It’s a family affair

Article Published in the PERSPECTIVES MAGAZINE May, 2001         by James R. Dukart

Randy Cromar of Public Telephone Inc. works side by side with his wife, four sisters, a brother-in-law and one of his closest friends in Utah

myboysdad2For Randy Cromar, one of the best things about the payphone business is that it’s a family affair.
Cromar is president of Public Telephone Inc., a Salt Lake City-based payphone service provider (PSP) that owns 500 phones of its own, services another 250 phones owned by others, and aggregates and re-sells operator service. Most of Cromar’s staff share more than phone lines; they share bloodlines – his brother-in-law Layne Coon Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.00.02 PM is the company’s vice president, his sister Judy Coon Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.20.13 PMis treasurer and a field service technician, and two more sisters – Robyn Cromar and Kris Woodward – are field technicians. Cromar also says business partner and company secretary Paul Stauffer is one of his closest friends.Paul and I

“It is a lot of fun working with family,” Cromar says.”We can get together for breakfast, and we all work out of our homes, which we all like.” He says the staff sometimes even turns service calls to the tourist of areas of Utah into “mini family vacations,” taking along their kids and dogs. “My partners and I have to sometimes draw straws for whose turn it is to go collect the phones in those areas,” he says.

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Coin collection in tourist areas sometimes turns into mini family vacations. In this photo Randy Cromar poses with (from left) Spencer, Jasmine, Justin and Matthew.

Randy Cromar’s sisters help him run a tight ship. From left, they are Kris Woodward. Robyn Cromar and Judy Coon.

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But life in the payphone business today is not always a family picnic, Cromar adds. Cell phones continue to eat away at his revenue, he says, and he sees no end in sight to increases in wireless networks, capabilities and popularity. “The demand for payphones is going to continue to decrease,” Cromar predicts. “I would say that 90 percent of our locations that used to have two or more phones have now dropped to just one phone. Just like all other PSPs, we have had to tighten our belts to survive.”

In the beginning …

Cromar got his start in the payphone business some 17 years ago in Califomia, in the aftermath of the breakup of AT&T and the creation of the Bell operating companies (RBOCs). At the time, he was working for Fujitsu, traveling the country training other telephone technicians on the installation and workings of Fujitsu switches. Soon, he says, it occurred to him that he could create his own working payphones for between $150 to $250, and before long he was setting up units throughout California.

“I used to take an old Western housing purchased from Pacific Bell and refurbish it, throw in a used Ernest board and have a money-making machine for around $150,” Cromar recalls. “Sometimes a phone would return 10 times that investment in just one month. My number one location in California took in $1,500 per month in coin. It was a great business back then.”

But this “great business” also became increasingly competitive in California, and Cromar experienced a string of bad luck that led him to sell all of his California phones and move back to his home state of Utah. Soon he was installing payphones throughout the beehive state, as well as in locations just across the border in Wyoming and Idaho. Over the past 10 years, Public Telephone Inc. has grown to approximately 500 phones, along with a service business for another 250 units owned mostly by “local ma and pa shops.”

Those 250 phones owned by others, though, have led Cromar into the operator services business, where he acts as an aggregator for his service customers. “If some little guy is trying to get operator service on his payphone, he would have a hard time finding anyone,” Cromar says. “Through combined volumes, we are able to get individual payphone owners more money and better operator services than they could get on their own.”

Cromar says his best-performing units today are in the tourist areas of Utah, including Zion Canyon, Moab, Vernal, and in the campgrounds that flank Utah’s mountains. The key variable, he says, is that his phones do well where cell phones either do not reach or have spotty coverage. “There was a time when we could bring in $1,000 per month on some of our locations, but in some areas that has dropped {enfold,” he says. “We have had to toughen up our

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policies on where to place phones and how

many phones to place.”

Cromar’s sister, Judy Coon, adds that the company is “very, very strict” on where new phones are placed, saying that gas stations and convenience stores are at the top of the list, with the caveat that a determining factor is “locations where cell phones won’t reach.”

That means mostly sticking to tourist areas, and one result is that the company’s business tends to be somewhat seasonal “The slow times are in the winter,” Coon says, estimating that nearly 75 percent of the company’s business is now tied to tourist areas most heavily visited in the summer months. “In the summer times we are jumping up and down around here,” she says, noting that spring is also a busy period, as the staff visits tourist areas in southern Utah to unwrap phones that have been “winterized” for the slower fall and winter seasons.

Later we added two more family members to help out in collections;  Cromar’s wife Tami Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.54.53 PM and Cromar’s fourth sister Georgene Hamill. .Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 3.20.37 PM

 

Public ‘Telephone staff should also be ready to jump up and down through the winter of 2002, though, when the Olympics visit Salt Lake City. Cromar says the company has opened up all its phones to international calling, and hopes to be able to offer services to most countries for about $1 per minute.

“We’re hoping the Olympics will be a great opportunity to make a good deal of money here,” Cromar says, adding that the company has also been busy preparing international signs in four different languages -in preparation for Olympic visitors.

Maintenance matters

Upcoming Olympics or not, Cromar believes that every payphone company needs a top notch maintenance program of some type in order to ensure that its equipment is in good working order. Public Telephone picks one or two items to check on every phone every month as it is collected. One month, he says, staff may check to make sure that all units have phone books, and replace those that are out Another month may be the time to check all coin return levers and change batteries. A subsequent month may be time to record the position of the pedestal or check the phone’s lights, and a fourth month maybe time to meet with the location owner to go over any problems or concerns with the phone or its operation. All field technicians, he says, are equipped with checklists that remind them what special items are to be looked at in that particular month.

In addition to his duties of running the company and checking locations, Cromar has also been active for the past 10 years in the Utah Payphone Association. He has served as president for the past two years, and he characterizes Utah as a “quiet, friendly and cooperative” state – adjectives he applies to the association’s membership as well. “We are not like some states where they all try to outbid each other,” Cromar says. “We are pretty much all friends here and we help each other out.”

One example of this was when association members got together to offer a better alternative to a payphone tax and licensing plan proposed by Salt Lake City several years ago. “All the payphone owners got together and came up with a self-regulatory plan,” Cromar says. “It saved us from an ordinance whose end result would probably have been to revoke the licenses of some operators and have them remove their phones.”

Cromar and his staff have also found time to share stories of the funny and sometimes just plain strange things they encounter on the road. For one thing, location owners are sometimes surprised to find that three of the company’s top service technicians – all three of Cromar’s sisters – are women. In addition to dealing with the occasional chauvinistic attitude that a woman might not be as capable a service technician as a man, his sisters sometimes have to deal with men hitting on them in the field. “My sister Robyn found a great cure for this problem,” he says. “She just tells them a whopping story about how she is a lesbian, and soon enough they are back-tracking and leave her alone.”

An even better story, he says, took place when he radioed his sister Kris to tell her a downloaded file was on its way to her field site. Unbeknownst to him, Kris was in the restroom and had left her

radio on. When Cromar’s booming (and obviously male) voice blasted, “Kris, here it comes,” the lady in the stall next to her asked, “Here what comes?” before jumping up quickly and leaving the bathroom in a rush.

One of the funniest things Cromar has ever seen on his route happened one day as he was in the middle of a parking lot installing a new phone. He had taken the old phone and laid it on its side in the middle of the lot. This did not stop a customer from walking up to the phone, bending down to put a quarter in and trying to make a call. “it wasn’t connected to anything, and I wasn’t that far away, working on the new pedestal,” Cromar says.”I couldn’t believe it. He just kept plugging quarters in trying to get the thing to work.  Finally I had to tell him it was out of order.  Sometimes you just have to wonder what people are thinking out there.”

End of article: James R. Dukart is a Bloomington, Minn-based writer and editor who specializes in technology and telecommunications. For the past 15 years, he has worked in and written about telecom, the internet, e-commerce, computer operating systems and related technical fields.

Because of the direction pay phones were headed, Public Telephone was sold at the end of 2000.  Randy Cromar went on and started an air machine business, changing the company name to Air Stop.  Providing Air Pumps at gas stations for customers to put air in their tires.IMG_1325  To read more about Air Stop click here.

 

 

 

I would like to give recondition to my Dad. If it wasn’t for him teaching me everything he knows about being an electrician and about hard work, I would not be where I am today.

My inspiration

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An interesting story behind this phone.  This phone was installed in front of Albertsons Grocery Store.  An older lady got in her car and accidentally put her foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake.  She floored her car right into my pay phone. I really think if the pay phone hadn’t of been there taking 100% of the brunt,  that she would of ended up going right through the building where she would have most likely would of hit an employee working on the other side of the wall, possibly saving her life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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