Wring Out the Old

Since Qwest swallowed US West, employees and stockholders have been put on hold.

Jeri Aiello feels like she grew up at the phone company.

She started at the Mountain States Telephone Company in 1962, when she was just sixteen. A friend of her mother's worked there and told her the company was hiring operators. The job was part-time but had full benefits, so Mountain States could be picky.

"In those days, the chief operator came to visit your home" to check your background, recalls Aiello.

 
Brian Stauffer
 
Jeri Aiello began working for the phone company in 1962.
Larry Winter
Jeri Aiello began working for the phone company in 1962.

When she began at the phone company's ornate, travertine-clad headquarters building at 14th and Curtis streets, she was awed by the surroundings. But the teenager soon found herself enveloped in a cozy matriarchy with firm rules of conduct.

"There were a lot of older women in their late forties to late fifties" who had spent years with the company, says Aiello. "Those women raised us, bless their souls. They were very gracious and very professional."

The new girl underwent six weeks of training to become an operator. She also was instructed in ladylike behavior: Female operators could only wear dresses to the office and could only cross their legs at the ankle. If she had to stay past 9:30 at night, the company called a cab to take her home. There was a kitchen with a refrigerator and stove, and kitchen matrons cleaned up after employees. The office even had a quiet room where the operators could take a nap at break time, and there were showers and lockers in the basement.

Aiello worked six-hour shifts with a thirty-minute break and took home $50 a week, a nice sum of money for a teenager. But there were also uncompromising expectations.

"Three lates and you had a talking-to," she remembers. "You learned your work ethics."

The phone company encouraged its young operators to work part-time during college. Aiello did, and she wound up staying with the utility for the next three decades in a variety of positions, from clerk to supervisor.

Along the way, she witnessed a dramatic shift in corporate management as the company changed its name to Mountain Bell, then US West and, finally, Qwest. It was common for company executives to climb through the ranks from entry-level jobs. Even Sol Trujillo, the much-criticized CEO of US West, got his start as a Mountain Bell lineman.

But all of that changed two years ago, when the upstart telecom company Qwest took over US West and proclaimed the old days of the monopoly phone company to have gone the way of the hand-cranked squawk box. Qwest was founded in 1995 by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who launched an ambitious plan to create a national telecom company using the right-of-way along his Southern Pacific railroad lines to lay fiber-optic cables. Qwest soon became a favorite of investors, who pushed up the stock price based on the expectation that, in the age of the Internet, the demand for telecom services would be inexhaustible.

Noting US West's nickname of "US Worst" and sneering at many of the old-style managers, Qwest executives could hardly conceal their disdain for the company. Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio was reportedly so eager to get the US West logo off the company's downtown headquarters that he threatened to fire the workers in charge of removing it if they didn't get it done pronto.

Qwest fostered a corporate culture of testosterone-fueled swagger. They were entrepreneurs who were going to transform the fuddy-duddy telephone company into a new-age fiber-optics powerhouse that would do business from London to Tokyo. The corporate slogan, "Ride the Light," promised space-age marvels and financial riches for those with the guts to get on board.

The message to US West employees was blunt: Change or leave.

A few months after the merger, Nacchio announced the company would lay off more than 10,000 people, and he made it clear that almost all the job cuts would come from the US West side of the company.

"Because you wear a clown suit doesn't mean you work for the circus," Nacchio told the financial Web site TheStreet.com. "We'll take off the suits and get down to work, then we'll send out the clowns."

Prior to this dazzling display, Aiello transferred to a US West service facility in Fort Collins in 1998. There she found a close-knit group of people, many of whom had spent decades with the phone company; the whole staff was an extended family of sorts.

"These were people who'd lived together, married and had children together," she says. "Everybody knew everything about everybody else."

Suddenly, when Qwest took over, there was an immediate transformation in management attitudes.

"Qwest was a young company without roots in the community or with their employees," Aiello says. "It was a nouveau corporate type of management. They were in it to make money and to spend money. They were using US West as a cash cow in trying to further Qwest."

After the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s burst, telecom companies like Qwest found themselves in big trouble, with huge amounts of fiber-optic space that no one wanted to buy. With stock prices plunging and the company posting record losses, last year Qwest began new rounds of layoffs involving thousands of employees.

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