By Jeff Keeling
Anthony Royer walked past rows of cubicles at the Borla Enterprises building south of Johnson City, where head-setted employees talked quietly with stranded motorists, technicians, tow operators and other players in the world of roadside assistance. Workers looked up and gave him quick smiles before hunkering back down to the momentary task at hand, and eventually Royer – the CEO of Allied Dispatch Solutions – made his way to his own cubicle. The executive on the floor is part of a mini-revolution in the roadside assistance call center business, and it’s helped Allied grow from a hopeful startup with 60 employees a year ago to a respected player in the industry that’s in the process of hiring nearly 200 new employees to fulfill its biggest contract yet.
“I want to know every single employee that works here,” said Royer, who spent years helping build All State’s roadside assistance business, explaining the startup company’s management decision to put its executives in the same work environment as everyone else. The approach is one of several setting Allied apart from its competitors in the $7 billion roadside assistance call center business, Royer says. Another is the company’s use of recent technology, which has allowed it to host its operations in the cloud rather than on servers, which are expensive not only to purchase but to maintain. In addition to being cheaper, the technology allows Allied’s clients – who are really roadside assistance businesses that motorists are calling for service – to listen in on calls.
“Our client can turn a phone on and tap into any one of these calls and listen to them,” Royer says. “No one else in the industry has that capability.” While that may take the phrase “this call may be monitored for quality assurance” to a whole new level.
“It’s being fearless about the transparency, and that’s really something we embrace as opposed to the traditional model, which is a client knows about it when their customer complains, then they reach out to us, I pull a .wav (audio) file, I have 24 hours to turn it back to them.
“We’re not perfect, no one is, but we’re fearless about giving them that opportunity to see it, and then we work on it together,” Royer said.
So far, it all seems to be working for Royer and two other founders who split from All State, Wayne Abadie and Steve Jones, to give entrepreneurship a go. They knew what worked, what didn’t, and how a startup might be able to find a niche and build on it. They also had a believer with capital, Scott Libertore, who invested and provided them with a first tranche of business with his company, FIMC, as the client. Libertore chairs the company’s board of directors.
As October arrived, Royer knew he was about to learn a lot of new faces and names. The advantages the company’s bringing to the market helped it grow from 60 employees when it opened last fall to 120 by late this summer. That was down largely to growth in FIMC work, but recently, Allied won a contract with AT&T. On a sunny day in late September, crews were assembling enough cubicle space for an additional 170 workers in a naturally lit part of the Borla facility. Royer said Alex Borla, owner of Borla Performance Industries and the company’s landlord, has been a great help in the startup.
“He’s a kind of secret gem in this community, with what he’s been able to do with the former Siemens building and the manufacturing he’s brought to town, but at heart he’s an entrepreneur,” Royer said. “He’s really become a mentor and helped us to avoid a lot of mistakes. He’s been a big supporter of how we can make things happen, and how he can support making those things happen.”
It took being willing to look away from another community for Royer and company to even reach the point of meeting Borla, though.
“We were pretty sure we were going to wind up in Birmingham (Ala.) with some of the economic support they had offered,” Royer said. “But we got involved with Alicia (Washington County Economic Development Council’s Alicia Summers), and Wayne (Abadie) has lived here for 15 years. When we looked closer we saw an amazing work force with people that really care.” As far as other incentives, Allied applied for standard Tennessee Economic and Community Development tax credits and worker training grants when it opened, but received no local incentives. Summers said Tennessee’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development also stepped in. “They went above and beyond to help them find qualified employees,” she said.
Royer said previous experience is not the key. “It’s about having caring people. They don’t have to have worked in the call industry before, and most of ours haven’t. It’s about work ethic and empathy – you’ve got to want to help people.”
That’s been the draw for Callie Kennedy. She’s among a small cadre who’ve risen through the ranks since before Allied even flipped the switch and took its first calls Oct. 29, 2014. She had worked at a couple of local call centers. “I heard of a new company coming to Johnson City and I wanted to be part of that start up,” she said. Now, she’s a department director and will play a key role in scaling up the AT&T contract. Kennedy’s comments about the work seem to buttress Royer’s opinion regarding the local workforce.
“It really makes you feel good if someone’s struggling on the side of the road that you can actually make a difference in their life.”
It doesn’t hurt that the pay is competitive, which is something that had Royer fully confident Allied would be able to find enough good employees, quickly, to answer the bell by the time the AT&T contract went live at 11 p.m. Oct. 1. That, and the culture – flat hierarchy included – he said he and his partners are trying to build.
“Every employee, you see me saying hi to them and talking to them as they walk by. I know their story, the job they had before they came here, I know what they were getting paid. Then I see what a one, two, three, four dollar an hour raise within a year can make as a difference for someone.
“You want to take Callie Kennedy and say, ‘you don’t have to be at this level, you can make two, three, four times that here.’ We just need to build this business together, and that’s extremely rewarding.”
Bringing what Royer called a Fortune 100 workspace to a small business, and leveraging the new technology and the founders’ long experience in the market, are all possibilities that leave Royer bullish on future growth.
“I think we could easily triple in size (from 300) in the next 12-18 months.”
That might leave Royer coming up short in his quest to know every employee – he said “about 500” is probably his top end for that – but such an eventuality would be just fine with him.