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Opposites attract.



Mike Wilkins and Jim Johnson have spent the better part of the past 13 years wearing out their shoes, beating their heads against a myriad of obstacles, clawing at the competition, and hurling themselves through a variety of legal mazes.

You would think they would be sore-footed, flat-headed, finger-bent, and generally worn out. Instead, Wilkins, 36, and Johnson, 40, owners of Dial-A-Page of Russellville, have emerged with the largest electronic paging company in the state.

With the recent multi-million dollar acquisition of Mr. Beeper (completed last week) Dial-A-Page's customer base has increased to more than 12,000 statewide, twice as many as its closest competitor.

And that, the two men hope, is just the beginning. "Our next move will put us in the top 25 paging companies in the country," Wilkins says.

That is about all he will say about the next move except that it is out-of-state and should be announced within four to six weeks.

In a sense, Wilkins and Johnson are a bit of a throw-back. There was no group of investors that got together and decided to open a paging company. It's just been the two of them, equal partners.

Sitting in a conference room on the 16th floor of the Rogers Building in Little Rock, Wilkins and Johnson are a study in opposites. Wilkins is bearded, casually clothed and unrestrained in his excitement. He talks hard, and fast, and a lot. Johnson, wearing a blue business suit, is more restrained. Quiet.

Dark storm clouds have gathered outside the large, ceiling-to-floor windows behind the two men. Lightening slashes across the sky; proof that opposites attract. Both men have come to Little Rock from their Russellville headquarters to meet with their advertising agency, Kirkpatrick & Associates, to discuss future advertising and promotion strategies for Dial-A-Page.

It's a new experience for the them. Outside of the occasional trade-out for billboard space, advertising has only recently become a financially viable means for promoting the company.

"We've been pouring every dime we've had into transmitters and service," Wilkins explains. "The selling of the company has been done by beating on doors, putting flyers under windshields and word of mouth."

"We've done it by going into a town, parking the car, and going down one side of the street knocking on doors then back up the other side until we got back to the car," says Johnson.

From the very beginning, in 1981, when Wilkins and Johnson got their first pager license, the pavement-pounding approach has worked. Dial-A-Page has shown an annual subscriber growth rate of more than 25 percent.

First-year gross revenue for Dial-A-Page was $61,000. This year, gross revenues are projected to top $3 million from pager sales alone. But just getting to 1981 with that first beeper was a struggle that lasted for more than four years. It's amazing it ever happened at all.

By the age of 23, Mike Wilkins had amassed 160 hours and no degree from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. He was a hometown boy with a passion for radios, an interest he developed at the age of 15 while convalescing from a serious football knee injury.

A friend was a ham radio operator and got Wilkins interested. Bored with his studies in electrical engineering, Wilkins quit college and opened a small two-way radio sales and service shop called 76 Communications.

The energetic Wilkins had never heard of paging. One day shortly after opening his new business a man came into the store to borrow a phone book. He said he was looking for investors to start a paging company. Always ready to be on the leading edge of any new technology, Wilkins thought it was a wonderful idea. He invested money, and so did many of his friends.

"This ole boy burned me out of about $10,000 I didn't have," Wilkins says with a laugh. "Within three or four months he was gone and I was out the money."

Of course, not all the money was Wilkins', but because he had so resoundly endorsed the project, he felt an obligation to pay people back. With the help of his father, a Russellville physician, and a banker friend, Wilkins was able to get a loan.

"My dad actually laughed," Wilkins recalls. "He said: `It's one of the cheapest lessons you'll ever learn. Think what it would have been like 15 or 20 years from now when you are a big success.'"

As a result, Wilkins is a big proponent of colleges teaching courses on how not to get robbed. But Wilkins had another problem that was potentially more damaging: Jim Johnson.

Johnson, who is four years older than Wilkins, grew up in Memphis, Tenn., graduated with a degree in biology from Memphis State, then couldn't find a job.

He went to work at a local Radio Shack, entering the manager-trainee program and was soon managing three stores in the area. Johnson hated it.

Through a friend he worked with, Johnson got a job selling two-way radios for Motorola and he and his wife were transferred to Hot Springs. Russellville was part of Johnson's territory. The two men met on the hard field of competition.

"Everytime I turned around to sell something, Jim already had it sold," Wilkins says. "He was beating my head in. He's the best salesman in the world."

"I was his biggest competitor," Johnson replies.

"He was starving me to death," Wilkins fires back.

Had it not been for Wilkins' endeavor to buy an old, used repeater station for this two-way radio business, and had Johnson not gotten involved, the two men might never have gotten together.

"There was a little larceny in my heart I suppose," Johnson says. "Mike was fixing to buy this lousy piece of equipment. I felt if he was going to buy it, I wanted him to buy it from me."

"Jim really kept me from getting took on the deal," Wilkins says.

Having freshly survived as an "investor" in a paging company that wasn't, he didn't need any more problems. Somewhere during the discussions about purchasing a repeater, the two men decided to join forces. Johnson was not happy working for Motorola, and Wilkins needed help. Wilkins had also hung onto the idea of starting a paging company.

"I knew it was a good idea but somebody needed to go about it legitimately," Wilkins says.

"I had always wanted to own my own business so Mike and I got together and decided we could starve together just as well as we could separately," Johnson recalls.

On December 20, 1976, Johnson resigned from his job. On December 25 Wilkins ended up in the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. By the time the formal partnership commenced on January 1, 1977, doctors pronounced Wilkins' outlook as grim. It was a bad start, particularly for Johnson who had taken a 60 percent cut in pay to join Wilkins and whose wife was eight months pregnant.

"Early in our relationship we found out we could rely on each other when the chips were down," Wilkins says. "There were times, literally, because Jim had a wife and child, he got the paycheck that week."

Wilkins recovered. Both men wanted to get into the paging business, but they found was that it was nearly impossible because of stringent Federal Communications Commission regulations and competitive forces. It would be a long battle. In the meantime, they had to eat and continued with the two-way radio business. (They are still in the two-radio business which produces revenue of about $500,000 a year, bringing projections for this year up to a total of $3.5 million.)

Wilkins assumed the engineering and technical functions, while Johnson concentrated on sales. "We ate by designing private radio systems," Wilkins says. "We simply took jobs other people wouldn't have because they were too difficult, too time consuming, or located in too remote of a location," Johnson says.

In addition to designing radio systems, the two men did their own installation and any construction required. "We built towers, we climbed towers, we hung the antennas," Wilkins says. "One of the great thrills in life is to build a 200-foot radio tower and be standing on top of the thing and think, `I'm trying to build this the cheapest way possible?'"

As the radio business grew, establishing a paging company was still a goal of both men. As they did engineering studies and made applications for license, they were stifled not only by bureaucracy, but the legal system. "The paging industry was dominated by litigation and engineering costs," Wilkins says. "To get a license for a paging system requires virtually the same engineering and legal battles as it takes to get an FM radio station licensed. At the time we started up there were other paging companies that wanted to dominate the market through litigation. It took us over four years to overcome the legal hurdles.

"Anytime somebody wanted to start another paging system, there was always somebody out there with a war chest," continues Wilkins. "One of the first things you had to do back then to get in the business was not worry about financing your equipment. You worried about financing your legal battle."

Persistence paid off. In April 1981 Dial-A-Page was born, with the first license for a paging system in Russellville with a 25-mile radius.

"I'll never forget it because we bought this equipment and ordered 20 beepers," Wilkins remembers. "I saw these and I thought, `My God, how will we ever pay for them?'"

The company began to grow immediately, which caused a whole new set of problems. "It became a major nightmare trying to finance the growth of our business," Wilkins says. "We could not get a banker in Arkansas to touch us."

Except one, Harold Neal, who owned a small bank in Russellville. "He was loaning us money on faith," Wilkins says. "Basically nothing more than a signature."

Neal's decision to loan what he could to the young businessmen was more instinctive than anything else. "I had known Mike when he was growing up and liked him," Neal says. "I knew Mike knew the technology behind the business. He would talk to me about all day long and it didn't mean anything to me, but I knew he knew what he was talking about."

Neal saw potential in Wilkins and Johnson were trying to do and provided help until the company got so big he wasn't able to. By 1982, Dial-A-Page had moved into El Dorado, Forest City, Conway, Camden, Magnolia and Texarkana.

"We were like the Wal-Mart of the beeper business," Wilkins says. "We were out in these smaller communities in the areas that the big boys didn't want. That's where we established our initial base.

"Nobody would go to war with you if you wanted to establish a paging company in Camden, but if you tried to establish one in Little Rock, you would be pulling FCC attorneys out of your hair. In those smaller communities we learned a lot about customer service, and not necessarily being the cheapest either," says Wilkins.

Wilkins and Johnson kept buying up smaller paging companies when they could scrape together the money and investing profits into more transmitters and equipment. But still, the major market, Little Rock, remained elusive. They got their big chance to break into it in 1986. A local company had lost some of their licenses. Everybody was vying for them.

Through a series of legal filings and maneuvering, Dial-A-Page managed to pick up the licenses. Their total customer base jumped to about 2,400. Two years later, just prior to the Mr. Beeper buy out, their customer base had grown to around 5,000.

Much of the recent growth, such as the Mr. Beeper acquisition, has been made possible because Wilkins and Johnson moved their banking business to the east coast. Last year a prospective buyer (Dial-A-Page was not for sale) suggested to Wilkins that they seek out financing from major banks in the east that have specialized communications financing departments. Letters and a company portfolio were sent to three banks.

"They began flying loan officers down here one after the other," Wilkins says. "They are the first bankers who ever came to see us."

As a result of the base that was built in the rural areas, Dial-A-Page now has a paging network across the state that was completed in March.

"There's no more advanced radio paging system anywhere in the United States, anywhere that I'm aware of in the world, that is more advanced than our state paging network," crows Wilkins.

And that, in a nutshell, is the big difference between paging companies, according to Wilkins and Johnson. They say everybody using the same pagers, the difference is the system behind it. They claim theirs is far and above everyone. "We have 17 transmitters in the central part of the state alone," Johnson says. "If we lose one you won't know it, but we will."

If it hasn't become apparent, Wilkins is the half of the partnership who likes to talk even though he's not the salesman. Over the years these two very different men have forged a relationship that spin off each other. "In 13 years of being in business together, we've never had a knock down drag out fight. If Jim disagrees with me, I know he's seeing something I'm not seeing. He's smelling something I'm not smelling," Wilkins says, with Johnson nodding agreement.

"How we basically run the business is Jim is totally responsible for all the sales and I handle all the technical side and financial side," Wilkins continues. "I honestly don't have any idea what is going on in Jim's side of the business, and I don't think he's ever come and looked at the check book to see how much money we have or how much we owe."

Both men agree, after 13 years of practice, that Wilkins comes up with the ideas and spends the money while Jim sells the product to "feed everybody."

"My ego pushes the business," Wilkins proclaims.

"He thinks big, I don't," Johnson admits. "Sometimes I think he's crazy, but I know we can do it."

With the interview over, Wilkins and Johnson a balanced precariously on top of two saw horses to have their picture made in front of a Dial-A-Page transmission dish that sits atop the Pyramid Place Building in Little Rock.

It has stopped raining, but the wind is blowing and lightning continues to flash in every direction. Johnson is quiet. Wilkins is going on rapidly, explaining the technical aspects of what would happen to everyone on the roof if lightning struck the dish.

But that's not his big worry. He begins to explain why he doesn't want to get his head directly in front of the dish because it will make him go blind, or deaf, or scramble his brains -- something along those lines.

If Dial-A-Page becomes one of the top 25 paging companies in America in the next two months, what next?

"I say in 24 to 36 months we'll be one of the top 10 paging companies in the country," Wilkins declares.

Johnson shakes his head. "No. Five years," Johnson says.

"Thirty-six months," Wilkins retorts.

You can tell Johnson is thinking that Wilkins is crazy, but they'll probably do it.

"You can tell," Johnson says with a resigned tone. "I'm conservative."

Joe Holmes is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
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Title Annotation:Dial-A-Page
Author:Holmes, Joe
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Sep 11, 1989
Previous Article:Direct is better.
Next Article:Getting an Arkansas lift.

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