Phone billing firm keeps growing

CHAMPAIGN - What started off as a South Carolina company's attempt to diversify has resulted in a telephone billing enterprise that employs 165 in Champaign.
Communications Data Group, a division of Hargray Communications Group, provides billing services for independent telephone companies across the United States from its headquarters at 102 S. Duncan Road.
?When it was purchased in 1990, we had about 75 employees. When I came in 1996, we had about 120, and we've grown since then,? said Lonnie Ross, general manager for Communications Data Group and assistant vice president for Hargray Communications Group.
In the last two years, Global Crossing, WorldCom and other telecommunications companies stumbled when the industry got squeezed. But Ross said CDG didn't feel much impact because its business wasn't closely tied to the wireless communications industry.
Instead, CDG catered to small, independent telephone companies, many of them family-owned.
?We were impacted to a lesser extent than other billing companies,? Ross said.
CDG provides software that telephone companies can use to bill their customers or other carriers they do business with. And with a new software product to be introduced this year, CDG will be able to provide end-user billing for larger companies in the industry.
Already it serves a wide array of smaller companies.
?We have 13 of the 30 largest independent telephone companies in the country as our customers,? Ross said. The companies range ?as far south as Florida, as far east as New York, as far west as Oregon and into Texas,? he said.
Communications Data Group traces its origins to a unit of BankIllinois that provided billing services to telephone companies. In 1990, the bank decided to sell off that unit, and Hargray purchased part of it. The other part, which served the wireless industry, was purchased by ITDS, which was subsequently acquired by Amdocs Ltd.
Ross said Hargray's decision to buy the Champaign-based business stemmed from Hurricane Hugo.
In 1989, the hurricane was headed toward the Hilton Head Island area, where Hargray's holdings were based, but passed it by.
?The ownership of the company decided that a hurricane of that magnitude might put them out of business, so they decided to diversify,? Ross said.
Hargray Communications Group started out with small telephone companies serving tiny communities in the Hilton Head area before Hilton Head became a resort destination. Today, Hargray's holdings include Hargray Telephone Co., Bluffton Telephone Co., Hargray Long Distance, Data Publishing and Hargray Wireless.
The company, which was founded by Leroy Harvey Sr., derived its name from his last name and his wife's maiden name, Gray.
Today, his wife, Gertrude Harvey Leonard, 91, is chairman of the board, and her daughter, Gloria Taggart, is president. Three of Mrs. Leonard's grandsons and a granddaughter are also involved in the company.
Ross has been general manager for Communications Data Group for seven years. He has been with Hargray since 1987, and before that he worked for American Telephone & Telegraph for 20 years as a district manager in Boston, New York and Atlanta.
Of CDG's 165 employees, 60 percent to 65 percent are programmers who develop billing software, 30 percent to 35 percent are customer support staff and the rest are in administration and sales, Ross said.
The company hasn't had much trouble finding the employees it needs, he added.
?From 1998 to 2000, we had a difficult time finding programmers,? he said. ?But since Y2K has come and gone, we've been able to attract and keep talented programmers. Parkland College is one of our biggest contributors in terms of technical staff.?
Ross said some Parkland students work part time at CDG while in college. In certain cases, CDG will pay for schooling if the student workers pursue a four-year degree.
CDG has hired a few University of Illinois graduates, but not many, Ross said.
?The West Coast is offering more than we do. They may pay $40,000 to $50,000 to start. We couldn't do that,? he said. ?We probably offer $25,000 to $35,000 to start.? But salaries for some highly technical or high administrative positions range as high as $100,000, he added.
The company's new Modularity product is in beta testing right now and should be generally available to customers in mid-2003, Ross said.
?It will allow (corporate) customers to make changes to their billing structure quickly and effectively,? he said.
Modularity will replace an old product, which Ross said was rooted in ?text-based, green-screen? technology. The new product has a ?graphical user interface? so users can simply point and click, he said.
?It will be easier to use and to train new employees,? he said.
The product will allow companies to bill separately for telephone, Internet and cable TV services. Previous systems allowed billing only through a telephone billing system.
As a result of the product, ?we hope to step up into larger markets, markets we have not been serving,? he added.
?Right now, we're supporting three products, and it's a huge drain on resources,? he said. ?This will allow us to operate more efficiently.?
Ross said CDG has more than a dozen competitors in the telephone billing industry - not counting companies that do their own billing.
?There were five or six (competitors) seven or eight years ago, and there are probably 15 today,? he said.
Although there's less investor interest in telephone companies these days as a result of the telecommunications bust, there seems to be more interest in billing companies, he said.
?In the seven years I've been here, we're received an increasing number of inquiries,? he said. But ?our owners seem comfortable keeping us.?
Communications Data Group moved to its building on Duncan Road after BankIllinois foreclosed on the building's previous owner.
?We've been here 10 years, and we have 10 more years on the initial lease,? Ross said.
BankIllinois no longer owns the building. It was sold to Caterpillar Corp., and Caterpillar Logistics Services occupies a part of the building.
Ross said the Duncan Road site has been large enough to accommodate CDG's growth.
?We were able to increase the number of people in the space we have,? he said. ?But if we expand by much more, maybe 15 to 20 people, we'll have to look for additional space outside.?

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