The Story of Western Wireless

Objectives of Creating a Storybook for Western Wireless as it Prepared to Merge with Alltel:

  • Commemorate the 11-year history of the company in an engaging, readable format
  • Capture the tight-knit, work hard/play hard culture through favorite memories gathered from key contributors to Western’s success
  • Gift employees with a keepsake of an extraordinary experience

Thanks for the Memories

After earlier successes at McCaw Communications (later AT&T Wireless), John Stanton, Terry Gillespie and Don Guthrie founded a company that grew to become Western Wireless, specializing in mobile phone service to rural markets. They again racked up a series of extraordinary achievements, including the spin-off of one division (Voicestream, which later was acquired by Duetsche Telecom and renamed T-Mobile).

In just 11 years the Western Wireless co-founders had established a dominant position in the western U.S., and they realized that the only option for staying competitive and continuing to grow was to find a merger partner in the eastern part of the country. They found the perfect partner in Alltel. And yet, it was a bittersweet decision when the board of directors voted to accept a merger agreement; they all realized that any merger fundamentally changes a company and its culture, and they all agreed that Western had been an unusually enjoyable experience.

The founders thought long and hard about how they could appropriately thank their employees for helping them to create not just one, but two, successful wireless companies. The answer: a book of stories, told through the voices of employees.

Evelyn Clark was chosen as the storyteller for the project, invited in by the Seattle office of Fitch, a worldwide design consultancy owned by WWP in the UK. While Fitch designers went to work on creating an appropriate format and design theme, Evelyn set about interviewing a carefully selected, representative group of people who had contributed to Western’s success; they included board members, the first people hired (some of whom had since left the company), the executive team, and a number of other employees, some who had been part of the team for several years and some only a few months.

Their stories of memorable experiences and legendary characters painted a vivid picture of what it had been like to be part of a dynamic, hard working, “wild west” company that had overcome nearly impossible challenges. Together we created “Joys of the Journey”, a beautiful book that highlighted favorites memories in a series of vignettes with catchy titles and featured photos taken by employees over the years; with fun (and often nonsensical) captions.

Executives distributed the gifts at a special party for employees on Western’s 11th anniversary, when the merger was official. The results:

  • The book was an instant hit, generating a new round of storytelling
  • Employees who might never have approached the founders at the office lined up at the party to personally thank them for a wonderful work experience
  • Lined pages in the back of the book, provided for people to write parting comments to one another, were quickly put to use

It was immediately clear that the books would, indeed, become treasured possessions as the years go by. After all, how many people have the opportunity to work with a reknowned pioneer who works hard, plays hard, and inspires employees to follow suit?