The Roots of ALLTEL: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

Starting in the late 1950s, many rural Faulkner County residents received their phone services from Allied Telephone Company rather than Southwestern Bell. Allied would merge with another large telephone provider, Mid-Continent Telephone of Ohio in 1983 to form ALLTEL Corporation.

Allied’s founders, Hugh Wilbourn, Jr. and his brother-in-law, Charles Miller, had spent a decade with Southwestern Bell gaining expertise in telephone technology and operation before opening up their own telephone repair business in 1943 in Little Rock. Over the next eleven years, they began buying small rural telephone companies that could not afford to make needed improvements or repairs.

One of these companies was Quitman Telephone Company which was founded in 1904. It served Quitman, Vilonia, Pangburn, Rosebud, Morganton and Greenbrier. Allied would convert their customers to a dial system three years before Southwestern Bell offered dial service to Conway. It also became the first telephone company in the nation to supply customers with direct long-distance dialing for station-to-station, person-to-person, collect and credit-card calls.

Allied would also alleviate one of the greatest aggravations for rural dwellers—the multiparty line. In many rural areas, eight to a dozen families had to compete for access to a single line. Private conversations were next to impossible. Allied was the first company in the region to offer four-party service throughout an exchange. By 1971, fifty-two percent of its customers would have one- and two-party service. The last of the old eight-party lines was replaced in 1977.

In 1954, Wilbourn and Miller formed Allied Telephone Company as a holding company to manage all of these small companies. The partners divided up Arkansas between them and Wilbourn moved to Conway to manage the holdings in the northern part of the state. There his daughter, Jo Ellen, met Joe Ford, son of Arch Ford, Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education.

Joe Ford was a noted athlete and scholar at Conway High School. After graduating high school in 1955, Joe attended Arkansas State College (now ASU) for a year before transferring to the University of Arkansas to major in business and minor in economics. After he graduated from UA in 1959, he married Jo Ellen. They were married at First Baptist Church by Rev. James H. Street. The reception was held at the Wilbourn home which was the former Frauenthal mansion.

After fulfilling his military requirements, Joe went to work for Allied Telephone selling Yellow Pages ads for their phone book. In 1966, he also was elected as a State Senator representing Lonoke and Pulaski counties. He served in the Senate from 1966 until 1982. There was talk of him running for governor but in 1982, he withdrew from politics to focus developing Allied.

When Allied merged with Mid-Continent to form ALLTEL in 1983, Joe Ford was named president. Hugh Wilbourn, Jr. would serve on ALLTEL’s board of directors until his retirement in 1990. Weldon Case, president of Mid-Continent, became CEO and Chairman of the Board but in 1987, he stepped down as CEO and Ford took on that position as well.

Allied had just finished its riverfront office building in Little Rock shortly before the merger. This complex would become the headquarters of nationwide operations for ALLTEL. Over the next four years, ALLTEL bought into over 20 firms and became extremely successful. In the next decade, ALLTEL would emerge as a telecommunications giant.

In January, 1996, Joe Ford’s son, Scott, came on board at ALLTEL as executive vice-president. Scott had graduated from UA in 1984 with a degree in finance and was working for Stephens, Inc. putting together billion-dollar deals. Scott succeeded his father as president in 1997 and became chief operating officer in 1998. He became CEO of ALLTEL in 2002 and in 2006 ALLTEL would spin off its landline business to form Windstream.

Scott Ford would lead ALLTEL through its $27.5 billion sale to two private entities, Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs. Verizon would acquire the company from these private investors in 2009, making Verizon the largest cell phone provider in the nation.

Joe and Scott Ford are now partners in Westrock Capital which is developing and marketing Westrock Coffees. The coffee beans are grown by farmers in Africa and South America who are taught improved agricultural practices. The partnerships with these farmers have provided them and their families with better education, water and healthcare.

Telephone communication has made vast leaps since the sale of ALLTEL. Cell phones now do much more than just allow us to talk to others. Texting as well as photo and video sharing are just some of the new ways we have found to communicate using our smart phones.

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