Once you know Jim Corman’s story, it is easy imagine him as George Bailey, the character played by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s beloved holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” An angel shows George how miserable his town of Bedford Falls would be had George never been born.
Although it’s unlikely Corman’s hometown of Atmore would have become a Pottersville, many residents of this small southern Alabama community would have lacked quality employment had he not made a crucial career change. At the age of 33, Corman found himself second in command of one of the largest companies in the United States—a position that came with corporate jets and a big corner office.
But he gave it up in large part to create jobs for the people of Atmore.
Corman, 59, grew up working in his family’s Atmore-based telecommunications company and, after earning a degree in finance from Auburn University and an MBA from the University of Texas, joined the business full time. With Corman as president, the company grew into Southland Communications, a diversified telecommunications company.
Southland was acquired in 1988 by Telecom USA, listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the fourth largest long distance company in the United States. (Telecom was later acquired by MCI, which was acquired by Verizon). Corman stayed in Atmore as senior vice president of Telecom. Soon after the merger, the CEO announced that 65 people, mostly in Atmore, would be laid off.
“I’m from a small town, and I knew and loved these people, ” Corman recalls. “I told the chairman and CEO ‘you have to go through me to get to them.’” The CEO backed off, but ended up laying off 100 of Corman’s Atmore employees.
But a year later, Corman left Telecom USA to start his own company. The layoffs were a key reason for the split, as well as the frustration of working for a large public company. “I found myself uncomfortable with quarters. I prefer making long-term decisions, and corporate decisions were based on quarterly, short-term earnings.” In May of 1989, three months after his resignation, Touch 1 was launched.
The original business plan was to hire about 60 Atmore people who had been laid off by Telecom.
Touch 1 started with four employees and 10 years later, the company, still based in Atmore, had grown to 2, 000 employees and was billing 2.2 million customers each month.
Giving up a top position in the corporate world was not without risks, but in addition to creating hometown jobs, Corman wanted a work environment in which he had ample control. And he was confident in the financial potential of Touch 1.
“I took a 90 percent pay cut to start Touch 1, ” he laughs. “Here I was, me and four ladies working out of a rented old house in Atmore with one bathroom.”
One of the four ladies was former Telecom employee Tara Wiggins, who was responsible for accounting but did a bit of everything in Touch 1’s early days. At that time, she and her husband were raising their three young boys and her income was vital to the support of her family.
“Atmore is a small community and there were few decent jobs for the people who were laid off, ” remembers Wiggins, who now lives in Elberta in coastal Baldwin County. “Jim had many other opportunities, but he wanted to start this company.” The original four employees acquired Touch 1 stock, giving Wiggins the option to stay home with her children when Touch 1 was acquired by the NASDAQ-traded Z-Tel Communications Inc. in 2000.
“Touch 1 succeeded way beyond our expectations, ” Corman recalls. The Z-Tel acquisition allowed Corman and his wife, Jane, to establish the Atmore-based Corman Foundation, ranked in the top 10 largest national grant-making foundations that fund Christian agencies.
“Having more money doesn’t make you happier, every entrepreneur that has a successful exit understands that, ” notes Corman. “When I started my first company, the primary motivation was to provide for my family. When our needs were met, the motivation shifted to help others.”
After Touch 1’s success, Corman built a house on the beach in Sandestin, Fla., but decided he wasn’t ready to retire and “golf six days a week.” So after his 30-year career as a self-described “serial entrepreneur”—he’s started seven companies in all, including the first company to compete with AT&T for long-distance service in Alabama and Florida following telephone deregulation—the couple moved from Atmore to Auburn, where Corman began teaching courses in entrepreneurship at Auburn University.
Along with teaching, Corman is involved in his latest venture, Angel Investor Management Group, which he started with his son, Clay, and a Huntsville businessman. (The Cormans also have two grown daughters). The AIM Group is comprised of experienced angel investing professionals who manage multiple angel networks. AIM is currently managing angel networks in Huntsville, Birmingham and Auburn.
AIM is a means to help fellow entrepreneurs realize their goals. “Success is never completely your own, ” he says. “The AIM Group is an expression of gratitude for all the assistance I’ve received over the years.”
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.
By Jessica Armstrong