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This story by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 14, 1998. All rights reserved.
CEO Reports on Young Talent
Learning how to calm down angry female customers in a shoe store was the first lesson in customer service for William M. Freeman, who was then just a junior in high school. Now he is president and CEO of Bell Atlantic New Jersey, and he aims to make good his pledge of top notch customer service throughout the telecommunications organization.
Freeman came to the New Jersey post in April from a similar one at Bell Atlantic-Washington D.C. A North Plainfield native, he is the first African American to head the state company. He will discuss school-to-work programs for high school students at the Mercer Chamber luncheon Thursday, October 15, at 11 a.m. at the Trenton Country Club. Cost: $30. Call 609-393-4143.
"Our tradition is pretty good in the state," says Freeman. "We have always been a tremendous corporate citizen with respect to supporting our community. We aim to build on that heritage. We give back to the educational process, support the community with volunteerism. Our people are out there serving on the boards and getting involved, and we want to help them to continue to do that."
Freeman calls Tec 2000 a "very progressive public private partnership" between Bell Atlantic, the state education department, vocational schools throughout the state, and the union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "We are creating opportunities for people with limited options, and this can be translated into a growing and dynamic work force," he says.
Tec 2000 has just come to Mercer County Vocational School, where a diverse group of 22 students combines classroom training with hands-on practice "wiring and unwiring" a small house in back of the school. They also work in the lab on shorter than usual "telephone poles." When they graduate, they can expect to be enthusiastically recruited by one of the more than 600 firms related to the telecommunications industry in New Jersey.
Now Tec 2000 has 420 students in 11 locations. "By 2000 we expect to crest 500 students," says Freeman, "and about half have graduated.
In Freeman's own high school days, school to work programs were more informal. Freeman's part-time job was running the ladies department of a Shoe Town store. He was the youngest of seven children, and he and two siblings were the first in the family to go to college. "My mother was a domestic in my growing-up years, and then she worked on an assembly line making medical supplies," says Freeman. "My father was a machinist for Howell Electric Motors."
Freeman joined New Jersey Bell when he graduated with an economics major from Drew University, Class of 1974; he also has an MBA from Rutgers. In 1987 he was appointed director of external affairs at Bell Atlantic Network Services. In 1989 as a Presidential Exchange Fellow he worked in the federal General Accounting Office in the trade, energy, and finance group. He was president and CEO of Bell Atlantic-Washington D.C. from 1994 until April of this year. Until this move, Freeman's wife Ellen had her own business in Maryland, and she is also completing her college degree in computers. They have children ranging from ages 14 to 28.
So what did he learn from the high school shoe store job? Besides the obvious (to come to work on time and that his performance would be measured) the most important lesson was "recognizing the need of having a chain of folks to succeed in doing customer service." Workers in the stockroom, at the cash register, and on the sales floor -- "All those people touch that customer coming into the store. Any one bad circumstance gave the customer a bad taste."
Freeman really did start at the bottom and work his way up in the telephone business. "In my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, first on the porter service, and then on the cleaning crew."
Did that help him to be a more effective CEO today? "I'll give you a classic example. In my senior year I was cutting steel orders for U.S. Steel in Newark. We worked a midnight shift, then a swing shift. That was the best follow-on experience to being in the union at Bell Labs, to be in the steelworkers union, learning how to deal with people, understanding the different focal points, and the issues with management and labor."
"Certainly one of the lessons I learned is that people are people. If you treat people without checking your stripes, but by looking at underlying issues -- well, my mother used to say you always get more with honey than with vinegar."
-- Barbara Fox
The loudest complaints were triggered by a botched shoe dying job. A bride's might purchase white shoes, then provide a swatch of material from her gown and expect the shoe store employees to match it. "If we couldn't match the dye, my response was that we could go back and redye them. But sometimes there wasn't enough time. Here was a situation in which there was nothing you could really do. All I could do was offer a new pair of shoes."
The lesson: "I learned that some situations can't be rectified."
Freeman says his parents helped him at those difficult times by setting an example. When he brought his shoe-store problems home, "Their response was very calm and reassuring. That told me that these were not mom's and dad's problems, and that these were not critical issues."
"From my mother (now 92) I think I developed the sense that there was no back seat I had to take to anyone. My father was a quietly confident person who didn't get upset very much. From him, I inherited a low pulse rate."
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