When Lyman Horne began at Star Telephone Membership Corporation nearly four decades ago, he never dreamed technology would change so drastically. However, the foundation of down-home customer service — neighbors serving neighbors — never did, and will continue on after Horne is gone, he attested.
Long one of the main faces of Star Telephone, now Star Communications, Horne will retire from his post as the company’s executive vice president and general manager on Aug. 4. That position that will be assumed by Jeff Nethercutt, a Star employee since 1994 who was promoted to assistant general manager at the beginning of this year.
Leading up to his last week, Horne sat down inside a brand new boardroom in Star’s main offices off U.S. 421 north of Clinton to reflect on his years in the community.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to come back to my community and make a difference,” Horne said. “I see Star over the years as being a great community supporter and I think they’re going to continue to be. Jeff’s got that community spirit in him.”
When he was growing up at McDaniels Crossroads, Horne had aspirations of being a mechanic but was encouraged by his father, Lyman Sr., to get an education. Horne went on to Campbell University, where he received a bachelor’s in Business Administration before returning home. He was working at McDonald’s in Clinton, then located where Ribeyes Steakhouse sits near the U.S. 701/421 bypass. In 1980, the McDonald’s swing shift manager applied to Star.
“They were opening up the position of marketing manager here, so I applied,” Horne said.
Then-Star GM Al Kohler, a retired U.S. Marine, hired a young Horne.
“I got my foot in the door,” said Horne.
He went from marketing manager to commercial manager, before moving into the revenue department for some 14 years. For a short time, he served as assistant general manager, utilized as a stepping stone for the GM position. At the end of 2000, Horne assumed GM duties.
Today’s landscape is completely different than it was in 1980.
“It was totally different — we were a regulated monopoly,” Horne recalled. “Anybody who wanted service, they had to come to us. Today, we’re a provider among providers.”
And, with options on the table, it is a business driven by the customers.
“We’re finding a lot of people are opting not to take the landline, but they still want the data and the video. They’re opting for cellular phones for voice service. It’s a totally different world,” said Horne.
“If you’d have told me back in 1980 that we’d be talking over strands of glass about the size of a human hair, I’d have said you’re crazy,” he continued, noting that some have cut cable cords all together, taking just the wireless service. “I think that’s going to be the future — providing bandwidth, and the applications will give them what they want.”
There are currently 107 employees at Star, which has had as many as 134 employees but scaled down through attrition and reclassification of duties. Customer service is 24-7, especially when you are a part of the community, Horne said. Over the years, he has received countless calls on his cell phone, at his home and even flagged down at church over a particular data, video or phone issue.
Horne said he welcomed the “peace and quiet” that would come with retirement from the round-the-clock job. In retirement, he is looking forward to a variety of trips already planned with his wife Penny.
He knows Star, with its valued employees and Nethercutt’s promotion, will be in good hands.
“You have some of the best employees in the world,” Horne recalled telling Nethercutt upon his ascension to assistant GM. “Be a player-coach,” Horne told him. “It’s not your problem, it’s our problem. We can sit down and solve it together.”
Nethercutt said he has “awfully big shoes to fill” with Horne’s departure.
“He has a great legacy and has accomplished many great things for the company,” said Nethercutt.
Horne served on and led a number of boards over the years, including the Sampson Community College Foundation, North Carolina 811, Carolina Virginias Telephone Memhership Association and the North Carolina Telephone Cooperative Coalition for 10 years. He just recently gave up the gavel or stepped down from each of the boards.
Horne received the National Telephone Cooperative Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in February. He received a similar accolade from the state association a couple years back.
“It’s a humbling experience to go into that position and it’s a challenge as well, because our industry has changed a great deal over the last 20 to 25 years,” Nethercutt said. “We’ve had to evolve from a conditional landline telephone company into a broadband provider. I think the future of our company will be the internet, broadband and fiberoptic deployment. It’s just an entirely new business model for us.”
The company will continue to build on the fiberoptic network and provide broadband speeds to meet customers’ demand and regulatory minimums.
“We’re among the most rural companies in the state and we’ve been able to accomplish some great things that even some commercial companies have not been able to do,” Nethercutt noted. “That’s because of (Horne’s) leadership and the board’s guidance that we’ve been able to do some of these things.”
It is a tight-knit group at Star, as many of the employees will attest. The last year has been particularly tough for the Star family. Horne noted Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, which flooded the Star offices and displaced employees.
“Seeing this buiding with water in it, a building you get up and come to for 37 years, it was just brutal. It was such a mess,” Horne said.
Crews are attempting to fix the last of the damage inflicted 10 months ago. Employees have trickled back in recent weeks and the hope is to have everyone back by next week.
The Monday after that dreaded Saturday storm that ravaged Sampson, Horne gathered the employees who could make it to work at the warehouse down the road on U.S. 421.
“All this stuff can be replaced,” he told them. “We’re all safe and that’s what’s important.”
Then tragedy struck with the death of beloved employee Tim Butler on Christmas Eve 2016. Horne, who lost his first wife Beth to pancreatic cancer at Thanksgiving in 2014, said Butler’s loss was devastating to his family, extended family at Star and the community, especially at the holidays.
“The last year has been brutal, with the flood and then losing our lead broadband technician to a motorcycle accident. I never was comfortable on my bike after that, so I sold mine a couple weeks ago,” said Horne. “Tim was so brilliant. He went to Fayetteville Tech and we hired him right out of school. He was doing something almost immediately, just a brilliant man.”
Like Butler and so many others, Nethercutt is a Star stalwart. As he takes the managerial reins, he said he wants to build on the success enjoyed under the leadership of Horne and thanks to the dedication of 100-plus employees.
“I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel. I want to build upon the foundation that has been here since 1959 when this company was founded,” Nethercutt noted.
In 1959, the Cape Fear Telephone and Cumberland-Sampson Telephone cooperatives merged to form Star Telephone Membership Cooperative, a member-owned nonprofit governed by a board of directors. In 2014, the Star family of companies merged into Star Communications, which today serves customers in Sampson, Bladen, Duplin, Columbus and Cumberland counties.
Nethercutt has served as revenue manager, director of revenue and vice president of corporate affairs along the way. He said a small company means a diverse employee, with many hats being worn.
“It’s been a good run with Lyman. We’ve been friends for a long time,” said Nethercutt.
Horne and Nethercutt actually met at Campbell.
“I’ve had the privilege and the honor to work with or for Lyman my entire career,” Nethercutt stated. “He’s been my direct supervisor since the day I came here. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor, teacher or friend. We’ve had a great working relationship for the last 23 years.”
A retirement reception in honor of Horne will be held at the Star Telephone Membership Corporation offices on Aug. 2, from 2 to 5 p.m.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.