In Dean Parker's high school yearbook, his principal wrote that the young entrepreneur always had a phone with him and, one day, would own a phone company.
Today, the 37-year-old is founder, president and CEO of Callis Communications, recognized as one of the top telecommunications/unified communications companies on the Inc. 5000 list for four consecutive years. A leading provider of cloud communications services for key business markets across the Southeast, Callis has ranked as high as the 32nd fastest growing company in the United States and was named 2011 Small Business of the Year by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
Parker, a trustee of the University of Mobile and chair of the board's Development Committee, is quick to point to the source of direction in his life.
"When God calls you to do something, my answer is never going to be 'no' - it's going to be 'when?'" Parker said.
"When" is usually "now" for this energetic and enthusiastic entrepreneur who started his first business in high school selling waterless car wash products.
"If you can sell waterless car wash, you can sell anything." Parker said with a laugh.
As a student at Liberty University, he earned a bachelor's degree in just three years while also running student activities for the school and managing a budget of $1 million.
Newly married and just out of college, Parker decided to sell cars while waiting for his wife, Joanne, to finish her student teaching. His plan was to go to California and work in a booming dot-com company. Then a customer saw something special in this young man and asked Parker a life-changing question.
"Are you really doing this for the rest of your life?" asked Kevin Demery, then a 36-year-old vice president at General Electric.
"He offered me the job of a lifetime," Parker recalled. Right after college, Parker was running distribution for GE in 13 states. Within two years he received two promotions and managed a $130 million distribution channel in North America.
Taking a Risk
"Success to me was getting a good job after college, but God had a bigger job," Parker said. It was one that came with risks - a new city, a financial investment, a leap without any safety net except the assurance that God was calling him to something different.
At the age of 24, Parker left a secure and growing career with Ericsson (which had purchased the division from GE in 1988) and moved in 1999 to Mobile, AL, to start and run a paging provider, Allpage. He and Joanne knew one person in the city.
"It was a surrender for us. Everybody we knew in corporate America said we were crazy," he said. They were investing in a mature technology, a change was happening rapidly. He figured he had three to four years to make enough money to justify his investment, then find a direction for the company that would allow it to grow with new technology.
"Six months into it, cheap cell phones came out, and that drove into our market," he said. As his competitors went bankrupt, Parker was able to pick up some of their remaining clients.
But four years into the new business, he was earning one-third of what he had made at GE/Wricsson.
"I knew we had to energize and innovate ourselves," he said.
He turned to his customers and asked them to describe their biggest communications problems. He discovered that companies needed a knowledgeable and reliable partner that could provide them a cost-effective path to the next generation communications technologies that would allow them to grow their businesses.
In 2005, Allpage transitioned from paging-only services to a hosted PBX telephony service delivered by "voice over IP." The name is significant in that "Callis" means "path" in Latin, reflecting the company's desire to provide businesses with a clear pathway to superior technology solutions and customer support.
In 2009, Callis developed into a cloud-based unified communications company, providing hosted PBX, cloud-based telephony, data, security, email and collaboration services throughout the Southeast. A founding member of the Cloud Communications Alliance, Callis currently serves over 500 customers through the region.
The UMobile Connection
Just over a year after arriving in Mobile, Parker was attending a banquet at Dayspring Baptist Church, where he had been named the youngest deacon to serve. Mike Blaylock, then vice president for development at the University of Mobile, spoke at the event. The two met and a friendship began.
Through Blaylock, Parker met UMobile President Mark Foley. Soon, Parker asked Foley to mentor him, to help him become the husband, father, CEO and the godly man he desired to be.
They met once a month, sometimes once a quarter. Part of his "assignment" was to watch The Cosby Show. They would talk about the principles exhibited in the wholesome family television show, how they applied to Parker's life, and the challenges of being a man of God in a fallen world.
As his knowledge of the University of Mobile grew, so did his interest in becoming a part of the university's mission. As his business was expanding into new areas, one of his first customers was UMobile. In 2004, Callis was chosen to put in the infrastructure for wired and wireless internet in the new Samford Hall campus residence and to replace the university's aging phone system with their unified communications solution.
Today, Callis provides UMobile with phone and data services, such as Fiber and unified communications, as well as wireless internet throughout the campus. Parker said the university's early investment in Callis Communications' services, as well as Foley's personal investment in his life, were pivotal. In 2007 he joined the UMobile Board of Trustees, becoming one of the youngest members, and serving as chair of the Development Committee.
The Mentorship Circle
Parker said, "I went from Mark Foley investing in me to turning around and now I'm investing in the University of Mobile. People talk about mentorship and assume it is from the top down. I believe mentorship is a circle, that when you receive, you also give back.
He has seen that principle in action. When management changed at GE and the division was sold to Ericsson, Demery, who gave Parker his first dream job, was himself job-hunting. He first found a position in Detroit working for Parker's father, and eventually became the vice president of marketing at Callis.
Parker said the idea of mentorship as a circle essentially is living your life so that you are a part of the story of the lives of those around you.
"Success is not judged by money - it is judged by the number of lives you have touched," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what life is about."
As CEO of Callis, Parker said his job is to provide inspiration and vision, and to drive change. As a member of the UMobile Board of Trustees, he sees his role as supporting, encouraging and investing in a school that has taken a stand as a distinctively Christian university that can change the world.
"As we continue to embrace the things that define us, God will open doors to the people with the checkbooks and the physical resources that can help us expand," he said. The Millennial Generation is looking for value and differentiation, he said, and UMobile is providing the kind of experience they seek.
Parker said he wants to be part of the growth of UMobile, His involvement ranges from financial contributions and Board service as an advisor and strategic planner to using his influence to open doors of opportunity and introducing the school to other business leaders who also have a heart for God and for being part of something significant.
Each Fall semester, Callis employees are on the UMobile campus, helping students unload cars and move into campus housing. It's a mandatory event, and one that Parker believes is a fresh reminder for employees that investing in the lives of others honors God.
A Life of Obedience
In the summer of 2009, Parker noticed that college friend Ken Coleman was on Facebook. The host of Catalyst and the Catalyst Podcast, Coleman has interviewed hundreds of celebrities, and his "One Question with Ken Coleman" audio blog has attracted more than 50,000 visits in less than a year. As a reporter for Comcast Sports and Atlanta's ESPN radio affiliate, he has interviewed some of sport's biggest personalities.
"God said, 'go see him.' A week later we were sitting at dinner in Atlanta and he was telling me about his dream to start a TV show called 'Life is Sport,' where he would interview sports figures and find out what drew them to their sport. I pulled my checkbook out and said, 'I am in!' I thought that God's purpose was for me to be a business partner with Ken to develop Life is Sport," Parker said.
Episodes of the show were taped and aired. Tony Dungy, an evangelical Christian and the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, was scheduled to be a guest.
"Tony was telling us his story of adopting four kids after having three biological kids," Parker said. Dungy talked about the children waiting for adoption, and how if just one family for every three churches would adopt a child, all the children would find homes.
With three children already, Parker said he had never thought about adoption. He tentatively brought the idea up to his wife. He was surprised at her reaction. She said God had told her eight months previously to adopt a child. She had asked God to put that desire in her husband's heart if that was His will.
They are in the process of adopting 4-year-old Zachary. The television show featuring Dungy was the last episode of "Life if Sport." God's purpose, Parker said, was bigger than a television show.
"If God tells you to do something, don't ask 'why' - that kept people out of the Promised Land. If God tells you to go, then go. It's going to be amazing, and I have a little boy whose life is going to be changed because of it," he said.
Keeping It Real
Living the life that God has called you to live, being a positive part of the stories of others' lives, and making an impact through your walk and talk - these things are important to Dean Parker.
"We have to be careful that we don't live our normal life and compare it to somebody else's highlight reel," he said. Keeping it real - being vulnerable - opening your heart and following God - these are the things that change lives.
"To be able to say, 'this is what I did and lives were changed for it' is better than any paycheck you can have," Parker said. "At the end of the day, hearing 'well done, good and faithful servant' is extremely important to me."