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Even though Tel America has absorbed 19 small telephone companies in several states in the past nine years, it still is considered "small potatoes" when compared to AT&T, US Sprint or MCI.

But, just like the rent-a-car company that keeps trying harder, Utah-based Tel America keeps trying harder to please its customers and sign up new ones for its telephone services.In its never-ending competition with the "telephone big boys," an advertisement the company runs in newspapers is a tip-off to what Tel America is trying to do: "$321,300,000 later and our competition still hasn't told you the truth about long distance," the headline reads on Tel America's most recent ads.

"But since our rates are so low, we don't have tons of money to spend on advertising to remind you of that fact. So please save this ad. And read it next time you get one of their long-distance bills," the ad concludes. Similar television ads want customers to tape the Tel America message and play it over and over.

Tel America has come a long way since Jerry E. Dyer, who is vice president of operations, co-founded the company with Bruce L. Lybbert in 1982. A house at 1618 S. Main was converted into offices for Tel America's first headquarters, a far cry from the space the company occupies today at 324 S. State.

Dyer and Lybbert incorporated the company the same year, ordered some equipment and made their first calls in September 1982. They did the marketing and hired a secretary to do the billing. With its long-distance call computerized electronic switch installed in a building near 15 W. South Temple, Tel America began to grow and soon hired a switch technician and two salespeople.

By October 1982, Dyer recalled, the switch had reached its capacity, so a moratorium was placed on sales until the fledgling company purchased another switch for $200,000. This was about the time of the Bell System breakup and deregulation, so Tel America purchased use of AT&T WATS lines plus some private lines in bulk and was able to offer lower prices.

Tel America bought another switch and installed it in Layton because customers were waiting for a low-cost service, Dyer said, but in February 1983 the switch reached capacity and the switch in Salt Lake City was expanded to 83 ports (connections). Even with the expansion, the switch was expected to be at capacity by May 1983 and, with credit lines running out, the co-founders were looking to sell.

But then Tel America officials arranged for some financing and purchased National Telecom at 324 S. State, which gave Tel America a 960-port switch. "That move solved our switching capacity problems, and it meant we had the ability to continue growing," said Dyer.

On Sept. 20, 1983, Tel America purchased Call America of Salt Lake and Call America of Ogden, which gave the company a larger customer base and a bigger presence in the market. Tel America purchased a "modularly expandable switch" from Digital Switch Corp. in 1984 and looked for an area where the 960-port switch could be located.

Dyer said he settled on San Diego, but he needed people. He was acquainted with John A. Kennedy and Vicki Jensen, who worked for US Sprint in Salt Lake City and later were transferred to Seattle, Wash. He talked them into working for him in San Diego, and the first long-distance calls from that city were made July 4, 1984.

By February 1985, Tel America had purchased two other companies and the San Diego officials could see they soon would run out of switching capacity. Later that year, Tel America purchaseda 12,000-port switch, acquired three small telephone companies in Denver and moved the 960-port switch to Denver.

Dyer said that on July 27, 1987, Tel America became associated with Telephone Electronics Corp., Jackson, Miss., which has telephone resell operations similar to those of Tel America. Tel America's parent company is Transtel Communications Inc.

In December 1988, Tel America purchased Futurtek, a company that had filed for bankruptcy. Futurtek had operations in Nevada and northern California, and soon Tel America opened marketing offices in northern California and Reno and Las Vegas, Nev.

Tel America made several other acquisitions and also has sold some of its operations in Denver and Idaho. Today, the company has 45,000 customers, does $60 million in sales and has 220 employees. Besides Dyer and Kennedy, the marketing director, the management team at Tel America consists of Harold W. Paulos, operations manager; Chad Bauer, marketing manager; and Sam Fowers, finance director. Lybbert left the company on March 13, 1990.

Kennedy said 75 percent of Tel America's revenue comes from commercial sales and their sales effort is geared mainly toward businesses. He said his company's main selling points are excellent service and low prices. Kennedy said what advertisements Tel America has are an attempt to acquaint the public with the company but still not spend huge sums of money.

A native of Havre, Mont., Dyer's family moved to Plummer, Idaho, when he was 6 months old. He received a chemical engineering degree from the University of Idaho and worked for Thiokol as an engineer. He also has worked as a stock broker and established several businesses.

Dyer said the company's success can be attributed to hard work and dedication of the employees. "They are willing to spend long hours to make it successful," he said.

He is not afraid to spend long hours himself to assure Tel America's success. In the first six years, he got up at 3 a.m. and was at work at 3:45 a.m., working until 7 p.m. In the last few years he has slacked off, but just a little.

His alarm goes off at 4 a.m. now.