A little company has a knack for finding niches Americom's business may reach $100 million

September 08, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

For Mike Gill and Don McClure, life is like an Easter Egg hunt. And with a little luck, a multibillion-dollar merger or two, and a couple of favorable changes in the law, there soon may be $100 million worth of eggs passing through their basket every year.

The two men run Lutherville-based Americom Inc., which has made itself into a $27 million a year business doing the jobs too small for many big cellular carriers -- like installing phones, servicing them, or running call centers that support customer service.

And with the cellular business expanding fast, to 41.2 million U.S. customers so far, they say Americom is driving toward $100 million in annual sales using the skill it always has -- a knack for finding niches that big carriers like Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile don't want to fill themselves.

"It's more blocking and tackling than inventing the next great product," said McClure, Americom's chairman and one of four partners. "But isn't [communications] the hottest industry in the country? Next to health care, is there anything close?"

Americom's one-story headquarters off the Beltway is the wrong place to look for communications pioneers. But Gill, Americom's founder and president, did get into the cellular business early.

And he remembered from school that the big kids got the brightest Easter eggs. In this case, the eggs are cellular phone systems that have generated $19 billion in 1995 sales, but only after the big boys of industry had invested $24.1 billion in networks nationwide -- so he decided to stay out of their way.

"There are a lot of Easter eggs, but we have to pick the right ones and not be greedy," Gill said.

That decision is just normal common sense, said a former Americom customer who now is an executive of the industry's trade association.

"Many cellular carriers realize that what they're good at is building networks, and maybe not so good at retail distribution," said David S. Diggs, a former Bell Atlantic Mobile executive who now is vice president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington. "That's where Mike has built a business."

The 45-year old Towson State graduate had gone to work for IBM and later for an accounting firm before an old professor recruited him in 1983 to join a firm that later became Cellular One, one of the leading cellular companies in the Baltimore-Washington area and a major player nationwide.

That gave him his introduction to the business, and he ran with it.

A year later, he decided to form Americom. McClure joined him in 1985.

'This was it'

"If I was going to do anything on my own, this was it," Gill said.

By 1986, they expanded from selling phones into the service businesses that now are Americom's bread and butter.

They also landed a big account to handle support work for Bell Atlantic's mobile operations, which still account for up to 50 percent of the firm's business.

McClure said the reason for the switch was simple: people who sold phones were going to be a dime a dozen, which meant the way to make money was in big volume. It was no way to make a small company indispensable.

Today, Americom has three major operations. One is still sales, focusing on corporate accounts and supporting about 28,000 customers.

Another is what the firm calls Americom Wireless Call Link, which runs call centers to support cellular carriers' telemarketing, technical support and phone-based customer retention programs. The biggest and fastest-growing part is Americom Wireless Services, which handles installations, phone programming, repairs and other services.

The partners think this part of the business will get another major boost as PCS (Personal Communication Services) mobile phone technology expands its competition with conventional cellular and makes cost control more important than it has been in the series of regional duopolies that have dominated the industry so far.

Wireless Services should also be helped by new federal rules governing mobile phones that potentially can make wireless service significantly cheaper and better-sounding, giving carriers the chance to reach millions of customers who never wanted a cell phone before.

"The big guys are putting so much effort into being cost-competitive," Gill said. "Here we go again with PCS."

Bell Atlantic-Nynex merger

It has already been fairly hectic. Business skyrocketed last year after Bell Atlantic Mobile merged with Nynex Corp.'s mobile phone unit and let Americom spread into New York and New England.

The employee count is now 400, including 75 in and around Baltimore, and expected to reach 550 by Christmas. Americom had only $3.8 million in sales in fiscal 1992 but expects $27 million to $30 million in the year that ends next July, McClure said.

"Mike and I spent yesterday discussing whether this can be a $100 million business," McClure said. "The industry has dragged us a long way."

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