11/18/2017

Jun. 11, 2001: It is the end of an era.

My friend, former colleague and fellow Bulldog, Carl Swearingen, senior vice president and secretary of BellSouth Corporation is retiring. To the best of my knowledge, he is the last of a breed of managers raised up in the business by the legendary Jasper Dorsey and BellSouth will be poorer for not having any more of Jasper’s disciples around. For many years, Jasper Dorsey was vice president of Southern Bell’s operations in Georgia when that office had all the responsibility for providing telephone service in the state. More importantly, he was the best manager and the best developer of people that I have ever known.

I count myself extremely fortunate to have worked for Jasper, although I didn’t think it was much an honor at the time I was going through the fire. Jasper Dorsey was one tough man to please. No matter how well you did, he always thought you could do better. For young managers like Carl and me and the others who labored in his vineyard, there was scant margin for error. Those who couldn’t take the pressure soon faded away. Those who could, not only grew as managers but more importantly as human beings.

Carl Swearingen and I learned a lot from Jasper. We learned that before business, there was family and church. (A close fourth was the University of Georgia.) We learned that you were expected to put something back in the community, like your time and your talent. We learned that details are very important. Jasper said that if he couldn’t trust his managers with the little things — like making sure not one misspelled word ever crossed his desk — he sure couldn’t trust them with the big things. We learned that the customer always – always – came first. I often wonder what Jasper would do today if he had to tolerate the impersonal service that most all businesses give to customers. I know the reason they do it. Recordings don’t require pay raises, benefits and don’t need sick days. In truth, it is a cheaper way to run the business. But that wouldn’t fly with Jasper. He would have figured out someway to have customers in Georgia deal with a live human being whenever they called the company and he would have figured out a way to make it profitable. He was Home Depot before there was a Home Depot.

Carl and I also learned to appreciate the power of the external environment from him. He was the pro when it came to media relations and government relations and his methods would work today if PR people would simply apply them. Jasper said that in dealing with the media and politicians, there was room for only one ego and it wasn’t ours. He would reluctantly accept media criticism of the company, only if he were convinced that you had given it your best shot in trying to explain the company’s position on a given issue. But God help you if he saw something critical written or said about Southern Bell and you had not bothered to make your case. He would assume you didn’t know the people in the media and he would quickly find someone who did. You didn’t get a second chance.

Today we live in different times. Since I have been writing this column, I have given BellSouth a mild case of heartburn from time-to-time. Only one person from the company has made an effort to sit down with me and show me the errors of my ways. That was Carl Swearingen. Jasper Dorsey would have had somebody virtually living with me were he around today.

Perhaps I am being too critical of my alma mater. There are far bigger issues on BellSouth’s plate – international expansion, share price, mergers and acquisitions – than in the simple days when I was coming along. Maybe Jasper Dorsey’s style of management would be irrelevant in today’s high tech, fast changing world. But somehow I don’t think so. No matter how much business changes, it still boils down to good customer service. Jasper’s mantra was “If it doesn’t please the customer, it doesn’t count.” That sounds pretty up-to-date to me.

So to my friend, Carl Swearingen, I say congratulations and best wishes in retirement. You have had a great career at BellSouth. Jasper Dorsey would be pleased at how well you did, but not surprised. He knew if you survived him, everything else would be a piece of cake.