by Becky Hobbs
Artists paint pictures, composers write music, and some people, like William M. "Billy" Mounger feel called by God to create businesses.
An RTS alum ('83) and a member of the Board of Trustees, he has been quite successful in that calling, recently being named Ernst & Young's "2000 Entrepreneur of the Year" for Mississippi and Louisiana. From an initial small investment in 1983 in something called "cellular phones," Billy, at 43, has built Tritel Communications, employing over 1,100 people.
"I like thinking of an idea for a business or technology, pulling the financing together, and getting the team built," says Billy. "If the market recognizes it as a good thing, then I have helped people and provided jobs. I also have possibly helped fund God's Kingdom work.
"Only Christ redeems the world through hearts, but business can be a vehicle for that to happen," he continues. "I think God is delighted when we use a part of His creation such as digital technology to spread the Gospel and build His Kingdom."
The tale of Tritel's rise reads like a Cinderella story, but, as Billy recalls, it took years of long hours and hard work. In 1984 he started a small company called Mercury with a friend and his wife, Cissye, (RTS '82), as a volunteer employee. After establishing a successful track record in the wireless industry, in 1996 he proposed affiliating Mercury with a large nationwide telecommunications company such as AT&T - an innovative concept at the time. In January, 1999, after years of negotiating with AT&T, raising $750 million, overcoming massive obstacles, and "being dead on the operating table several times," Tritel struck a deal with the giant company to develop its wireless licenses in several southeastern states. The company raised an additional $200,000,000 through a high yield offering and $244,000,000 in its initial public offering in 1999.
In February of this year, Tritel agreed to merge with Telecorp, adding some 1,300 employees to the company. The combined footprint of the two companies will stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, with licenses to cover thirty-five million people in fourteen states and Puerto Rico, and encompass sixteen of the top 100 markets in the United States. Both companies market wireless services under the SunCom and AT&T brands.
HOW CAN I BEST GLORIFY GOD?
Years before Billy built a telecommunications empire, he found himself at a crossroads. After graduating magna cum laude in political science from Vanderbilt in 1979, he had his choice of studying at various business and law schools.
"I thought about law school very hard but felt it wasn't my calling," Billy recalls. "I wanted to create a business from nothing." While at Vanderbilt he had been trying to decide what business would have the greatest spiritual impact on the world, and communications looked as if it had potential. He had been interested in the field for a long time, having learned to use computers when punch cards were required to run programs.
He also couldn't shake the conviction that God might want him to get a theological degree and use it in a vocation. Growing up in First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, he had accepted Christ in the seventh grade, but it wasn't until he was a junior in high school that his faith began to take root. A football injury laid him up and gave him plenty of time to question his sports-oriented, social lifestyle. Was he really living for Jesus? The subsequent pain of knee surgery and rehabilitation helped him better appreciate what Christ had gone through for him. In response to this new understanding he dedicated his life to Christ and determined to do with it whatever the Lord wanted.
This same fervor is evident today in his role as elder at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He especially feels that worship is important. "Billy has a great passion for worship at Highlands Presbyterian," says Senior Pastor Darwin Jordan (RTS '76). "He wants our people to know God's awesome presence in worship and is adamant that we not go through the motions and walk out the same as when we walked in."
After graduating from Vanderbilt, he decided to take a year off to work and think about God's plan for his life. He traveled in Europe, spending time with Frances Schaeffer at L'Abri in Switzerland. There he became interested in studying the Bible and understanding more about Christian theology. A month in Israel broadened his perspective and increased his desire to study the Bible in a more formal setting. After returning from Europe, he worked in the oil and gas business for a short time, did evangelism in Colorado, and hiked in the mountains of Wyoming seeking God's will for his life.
During that time of prayer and searching, he felt the Lord did not want him to attend law school. Upon discovering that RTS had begun offering a masters degree in biblical theology, he entered in the fall of 1980. There he met Cissye and they were married in 1984.
"I really thought I would start a Christian radio station and even applied for some licenses, but it didn't pan out," Billy remembers. "Then in 1986 I won a lottery for a cellular telephone license for Jackson." And the rest, as they say, is history.
MORE THAN MAKING MONEY
"I'm trying to be a servant and use what God has given me for His glory," explains Billy. "This is a sinful world, and the Christian's ever-present challenge is to live by the highest biblical standards. God's principles are always the best way to guide many business decisions. All of SunCom's goals are based on biblical principles. Our customer must be absolutely sure he is the most important person in the world to us; that's based simply on Christ's commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We don't just try to sell people a plan, but give them what they really need and what makes sense."
Others acknowledge Billy's ability to live out his faith in the marketplace. "Billy is one of those rare men in our day whose commitment to Christ reaches not only his personal and family life, but his business life as well," says Dr. Richard Pratt, Professor of Old Testament at RTS/Orlando. "He is truly on the cutting edge of communication technology and brings strong Christian witness to that important field. I am blessed to have him as my friend, and we are grateful that he is associated with our seminary."
Billy sees opportunity for ministry at multiple levels in his business. First, he can directly minister to his employees by encouraging the Christians to be salt and light and by providing avenues for unbelievers to explore the Christian faith if they so choose.
"I've been outspoken about my faith," says Billy boldly. "People should know where I stand and hold me accountable for my faith. I openly share with everyone in my company, either personally or through email that they can choose to open or delete."
Another level of ministry involves giving back to the communities in which his businesses operate. SunCom employees serve on boards, volunteer for many different charitable causes, and support local events in each market. In this way Billy hopes to encourage people to work for someone besides themselves, seeing it as a direct expression of faith in the marketplace.
Next, Billy feels a business can fill a need in society, while rewarding investors monetarily and giving employees a quality workplace. SunCom's vision is to provide quality communication products and services that improve the lives of their customers, while achieving the goals of the stakeholders and providing rewarding challenging and ethical environment for their employees.
"While no technology will ever take the place of human interaction," says Billy, "Christians must stay on the forefront of technology. The cultural mandate in Genesis 1 commands us to be good stewards of His creation. The potential for the digital age has been a part of God's creation ever since He said 'Let there be light' and the first photon was formed. As with anything else, digital communications can be used for good or evil. Christians can use it to communicate with missionaries around the world, transmit the Bible, or save lives through medicine.
"Whether we like it or not, the 'bad guys' are going to use technology, too. It's our choice and responsibility as stewards of His creation to use technology to help transform the culture for His Kingdom."
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 4, Winter 2000