clear by serving on three relevant boards: the N.C. Council for Economic Education, the N.C. Community College Foundation and the N.C.  Business Committee for Education. At the Business Committee for Education, or BCE, he’s vice chairman and thus a member of the executive committee, allowing him greater involvement in the key issues of this group, one of which is teacher recruitment and retention. BCE’s current initiative, Teach for N.C., helps professionals in other fields make the lateral-entry transition to a teaching career. The program also emphasizes pairing new teachers with more experienced ones. “Mentoring is very important to stem the tide of new-teacher attrition,” says Parrott, lamenting the fact that we need 9,000 new teachers a year, a number that will only grow as baby boomers start retiring in droves.

Joel Harper of the BCE says Parrott’s leadership is invaluable. “He has a good vision of education in North Carolina,” says Harper, BCE’s executive director. “He’s able to articulate that through our organization. He also represents his company well and is very good team player, considering there are other telecommunications company representatives on the board. There’s no ‘turfism’.”

Parrott’s interest in improving education also has come into play through his work with the N.C. Electronics and Information Technologies Association, where he is the incoming vice chair.

“He has continually espoused the importance of technology in K-12 education,” says Joan Myers, NCEITA’s president and CEO. “He helped us secure a $250,000 grant to fully power one of our partner schools in Efland so they could be on the Internet. He’s clearly a very strong leader and a strategic thinker, and he’s helped a lot of people, including me. If you believe success is a journey, Steve takes other people along with him.”

Dwight Allen, for one, is not surprised that Parrott impresses his colleagues in civic organizations. After all, it was Allen who recommended Parrott when Allen retired as Sprint’s state executive in 2000. The two had worked together for seven years.

“Steve has excellent people skills, is very outgoing, mixes well with his employees, is even-tempered, and can make people feel good,” says Allen, who returned to private law practice after taking early retirement from Sprint. “He came in at a very tough time (the start of the recession and company layoffs) and had to motivate employees, so it’s good that he’s a very optimistic person.”

Both Allen and Parrott come from outside the operations side of the business, typically where a company’s top executives are groomed. Allen thinks the fact that Parrott doesn’t have a sales or technical background is an asset. “He is smart and very knowledgeable about telecom issues, but he can take technical concepts and make them understood (by people outside the company),” says Allen. “And he can do a large volume of work. There were times he was being so diligent and conscientious that I had to tell him to go home.”

For some people, that could be a backhanded compliment, but Parrott is, by all accounts, as dedicated to his family as he is to his job. He says one of his proudest accomplishments is being married to his best friend. He and Judy married in 1976, after only a few years of officially dating. But they’d known each other practically their whole lives, having attended the same elementary, middle and high schools. They did date casually as students at Bristol (Va.) High School, but didn’t go to their junior or senior proms together. Then their relationship deepened while Steve was away at UT; Judy had stayed home to attend Virginia Intermount College as a music major. Music is still a big part of both their lives: Judy teaches little ones music at a church preschool in Raleigh, and Steve sings in the choir of the family’s church, Trinity Baptist.

The Parrotts’ two children are central to their lives. Daughter Melissa chose a college close to home, Meredith in Raleigh. She’s a junior majoring in psychology. Their son, Travis, is a junior at Leesville High School, where he plays on the soccer team. When Travis was younger, he played in Raleigh’s Capital Area Soccer League, and Parrott served as a volunteer coach.

These days, Parrott enjoys taking his family out on the pleasure boat they keep at Wrightsville Beach. When time allows, he also plays golf, although he concedes his passion for the game exceeds his skill. So some of that energy gets channeled into advocacy for the game and its economic development potential. He serves on the 2005 U.S. Open Golf Championship President’s Council, helping to make the tournament’s return to Pinehurst equally successful. “Our job is to make sure we have full corporate sponsorships,” he says.

Doing public relations and fund-raising for a golf tournament is a far cry from playing sandlot ball pretending to be part of the great Yankee roster that included Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra. But that’s what sports meant to small boys of Parrott’s generation. Parrott had a competitive streak, playing youth baseball until he was 14 and playing both football and basketball in high school.

That’s as far as his sports obsession went, however. This is a man who knew what he wanted. “I realized aspirations of playing professional sports were merely a part of childhood dreams rather than the more realistic desire of my young adulthood to achieve family and financial success,” Parrott says.

That kind of common sense mingles with altruism in Parrott’s work with the Northeast Partnership, a regional economic development organization in Edenton. The Partnership had asked Sprint for an in-kind contribution so it could have high-speed Internet and teleconferencing capabilities to aid its marketing efforts and communication with its fledgling office in Frankfurt, Germany. The company had agreed, but delivery of the equipment would take more than a year.

Rick Watson, president and CEO of the Partnership, then made a personal appeal to Parrott to have the installation date moved up. Parrott ultimately said yes. The equipment was delivered and lines installed in no time, recalls Watson. “We feel like he’s a visionary,” says Watson. “Steve has recognized that the northeastern region of the state is growing — it is no longer treading water. He knows his investment is going to grow” and that will benefit Sprint, Watson says.

Growth is something that Parrott is acutely familiar with, and for Sprint it hasn’t always been the best strategy. Sprint’s PCS division led the wireless industry in growth, posting gains for 15 straight quarters in the late 1990s. But that growth came at a cost. Customer complaints about billing and service issues escalated. Many customers switched providers.

Sprint has responded, renewing its commitment to customer service to go along with new call center and billing procedures. Still, other challenges are complicating the process, including the sluggish economy. “People look carefully at discretionary spending in a slow economy,” says Parrott. “We’re seeing a downturn in customer access lines — many people are using wireless service as a substitute. Long-distance has lost a lot of value as a stand-alone product.”

As a result, the company, like many others in the industry, has begun packaging services such as long distance, local service, wireless and high-speed Internet access. Division lines will blur as services are bundled together under the Sprint name.

The company also has been hurt by the accounting scandals at WordCom and Qwest, Parrott notes. “We need to ensure that we are competitive from a cost standpoint,” he says. “One way to do that is to benchmark on your competitors’ cost. When you find out that your competitors’ pricing has been built on a fraud, you can’t go back in time. This has been a challenge to our company and others that value ethics and new business practices.”

Parrott noted that last August, Sprint was the first telecommunications company to have its CEO and CFO sign off on company financial disclosure statements under the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. For this former accountant who has always played by the rules and who chooses the adjective “honest” when asked to describe himself, that was a big day indeed.

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