Group Looks to Create Call Centers, Jobs in Inner Cities

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At a time when many call center operators are locating in smaller communities to save money, Black Americans of Achievement Inc., Atlanta, is looking for sites in some of the nation's toughest inner-city neighborhoods.


The company, which is seeking to capitalize on the job-training assistance and other benefits granted by economic empowerment zone legislation, has received a commitment for a $3.5 million low-interest loan from the Atlanta Empowerment Zone Corp. to develop a call center in that city. It also has received authorization from authorities in New York to build a call center in Manhattan's Harlem district, and negotiations are under way in Los Angeles for a third center there. A temporary, 96-station center is expected to open by the end of June in Atlanta, to be followed by a permanent, 250-seat operation by year-end.


BAOA expects to become a major job-training force within the economically depressed communities, while at the same time establishing profitable call-center operations in a strategy that seeks to blend philanthropy and capitalism.


"We think that with government assistance, and the partnership between private industry and these empowerment zones, it makes for a powerful telemarketing plan," said Peter Van Brunt, president and CEO of BAOA. "We think it kind of reduces a lot of the initial costs associated with training teleservices representatives."


BAOA plans to establish a multilevel program that educates people new to the workplace in job skills, and offers training in the use of call center technology and in sales techniques. In Atlanta, the company has received a commitment from the Georgia Department of Labor to provide basic skills training for agents new to the ranks of the employed.


Van Brunt expects to hire up to 600 people to staff the Atlanta facility, and up to 400 each in Los Angles and New York, where he is planning smaller, 125-seat call centers.


To launch the projects, BAOA enlisted the help of MKT Marketing, Margate, FL, which operates three call centers and markets a proprietary predictive dialer technology called TrueDial.


MKT, which has been serving as a consultant to BAOA, secured commitments for the Atlanta center of $21 million in outbound telemarketing from several clients in the cellular phone and long-distance industries. That brings the total commitment for outbound services to more than $104 million in billings, Van Brunt said.


In addition, MKT also helped BAOA equip the Atlanta center, and agreed to set up the more advanced training programs and assist in the management of the center when it opens, according to Mike Kirkovich, general manager of MKT.


"We feel that once we can show the quality of the BAOA operators on the phone, there's going to be a tremendous influx of opportunity and business, and BAOA will be more than competitive compared with other operators," he said.


The center will be run under the auspices of BAOA subsidiary CallAtlanta Inc. The permanent facility, which will include a daycare center and cafeteria, measures 38,600 square feet. It is located near Atlanta University, and several other colleges nearby also are expected to help supply part-time staff for the center.


Van Brunt said he expected the centers to focus entirely on outbound calling at first, although he wants eventually to implement some inbound work at the centers.


His idea to develop call centers in Economic Empowerment Zones evolved from his previous business, which used direct marketing to sell a board game called Black Americans of Achievement.


"We knew that having to go through traditional wholesale distribution was not a compelling thing," he said. "We thought the best way to go would be to go direct to the consumer, and in the process of doing that we started talking to telemarketing companies. We saw that it was a labor-intensive business, and we took a look at the Empowerment Zone legislation, which is a pretty powerful thing for inner cities.


"Plus," he added, "the prospects for outsourcing teleservices looked pretty healthy."


In the long term, Van Brunt said he'd eventually like to market BAOA's proprietary products.
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