By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

SUNRIVER — The co-founders of Consumer Cellular, the Portland-based telecommunications company that markets cellphone service to seniors, marked a milestone in May with donations to food banks around the nation, with particular attention to cities where their businesses are located.

That means in Redmond, where the company employs about 430 people in its call center, or contact center as CEO John Marick and Chief Financial Officer Greg Pryor prefer to call it, the local food bank run by NeighborImpact received a $25,000 donation.

“We partnered with Feeding America, a national food-bank organization that filters down to all the local food banks, and made a donation to them of 2½ million meals,” Marick said Monday in Sunriver, where he and Pryor have homes. “What was kind of nice about that was we were able to take a portion of that donation and have it go specifically to the communities where we’re at.”

The donation marked the point at which Consumer Cellular signed up its 2 millionth customer, more than twice the number it had signed up three years ago. For its next goal, the company expects to reach revenues of $1 billion in 2018, Marick said. That’s an ambitious plan for a company whose annual growth fell last year to about half of the 30 percent growth it experienced in 2014.

“We’re trying to take it with a grain of salt,” Marick said. “That being said, this year we’re on track to be in the mid-20s. Last year was a difficult time for the industry as a whole, as it got super competitive.”

Marick and Pryor’s response has been to deepen their partnership with Target and create a new partnership with T-Mobile.

After a test run with Target, the retailer agreed to act as a service center for Consumer Cellular products. Customers with phone issues that can’t be rectified with a call to the contact center will be scheduled for a visit to the nearest Target instead, Marick said. Meanwhile, Consumer Cellular continues to sell phones through Sears, its other, ailing retail partner.

Consumer Cellular also reached an agreement with T-Mobile, which created a virtual cellular phone network similar to the agreement Consumer Cellular has with AT&T. The two networks operate on compatible underlying software and in service areas that complement one another. Plus, Marick said, having a second network agreement is insurance in case the business relationship with one comes to an end.

“T-Mobile’s put a lot of money into their network the past three years, several billion dollars,” Pryor said. “So they’ve really improved their coverage. We’re not seeing a big difference between T-Mobile and AT&T.”

At the Redmond contact center, a facility Consumer Cellular took over from T-Mobile, the previous tenant, Consumer Cellular is almost constantly hiring. Pryor said turnover is about 8 percent annually, much lower than the typical 20 percent turnover at call centers. Keeping up with the company’s growth in a tight labor market is difficult, both executives said.

“One of our big challenges is getting employees when you’re growing at that (20 percent) rate,” Marick said. “I think lots of times people hear contact center and they think negative things. What we’ve really found is that for people who’ve never been in that industry, they realize it’s a nice environment; the pay’s really good, and they’ve got benefits.”

Consumer Cellular pays $14.50 an hour to start, with bonuses for reaching sales targets, and benefits, including a 401(k) retirement plan.

Pryor said the Redmond employees score consistently higher than the Portland and Phoenix facilities on customer satisfaction surveys.

“Redmond is always our top one,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

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