March 29, 2014

Glenn McFadden’s journey far ranging, far reaching

Glenn McFadden will soon retire after 40 years working for Comporium and its precursor, the Rock Hill Telephone Co.

Glenn McFadden has scaled some of the world’s highest mountains, at times walking above the clouds.

But he climbed no higher mountain than the one he challenged in the fall of 1972 when he walked into the three-story tall headquarters of the Rock Hill Telephone Co. looking for a job.

It was already a momentous year for McFadden. He graduated in May from the University of South Carolina with a business degree. He married his Lewisville High School sweetheart, Jo Ann Brannen – he was a football player, she was a cheerleader – in August. That fall he started looking for full-time work.

They lived at the Cedar Valley Trailer Park. To pay the bills, McFadden worked construction in Charlotte. His wife was a secretary at the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co.

McFadden was no stranger to hard work. As a Fort Lawn farm boy, he plowed fields with a mule and picked cotton for 1 cent per pound. During his college summers, he worked on construction projects such as the Dacus Library and Kinard Hall at Winthrop University.

He wanted to do something different. McFadden believed his college degree had value, and he sent more than 30 resumes, resulting in one, halfhearted interview. Determined to get a job, he drove to Rock Hill one day, vowing to knock on every door until he was employed.

He came to town via Saluda Street and stopped at the tallest building he saw. He didn’t even know what business was in the building.

He met Gene Whitlock on the first floor. McFadden told Whitlock, the telephone company’s marketing manager, “I’ll take any job you’ve got, just give me a chance to prove myself. … I’ll even wash the floors.”

Whitlock asked him if there was any job he didn’t want. McFadden responded, “salesman.”

Whitlock countered with, “I’ve got a salesman job starting Monday at $600 a pay period.”

“I’ll take it,” McFadden said.

From the inauspicious beginning, McFadden has taken a 40-year journey at the company – now named Comporium – rising close to the top. He was named an executive vice president in 2004 and chief operating office in 2008.

But his journey with the company will soon come to a close, as McFadden, 63, is retiring April 30.

It was a journey many told him would be impossible. The Barnes family purchased the telephone company in 1912 and developed it into a multifaceted business that provides local telephone, long distance, wireless, digital video, cable television, Internet, security, and media services.

Friends told McFadden the company’s executives all have the same last name, and it wasn’t McFadden.

He proved them wrong.

“My name isn’t Barnes and I have Barneses that report to me,” McFadden said. He is so valued, say company friends, that the Barnes trust McFadden to run a mentoring program for their children.

The first jobs that the Barnes children hold at Comporium are the dirtiest and most tiring, from digging ditches to washing trucks, said Roger Parker, vice president of facilities and construction, whose first job at the company was as a janitor in 1994.

“I tell them I respect your father, but you haven’t earned my respect, or the respect of this company,” McFadden said.

McFadden’s journey with the company had stops and starts. McFadden left the telephone company twice, once to work for Springs Industries for five years as its telecommunications manager, and then nine months for the Farmers’ Telephone Co-Op in Sumter. He almost left a third time when he was the acting marketing director for two years. With a promote-me-or-I’ll-leave ultimatum in hand, McFadden requested a meeting with the Barneses. Before he could speak they told him was he was promoted and that he didn’t need the title.

“They taught me how to do the job, not abuse the title,” McFadden said. “It was the best two years of misery I ever spent.”

It is a journey that also includes countless hours of volunteer time in the business, economic development and education realms to improve how people live and work in Lancaster and York counties.

His values and work ethic are imprinted throughout Comporium.

“He is an inspiration,” said Bryant Barnes, the third generation of the family to lead the company. His experience is so valued that the family asked him “to tell the new folks what it is like here,” Bryant Barnes said. His “day one” story has been repeated so often that it is now part of the company legacy.

But his career almost ended before it started.

His first job was selling telephone systems to businesses. A more experienced salesman observed his first four calls, which yielded no results. The salesman’s advice was “you’re not cut out for this kind of work.”

McFadden evaluated the calls, what was working – apparently nothing – and what wasn’t working – a lot. He decided he could be no more, no less, that what he was, a country boy who talked Southern. “I looked at myself, decided to be myself and try to establish trust,” he said.

He repeated the sales calls, this time returning with four contracts.

McFadden’s climb up the corporate ladder was immensely influenced by his father, David Wallace McFadden, and his grandmother, Mattie “Nannie” McFadden.

His father was a stern man of principles who didn’t drink or smoke. “He was the greatest man I’ve ever known,” McFadden said. Others described David McFadden as “Henry Ford smart.”

His father’s mantra was about the value of hard work. It was OK “to give out, but don’t give up,” McFadden remembers.

At 27, McFadden realized his father, “knew more about living and dying than I ever would. I knew his advice was gold. I went to him with every big problem I had.”

“I’m still trying to please my dad,” McFadden said, even though his father died two years ago. “He set high standards.”

So did his grandmother.

Nannie impressed on her grandson that from the day you are born, you start taking from the earth. She wanted to know what he intended to give back.

When he was about 12, McFadden built her a bluebird house for the backyard. One house led to two and then to three and, suddenly, McFadden-built bluebird houses were “up and down the road, at church cemeteries, all over,” he said.

McFadden estimated his work has helped in the hatching of 5,000 bluebird chicks. He continues to give away bluebird houses, donating between 30 and 40 a year.

Giving back also took many other forms, including leading the chambers of commerce in Lancaster and York County, serving on economic development boards and helping USC Lancaster and Clinton College grow.

“He is the kind of guy you want to be in a foxhole with,” said Wayne Wingate, who followed McFadden as president of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Charlie Bundy, who worked with McFadden on Lancaster projects including raising funds for USC Lancaster, said he “impressed people as a good old country boy, but there was more depth than that. He had a quiet, smooth way of dealing with people.”

Bruce Brumfield, president and chief executive officer of Founders Federal Credit Union, said McFadden was a tireless worker on Lancaster projects, “and because of that you were not afraid to give it your all. You knew the project would be accomplished because he was involved.”

The same traits have made effective at Comporium, say his coworkers and bosses.

McFadden has been successful, they said, because he:

• Values all employees equally. “I tell them don’t call me Mr. McFadden, call me Glenn,” he said. The result, said Parker, the vice president for facilities and construction, is a company philosophy of “say I can, say I will, and stop limiting what you can do. His leadership is off the charts.”

Kenny Clark, a facility manger, said McFadden is “down to earth, honest, and stern. That’s what it takes to do the job he’s got. He never puts himself above you.”

• He can balance the needs of the employees with what’s good for the company, said Harry Miller, who started with McFadden in 1972. “That’s a delicate balance,” Miller said.

Miller, the executive vice president of planning and development, is assuming some of McFadden’s duties. Starting May 1, Miller will be responsible for installation and repair and for facilities and construction in addition to his current responsibilities.

• He balances his job with his family and outside interests. “If the ox was in the ditch, I would work all night,” McFadden said, “but I remember what my dad said, ‘Don’t let your job become your life.’ ”
• He delivers the good, and the bad, news. “He delivers all the news,” Bryant Barnes said. “If he sees something wrong, he is the first to tell me.”

The same traits have helped McFadden follow his passions. He is an avid outdoorsman. He hunts, fishes and hikes. He climbs mountains. He traces the passion to Joe Crosby, a tenant farmer on the McFadden land, “who helped raise me.” Crosby taught McFadden about the outdoors.

McFadden remembers being in the woods at night with Crosby. There were a million stars in the sky and the only light was Crosby’s kerosene lamp. They listened to the hounds chasing raccoons or possum.

“I never felt more in touch with the world,” McFadden said of those hunting trips. “I was high on life. I’ve want to recapture that that feeling every time I go hunting.”

McFadden recaptured and expanded that moment on a hunting trip to British Columbia, Canada, 15 years ago. He was in the Toad River Mountain Valley, hunting for moose.

He and a guide were negotiating a mountain pass at about 5,000 feet. They were on horseback when the winds gusted, the clouds descended, and the snow swirled. Suddenly there was a white out, and McFadden lost contact with his guide.

With no idea of which way to go, “I felt I was going to die,” McFadden said.

Suddenly “there was the most peaceful, warm-blanket feeling,” he said. “I saw life crystal clear. I was totally focused that moment. What was most important in my life? My relationship with God, the people I love, my health and my food and shelter. Other things meant absolutely nothing.”

McFadden grabbed the horse’s tail and let it guide him.

Suddenly, “we popped out of the clouds and it was so white. There was a moose in the distance. It look like a piece of coal.” There was the guide, saying, “there’s your moose.”

“I said, ‘Nothing dies today.’ I tipped my hat to the moose and we went on. That night in the tent, with the sounds of the wind and snow, I was the happiest person on earth. I knew the secret of life.”

In 2006, McFadden was part of a group that traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to assist the orphans at the Jubilee Children’s Home. In addition to aiding the orphans, the group planned to scale Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,344 feet.

On the Kilimanjaro ascent, the group made it the 15,000-foot mark, preparing for the last push. As they began the hike to the top, McFadden lost coordination of his legs. He threw up, “but didn’t feel sick.”

“I was fighting pride. Physically it was not a problem,” he said. “I wanted that picture of me up on the top. But I had to let that go.”

McFadden stopped, but his problems didn’t. He returned to the base camp at 15,000 feet, planning to rest there before descending the mountain. He went into a hut, laid down and closed his eyes. A few moments later felt a warm breath on his face.

He opened his eyes to find an “aging Tanzanian guy with white hair who had a cup of tea,” McFadden said, and advice. “If you sleep with the mountain sickness you will die. You need to go down.”

McFadden found his guide and offered him $100 to drag him down the mountain if he fell. He made it down the mountain but suffered the effects of altitude sickness for almost a year.

What’s next?

With retirement ahead McFadden has made few plans.

He will continue to serve on the state’s Department of Natural Resources board, which sets policy for the agency. The board’s discussions about fish, fowl and other wildlife – even earthquakes – appeal to McFadden’s passion and intellectual curiosity.

Most certainly, he will continue to tell stories, including those about the Canadian snowstorm, his first job at the phone company, and camping with Joe Crosby. He is a natural story teller.

“His stories are about a zest for life, about adventures of the heart,” said longtime friend and coworker Harry Miller. “Even if you have heard them before, it’s worth repeating. At the basic level, his stories are about people and that’s what Glenn is about.”

Roger Parker, who plans to take McFadden fishing on the Catawba River soon, said, “his stories paint a powerful picture. He draws you in, you become part of the picture, you feel the smell, the emotions become part of you.”

Miller and Parker agreed the best thing about McFadden’s stories is they usually have a lesson, and “it’s a lesson you need to hear,” Parker said.

McFadden said he may return to an artistic hobby, carving birds. A self-taught carver, McFadden started the hobby because he wanted to have something physical to give to his daughters, Melanie and Amanda. He carved them bluebirds.

His carving became more elaborate and he entered them in competitions, winning at world championship levels. “It’s the only time my daddy led me wrong,” McFadden said. “I was interested in becoming an artist and he said you can’t make money with art.”

McFadden sold his first piece for $1,000. The next one sold for $8,000.

He has not carved recently but has two works waiting to be finished, one a red-tailed hawk chasing three crows and the other a cooper’s hawk.

In retirement, only one thing is certain, he said. The first thing he plans to do is pray, to learn what God has planned for him next.

“This is not the end, but a beginning,” McFadden said.

Regardless whether there is a new mountain to scale or a familiar one to re-climb in his future, McFadden’s approach will be what he learned from his dad, “it’s not about getting to the top,” he said. “It about the journey to the top.”

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