Upstream heeds the call: Travel center growing along with demand

Jerry Johnson has come closer to home. The Grand Forks, N.D., native and University of North Dakota graduate is president and CEO of Upstream, the travel call center company spun off from Rosenbluth International and today owned by a company from...


Jerry Johnson has come closer to home.

The Grand Forks, N.D., native and University of North Dakota graduate is president and CEO of Upstream, the travel call center company spun off from Rosenbluth International and today owned by a company from India.

In a sense, Upstream is going against the stream in the call center business. While U.S. businesses are taking heat for outsourcing call centers and service jobs to India and other nations, Upstream is an Indian-owned company adding jobs here.

"Other outsourced providers have been forced to offer only offshore solutions to grow their businesses, while we thrive in the United States," Johnson said.

Johnson, a former Eastman Kodak international executive, in 2001 was hired by Rosenbluth International owner Hal Rosenbluth, a North Dakota native living in Philadelphia who made a name for himself in the travel business, to take Upstream in a new direction.


The sale of Rosenbluth International's Upstream division to India's 106-year-old Godrej Group came as a result of changes in the travel industry that were in motion even prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Johnson said.

Corporate travelers - Rosenbluth International's bread and butter - were fast shifting from the use of customer service line agents for travel to online booking. That left the Upstream division with too much excess capacity with its lines and customer service representatives, Johnson said.

"Hal (Rosenbluth) thought we ought to be able to find some other uses for the call centers," Johnson said.

While the Fargo call center and centers in Chesapeake, Va., and Campbellsville, Ky., were sold in November to the Godrej Group, one-time Rosenbluth International call centers in Dickinson, Williston and Linton, N.D., were sold to American Express.

Johnson's charge - under both Rosenbluth and the new ownership - has been to fill excess call capacity by offering services to online travel companies and airlines.

Clients include Orbitz, Travelocity, Site 59 (an online company serving last-minute travelers), United Airways and others. Upstream also does scheduling for U.S. Air Cargo and Web management for travel companies.

The company's strategic plan calls for revenue growth to reach $50 million in the next three years, including adding more jobs and opening new contact center locations as it pursues expansion into new industry verticals, including pharmaceutical and electronic retailing.

"We've gone from basically zero to


$25 million in annual revenue in less than three years," Johnson said. "That's pretty significant growth in a time when other businesses were in downturn."

In addition to its three U.S. call centers, Upstream operates an international call center in Mumbai, India. That's the home of Vijay Chrishna, an Upstream investor and the company's managing director. Calls at the Mumbai center are handled in English, said Chrishna, who was visiting the Fargo center last week and flies here from India about every five weeks.

Nearly everyone in India can speak English. Chrishna said schoolchildren in India, from a young age, are taught in three languages: their native tongue; the language of their state; and English. Because of time differences, the India call center is most heavily staffed during the night there.

As a result, U.S. companies are outsourcing call centers to India, Chrishna said.

"You have a pretty good pool of people available. They're fluent in English and well-trained," he said.

Godrej invested in Upstream precisely for its U.S.-based call center operations, Crishna said.

Already, over the first five months of this year, Upstream has increased its U.S. work force by nearly 15 percent.

Of the 840 employees among the four call centers, 300 are in Fargo, making it the largest in the company.


"We're an in-bound call center," Johnson said. "We don't call people at dinner time and try to sell them insurance."

Johnson said the Midwestern work ethic allows the center to be productive. Service employees at the center start out at $8.75 an hour and can escalate up to $17 an hour, working the phones and computers to help customers. Managers can make more.

"We have a lot of college-educated associates and, because we're a growing company, have a lot of opportunities for them," Johnson said. "That is also part of our mission."

Angie Knapp, Upstream's senior human resource manager, said they need at least 20 new employees in the Fargo center by mid-July. "With the lowest unemployment level in the nation, that makes it a challenge, but we seem to find good people," she said.

The center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Clocks there are set to reflect the four time zones across the nation. The Weather Channel is on TV monitors, keeping tabs on airport delays across the nation.

"If we know there's a thunderstorm over Chicago, we can predict a influx of calls from there," Johnson said.

The Midwestern accent, or sometimes "neutral" sound, works well in the call industry, he said.

"The biggest issue is listening skills," Johnson said. "You have to be able to articulate and modulate in a tone that lets the customer know you understand their issues and that you care."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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