Call Center City

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New employees learn the trade in a training class at the Morley call center in Mauldin. The company currently has 100 employees, and ultimately hopes to employ more than 270. Photo by Will Crooks.

In the City of Mauldin, a striking feature of the economy has emerged over the past 17 years.

Near the intersection of Interstate 385 and Butler Road, at least nine companies — most of them big corporations with recognized brand names — have opened or announced call centers or similar kinds of back-office operations such as loan-processing centers that primarily involve rote or routine tasks.

The cluster of facilities where more than 3,000 people work, or will soon work, began in 2000, when Ford Credit announced a loan-processing center in the Brookfield office park.

The next year, Verizon Wireless launched call center operations in the same office park.

In 2002, Charter Communications began call center work in an office building along I-385, not far from the intersection with Butler Road.

Seven years later, Samsung Electronics America announced a call center within eyesight of the Charter offices.

In 2012, Global Lending Services, an auto finance company, opened a call center in Brookfield. Two years later, Esurance, an Allstate subsidiary that sells insurance over the internet, announced a sales and claims office in Brookfield.

Last year, two more companies announced call centers in Brookfield: Morley, which is helping an unidentified customer provide roadside assistance, and Anyone Home, which serves property managers in the housing market.

The cluster grew again in February when BB&T announced plans to relocate more than 600 mortgage-processing jobs from downtown Greenville into a new office building along Butler Road near I-385.

The same day, Verizon Wireless said it would add 260 call center jobs to its existing facility in Brookfield.

And more call center jobs may be on the way.

Morley said it’s planning to open a second location in the Mauldin area as its regional business grows, and Global Lending Services said it intends to expand within Brookfield in June.

WHY MAULDIN?

Commercial real estate brokers who have worked with call centers gave various reasons why the cluster formed in Mauldin near the intersection of I-385 and Butler Road instead of somewhere else.

The location along I-385 is key, they said, because it makes for a relatively easy commute from almost anywhere in the Upstate, enabling call centers to recruit labor from Anderson to Spartanburg, Laurens to Travelers Rest.

Bill Burgess, a broker and developer from Greenville who helped put Ford Credit in Brookfield, said securing a workforce is the biggest issue for call center operators.

“You’ve got to have people that you can hire,” he said. “Because the call center companies are not transferring people here; they’ve got to hire locals.”

Call centers also need a lot of parking space, and neither they nor their employees are usually willing to pay $72 a month for a single space in a downtown garage, said Charlie Whitmire, a broker and developer from Greenville who counts Verizon Wireless among his clients.

Whitmire said the office space at Brookfield, where six of the nine operations in the cluster are located, is not only less expensive than downtown office space but also comes with lots of free surface parking.

And there’s lots of retailers on Butler and Woodruff roads — restaurants, bank branches, pharmacies — where call center employees can dine, shop, or run errands on the way to or from work or during lunch breaks.

That tends to make them happier, reducing turnover at the call centers, Burgess said.

“If everything is a hassle — going to work is a hassle, picking up the dry cleaning is a hassle, going to the grocery store is a hassle — then people are going to move away from that and find an alternative,” he said.

Call centers also want redundancy in telecommunications and electrical infrastructure, and more than one provider to choose from, and that’s available around the intersection of I-385 and Butler Road, the brokers said.

AT&T offers a service called a SONET Ring that provides a second path for data transmission if one line is accidentally cut, a spokesperson confirmed.

Laurens Electric Cooperative has three substations in the area, so call centers always have a backup circuit, said Randy Garrett, vice president of government affairs.

That’s not the case everywhere, he said, adding, “It just turns out that in that area we’re fortunate enough to be able to do that.”

A spokesman for Morley gave various reasons why the company picked Mauldin for its call center, including weather, transportation considerations, and an employment pool from which to recruit.

The various factors that led BB&T to pick Mauldin for its mortgage-processing center include available land, proximity to interstates, and an analysis of where its employees live, said David White, vice president of communications for the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based bank.

Kathleen Wright, vice president of human resources with Global Lending Services, said the location of the company’s “operations center” near I-385 “reduces the challenge of daily commuting yet allows for immediate access to the wealth of resources for which Greenville County has become well known.”

NOT AS STICKY AS A FACTORY

Call centers typically don’t pay their workers as well as corporate headquarters do, or even higher-end factories. But they can be a good source of starter jobs for tech-savvy millennials or second incomes for spouses.

And because the work is labor-intensive, call centers usually come with a lot of jobs, which together add up to a sizeable new payroll flowing through a community that lands one.

“Most of them aren’t real high-paying jobs, but they’re above the average wage rate around here typically,” Whitmire said. “They’re going to pay less than a BMW or a GE, but they’re paying more than a grocery clerk or something like that.”

Many companies operating call centers or similar operations in Mauldin declined to answer inquiries from UBJ about how much they pay their biggest class of workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for customer service reps in the Greenville metro area was $14.38 last year, more than a dollar an hour less than the national median of $15.53.

Exact pay rates depend on the employer and type of job. Verizon Wireless, for example, offers customer service reps at its Mauldin “solutions center” a base salary of $35,000 a year, or $16.80 an hour, according to Abdullah El-Amin, a local recruiter for the company.

The benefits package includes up to $8,000 a year in tuition assistance, an attractive perk for students working their way through college.

A few office buildings away, Anyone Home pays entry-level workers at its Mauldin “contact center” $12.50 an hour, according to a help-wanted ad on the company’s website.

Applicants need to have a high school diploma and excellent phone etiquette, among other things. Workers may wear jeans in the office, but they must be willing to work on either Saturday or Sunday.

Greenville site consultant Didi Caldwell said call centers provide a clean, climate-controlled workplace, unlike some factory jobs where the environment can be dirty, hot in the summer, and cold in the winter.

“It’s a nice, comfortable environment,” she said.

One downside to call centers, though, is they can be moved easily, which means they’re “not as sticky” as factories, Caldwell said.

Caldwell, who makes her living helping companies scout locations for new facilities, said factories are harder to move to lower-cost areas because they usually come with heavy machinery that’s expensive to disassemble, ship, and reinstall.

Call centers, by contrast, consist largely of cubicles, telephones, and personal computers.

“It’s so easy to move a call center if your business conditions change,” Caldwell said.

Verizon Wireless provides a local example.

New jobs at its Mauldin facility are being relocated from call centers that are closing in Rancho Cordova, Calif., and Rochester, N.Y., according to El-Amin, a company news release, and published reports.

Kate Jay, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman, said the company relocated “telesales” work “to better align our real estate portfolio, streamline operations, and make the best use of capacity in other centers.”

Last year, the Communications Workers of America accused Verizon Communications, the parent company of Verizon Wireless, of moving U.S. call center jobs related to its hardline telephone business to the Philippines, where workers were paid $1.78 an hour and forced to work overtime for the same pay, according to the union.

The union said it learned of the situation by dispatching four of its members to the Philippines for an investigation. At the time, members of the union were on strike and demanding that the company retain U.S. call center jobs. 

DIVERSE ECONOMY WANTED

Taft Matney, a Mauldin city councilman who chairs the council’s economic planning and development committee, said the city wants a diversified economy and is working to recruit various kinds of jobs so its prosperity doesn’t hinge on any one industry.

“I think our ultimate goal is to continue welcoming the companies that want to locate here, let them know we appreciate them,” Matney said. “But we’re certainly not going to lock ourselves into a certain industry.”

He said Mauldin wants to be known for more than call centers.

“You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” Matney said. “And when an industry may need to restructure itself because of market conditions and relocate somewhere else, I don’t want to see — and I don’t think anybody wants to see — the City of Mauldin negatively impacted because we relied too much on a single industry.”

Two recent job announcements show the city is adding manufacturing, as well as call centers.

A company called M.P. Husky said it would add 50 jobs and 150,000 square feet of building space to expand production of cable tray and cable bus products on Old Stage Road.

Along Brookfield Oaks Drive, Caristrap, a manufacturer from Canada, said it would hire 100 people to make industrial strapping in an existing building.

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