June 2009

“This is Hargray, May We Help You?”

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Here’s an easy riddle to solve: What do the elegant building on the USCB South Campus and 15 kids at The Children’s Center on Hilton Head Island have in common?

Answer: Hargray, the company that has been a good corporate neighbor to the Lowcountry since Miss Gertrude (Harvey) and daughter Gloria took over the duties of running the new phone company of Hilton Head Island in the summer of 1960.
The Hargray Building on the USCB campus was the result of a $3.5 million donation by the company. Those 15 kids? Due to a timely grant from the Caring Coins Foundation, which Hargray started in 2003, the kids got to stay at The Children’s Center when funds were short.

“I just love the program,” said Hargray’s marketing director, Eddie Andrews, referring to Caring Coins. “There aren’t any fees. One hundred percent of the money goes to charity.” Andrews explained that while Hargray started the program, it is Hargray’s customers who provide the funds by agreeing to round up their bills to the nearest dollar and donate the difference. That difference averages out to be $4.78 per customer per year. Of Hargray’s 80,000 plus residential and commercials customers on Hilton Head Island, and in Bluffton, Hardeeville and Beaufort, 79 percent participate in Caring Coins, Andrews said. Since it started, Caring Coins has donated over $1 million to local organizations.

In 2007, after 60 years of family ownership, Hargray was sold to Quadrangle Capital Partners, a private equity fund that focuses on the media and communications industries. At the time, people wondered how the change in ownership would affect the company that always had a hard time saying no to non-profit groups.

But Andrews said that Quadrangle was very aware they were buying more than a telecommunications company. Referring to Hargray’s reputation as a good citizen, Andrews said, “We knew we were being entrusted with this very precious asset. There’s a responsibility to the company, the community, our investors and shareholders to cherish it. That sounds so hokey, but there is a very different mindset when working in a small community like ours.”

But Quadrangle did purchase a telecommunications company in a very small market. To put the size of Hargray in perspective, Andrews made a comparison. “We have 55,000 residential customers. In Atlanta, AT&T alone has over three million.”

But Hargray’s market, Andrews continued, was not “Lowcountry, low-tech” when Quadrangle made the purchase. “It’s the opposite. The services, resources and capabilities available through Hargray are as good as any major metropolitan area in the U.S., he said. “Residents in New York City do not have any more sophisticated services than we have on Hilton Head.” Because exclusive agreements between cable televison companies and private communities in the Lowcountry have ended or are coming to an end, Hargray now offers traditional land line phone service, cable televison, and high-speed Internet, among other residential services, island wide.

Andrews sees the elimination of exclusive agreements within the private communities as good for all those involved. “It’s a win-win. It makes us remain competitive; it keeps our price and our competitor’s price in line. It allows customers a choice. And it helps POAs with better revenue sharing,” he said. Hilton Head Plantation was the first large private community on Hilton Head where Hargray could offer a competitive service. “We can deliver 30 to 32 megabits of service to every house in Hilton Head Plantation,” Andrews said. In layman’s terms that means you could be watching an “on-demand” program on your high definition television and recording a movie at the same time, while someone in another room is enjoying a high-speed Internet connection. “That may sound like a big number, but customers are demanding more and more bandwidth (capacity),” Andrews said.

Because the telecommunications industry is in a state of constant technological change, Hargray has to invest and try to remain a step ahead. The Hargray Building on the USCB campus was and is a model of Hargray’s high-tech capabilities. As an example, virtually every part of the campus is a “Wi-Fi hot spot,” allowing students to have Internet access in their classrooms or sitting in the parking lot. Between Bluffton and Hilton Head, there are over 30 “hot spots” where anyone with a laptop or smart phone can have Internet access.
Andrews said that people understandably confuse these “hot spots” with a system that provides entire cities or large area with Internet access. “There’s Wi-Fi and there is something called WiMAX. We have dozens of clients with wireless routers at their businesses where you can get Internet access within a limited range. Those are the hot spots.

“WiMAX is very much like our cell phones. It’s sort of a ubiquitous signal that blankets a particular community or city or county. WiMAX is not readily available for a few reasons. It’s very expensive to deploy. The technology is very bleeding-edge, and laptop manufacturers have not built into the computers the radio to receive a WiMAX signal. And, due to the economy, it’s coming along a lot slower. It’s sort of stalled. You have to own spectrum to be able to broadcast WiMAX. It’s very interesting [technology]. I could leave my home and go anywhere and never lose connectivity. We’re talking to various partners, to have further discussions with them to build [a WiMAX system] and ‘light up’ the island. But it’s very, very preliminary, still very far off,” Andrews said.

What isn’t so far off, however, is cable service to Sea Pines. In May, Hargray began building what Andrews called the “video footprint” in Sea Pines so residents can choose cable providers.

There is also the challenge Hargray faces with keeping land lines, the good “old fashioned” telephone, relevant to the company’s customers. “We’ve done a lot of research in our market to try to understand what our customers want to have, not what we want them to have,” Andrews said. To that end, this month Hargray is introducing “enhanced voice services” for land line customers. “These enhanced voicemail services and enhanced voice messaging services are really appealing, like the ability to be reached on a number of devices when you are away from the phone,” Andrews explained.

Another service that Hargray is very interested in is ASP, which stands for Applications Service Provider. It can be likened to “on- demand” video, but in this case it is “on-demand” software. “Say I own a muffler shop. I sell mufflers. I may not be familiar with certain accounting software or all that’s available in the Microsoft Office suite. We would host these applications on a network. You wouldn’t have to worry about upgrades, bugs or viruses or training. We will provide a complete outsourced solution,” explained Andrews. The benefit, of course, is that business owners would not have to spend thousands of dollars on software or hire an IT specialist to keep it running. Hargray would become the IT department for a small business.

In these difficult economic, yet extraordinarily exciting times for the telecommunications industry, Andrews said the company is focusing on customer care and enhancing services within its market. “We’re expanding within our footprint. We’re trying to show our customers that they are the most important part of our company,” Andrews said.

In the summer of 1960 when Hargray “lit up” Hilton Head Island with its first phone service, Leroy Harvey, Sr., a man of extraordinary foresight, didn’t live to see that happen. He died at 52, just months before the lines went live. His wife, Miss Gertrude, and his daughter, Gloria, went on to create what became the 26th largest independent telecommunications company in the U.S. Since its founding in 1947, Hargray has been all about implementing innovative technologies and taking care of its neighbors. After a little over two years under new ownership, it looks like that’s what the company is still all about.

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