FOR TELEPHONE CUSTOMERS FROM NEW York to Maine, the hit was direct and swift. In August 1997, they went to bed with NYNEX and woke up in the arms of Bell Atlantic. Almost overnight, the citified Baby Bell was neatly tucked beneath its country cousin's wings in a $26 billion merger that made Bell Atlantic the nation's second largest telecommunications company, behind AT&T.
Long term, that meant melding two different worlds. Short term, it meant a massive rebranding effort to get buy-in from discriminating Northerners. Within six weeks, tons of directories, thousands of buildings, 30,000 trucks, 100,000 pay phones and 28 million telephone bills were brandishing Bell Atlantic's new logo.
New Yorkers, who once looked over to New Jersey in envy as pitchman James Earl Jones touted the virtues of Bell Atlantic, could now lay claim to his commanding voice. Customer service began to gleam in a land where, for so long, it had been lackluster. In just three weeks, consumer awareness of Bell Atlantic as the local phone company went from 4% to 79%, and all was well in Gotham, thanks to Bruce Gordon.
"It was a huge merger," says Gordon. "We had different products, prices, brands and views of the market, and had to take a very detailed and organized approach. That meant having a strong customer marketing team and plan in place to make the Bell Atlantic name appear and the name NYNEX disappear."
As the newly appointed Bell Atlantic group president for retail services--two steps away from the CEO--Gordon was handpicked to lead the merger integration team. Moving from Philadelphia to New York, he worked out his strategy from the 41st floor of what was once NYNEX headquarters near Times Square. His change strategy included everything from customized telephone services and targeted sales campaigns to catchy consumer advertising that uses children's book author and cartoonist Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are characters. His innovations didn't go unnoticed.
"Gordon has been contributing to the success of this business for some 30 years. He has always stepped forward with new ideas and never the passion to see them through," says Bell Atlantic Chairman Ray Smith. "Thanks to his initiative during the merger, we launched what I dare say is the most successful name change and brand campaign of any company in the country. He is a true friend and a valuable leader at Bell Atlantic."
Even though the merger is complete, Gordon's plate is still full. The 52-year-old holds the reins on all retail marketing for the $30 billion company's consumer and business markets, which include some 24 million households and more than 2 million businesses.
Since 1968, when he joined Bell of Pennsylvania, he has scaled the corporate ladder with a dexterity only a select few have mastered. His proof-positive product management and customer service initiatives helped to keep that company buoyant after AT&T cut the cord in 1984. The success or failure of his marketing initiatives directly impacts the $18 billion in revenues of the company's consumer and business markets. He wields a half-billion dollar budget, with $186 million earmarked for advertising, and leads 1,100 of the company's 140,000 employees. He is also a champion of corporate diversity and a tireless catalyst in moving African Americans up the ranks at Bell Atlantic. With a track record too impressive to ignore, Bruce S. Gordon has been selected as the 1998 BLACK ENTERPRISE Executive of the Year.
BRINGING IT HOME
Gordon stands calm, smack dab in the middle of one of the most volatile industries during one of its most tumultuous times. His steadfast demeanor was honed in Camden, New Jersey, in a close-knit family of five, headed by two educators. Bell of Pennsylvania seemed as good a choice as any for the college football wide receiver and "liberal arts kid" who graduated from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania in 1968.
"I picked a company that offered the most money and would allow me to get back to Philly. I planned to stay only a few years and then move on," recalls Gordon, who joined the company as a management trainee. His cavalier attitude didn't last for long. "Soon after I came into the Bell system, there were talks to convert the monopoly into a competitive business. The whole energy level picked up." Perhaps more influential was the fact that out of the 850 people in the company, only one black person was in a director position. Surely, he reasoned, there was room for him at the top. If not, then he would make room.
"I wasn't a traditional person. Being a child of the '60s, I had a natural resistance to the status quo," says Gordon. In 1970, he had already established a reputation as outspoken, even militant. A weekly column in a suburban Philadelphia paper, Today's Post, became his bully pulpit for speaking out on race relations and other controversial subjects.
Watching Gordon from the sidelines was a sales general manager named Carl Nurick. "He was Jewish and felt that he had also been a victim of discrimination. He liked that I was a black guy who had a lot to say about the business, and we connected on those terms," notes Gordon. When the buzz around Bell of Pennsylvania was to fire the young business office manager, Nurick said "send him to me," and Gordon was moved from customer service into sales. Under Nurick, Gordon's unconventional wisdom and bravado were nurtured.
But he would eventually consider leaving, at least for a moment. Bitten by the academia bug in 1971, Gordon turned in his resignation one Friday to take a job as director of a Philadelphia urban school for academically challenged students. Over that weekend Gordon had second thoughts: he didn't want to bump heads with his father, who was working on a similar project as dean at a local community college. Recalls Gordon, "I called my boss on Sunday and told him I wanted to come back to work."
A MARKETING ORACLE
After regrouping, Gordon sailed through management assignments in operations, personnel, sales and marketing. All the while, he was making a name for himself with a winning marketing philosophy focused on three things what the customer wants, what the competition thinks and what will distinguish the company from the rest of the pack.
Then in 1985, on the heels of deregulation, the AT&T behemoth crumbled into seven regional Bells. Gordon was appointed vice president of sales at what then became the Bell Atlantic Corp. As a Regional Bell Operating Co. (RBOC), Bell Atlantic provided local telephone service for 12 million customers in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. But the company had to find ways to keep its head above water.
Enter Gordon in 1988, now vice president of marketing and sales. After a year as an Alfred Sloan Fellow at MIT with a freshly minted master's degree in management, he took hold of the 100-year-old corporation and turned it "upside down and inside out."
Gordon admits he can be impatient, compulsive, and intense. Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha, about an East Indian merchant in search of the answers of life, has helped him harness those emotions. "As I moved through the business, taking on more responsibility, the book taught me that having balance in my life will make me a better person," notes Gordon, who's learned to summon patience and tranquility when under fire. "However, I also learned that even positive things in excess are a problem."
This philosophy helped Gordon cut costs and revamp operations so that Bell Atlantic could weather the shake-up. In 1994, as group president of consumer and small business services, Gordon launched a mass-marketing program that put kiosks in shopping malls and sales outlets in retail stores such as Sears. Gordon shored up the customer service department by cutting out endless meetings, training sessions and goofing off. He held customer service reps to rigid schedules. As a result, the number of calls answered within 20 seconds--the time it takes before a customer hangs up--jumped from 70% to 90% in two months.
"Bruce is an extraordinary executive whose marketing instincts and skills are unsurpassed," notes Ivan Seidenberg, vice chairman, president and CEO at Bell Atlantic. "We start off with a leg up on the competition because we have him leading our customer care efforts."
Most recently, a 100-day sales campaign resulted in residential customers buying 8.5 million units of discounted optional services such as Caller ID, call waiting, three-way calling and home voice mail at discounted rates. That beat the record for combined sales in any quarter, surpassing the company's goal of 7 million units.
Besides the quantifiable elements, Gordon knows there are things that affect the bottom line that don't fit neatly into any category. One of those is corporate diversity.
AN AGENT OF TRUE CHANGE
During last year's Consortium of Information and Telecommunications Executives conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Gordon was the man. His welcoming remarks struck a chord in the hundreds of African American Bell Atlantic employees in attendance. "CEOs don't run the company; middle managers and senior executives do," Gordon said in his speech. "There are 130 African Americans in power positions across this country helping to run this company."
Of the 90 senior-level executives at Bell Atlantic, only 10 are African American. Gordon is striving for more. "We've made substantial progress and Bell Atlantic can be proud and vigilant. But there should be 230 African Americans in power positions." To that end, last September, Gordon held a summit of those 130 Bell Atlantic black managers and executives to discover ways to increase the number of African Americans in the new company. He is also a true friend and mentor to many African American employees at Bell Atlantic.
But that's not all Gordon's passionate about. He's apt to spend an evening listening to Coltrane, the Temptations or Pavarotti. He favors reading the morning paper each day while riding to work on the New York subway rather than in the back of a limo. Divorced, Gordon has made his 21-year-old son, Taurin, a senior at Hampton University in Virginia, his No. 1 priority. He finds time to sit on the boards of the Southern Co. and Bartech Personnel Services, is a member of the Executive Leadership Council, and has served as director of the Philadelphia Urban League and chairman of the United Negro College Fund Telethon. Even in the midst of this whirlwind, the changing telecom landscape and Bell Atlantic's future sit heavily on his mind.
As Bell Atlantic grows, so does the competition. Already, the company faces tough opposition in its local cellular and data markets. The passage of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 has set out the rules for increasing competition and opening up local phone company lines to competitors in return for locals getting into the $80 billion long-distance market. That means that Bell Atlantic may soon compete with MCI and the possible mega-merged entity of AT&T and Tele-Communications Inc. for both local and long-distance customers.
"Bell Atlantic has Maine to Virginia under its belt, and that can't be taken from it," says Philip Wohl, telecommunications analyst at Standard & Poors in New York. "But in order to be competitive, they will have to bundle long-distance, Internet access, local and their crown jewel, wireless service, to drive growth." Other industry watchers seem to agree. "Bell Atlantic is in a good position, but they have to defend their turf if they want to continue to hold a large percentage of the overall market," says Zia Daniell, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York. "That share is going to be eaten away by competitors if they don't advance their services."
With 41 million telephone access lines, 6 million wireless customers worldwide and 25% of the U.S. market, Bell Atlantic need not worry about being gobbled up. The company also has sound foreign investments and $10 billion in cash flow each year--adequate resources to expand the business and its customer base.
"We've reached an agreement with the Public Service Commission that is now supporting our entry into the long-distance market," says Gordon. "With FCC proceedings under way, we foresee entering the New York long-distance market by year's end." Bell Atlantic will also increase its offerings of optional services and pursue more joint ventures, such as a recent deal with Black Entertainment Television to bundle its telecommunications services.
As Bell Atlantic forges ahead in the intensely competitive telecommunications arena, Gordon must continue to improve customer relations and develop new strategies to maintain market share. He must also find common ground with the company's labor unions. If past performance is any indication of the future, telecommunications Jokers or Riddlers better be at their best in order to penetrate Gordon's Gotham.
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|Title Annotation:||B.E. Executive of the year; Bruce Gordon of Bell atlantic helps build one of the largest telecommunications companies|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1998|
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