By MARILYN TINNIN
Joey Fail Garner, Executive Vice President of Telephone Electronic Corporation (TEC), wields enormous responsibilities on her slender shoulders. The epitome of Southern grace, she comes across as the girl next-door, winsome and unassuming. It is easy to picture her on the sidelines at her children’s football or volleyball games cheering with gusto, or meeting her girlfriends for a 5 a.m. run and being the one who encourages everyone to wake up and embrace the morning. It is even easy to appreciate that she was an outstanding athlete in both tennis and basketball at Bay Springs High School in the 1980s. It is easy to picture her as a smart girl who graduated from Vanderbilt. It is not as easy to picture her sitting behind a desk, heading up the day-to-day operations of TEC, its six local telephone companies, two cable companies, and other affiliated technological entities across four states. However, the Mississippi Business Journal named this soft-spoken lady the 2008 Business Woman of the Year. And if you ask her, she is doing exactly what she set her mind to do as a little girl. That would be working in the family business.
Joey (and yes, that is her real name) is anything but a stereotype. As the first child of Jody and Nancy Fail, she came into the world giving a 200% effort at whatever she did. She credits her small town idyllic childhood and the consistent example of her parents’ strong faith for shaping her work ethic as well as the values that are apparent in her every pursuit. Whether it is being James Garner’s wife, the mother of three teenagers, or leading the company, you can count on Joey to give her all.
Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry” or Robert Young’s Father Knows Best series were very close to the reality of Bay Springs, Mississippi, where Joey grew up. A community where everybody knew everybody and walking was the preferred mode of transportation, the population was—and still is—around 2,000 residents. It doesn’t sound like the spot to launch a company that would be among the nation’s leaders in technology solutions. But it was.
It was 1923 when Joey’s grandparents, Estelle and Donnie Fail, purchased the Bay Springs Telephone Company. There were about 120 subscribers, and Estelle became the “Number, please” voice and only operator of the magneto switchboard. Included in the business purchase was a cinder block house that doubled as both residence and business office.
Joey explains that small communities all had their own phone company because as the American Bell Company (AT&T’s forerunner) stretched its network across the United States, they were not eager to lay cable in outlying rural communities. They reasoned it was an expense with little return. Such a policy resulted in small towns like Bay Springs forming their own local companies.
The Bay Springs Phone Company had a staff of two—Estelle and Donnie. Joey recalls many a story of her grandfather walking the country roads with a cane fishing pole in his hand, not to fish, but to unravel the telephone lines that became tangled in a storm or a strong wind. When Joey’s dad graduated from LSU with a degree in electrical engineering, it was a natural fit for him to take a role in his parents’ business. During the decade of the 1960s as technology was expanding, the Fails began purchasing other rural telephone companies in Alabama and Tennessee. Long hours and a willingness to do whatever it took—that’s what they did.
“Dad and Granddad were always very forward thinking. They were always on the forefront of technology,” Joey says and adds, “I hope I inherited that trait.” Their legacy was a degree of willingness to change in some areas while holding on to the core values that are the foundation of business integrity. Joey gets that. It has been modeled for her for her entire life.
With the addition of two cable television companies, the Fails formed TEC as the parent company, and they continued to grow their customer base through acquisitions. When AT&T divested in the early 1980s, TEC formed Mississippi’s first alternative long-distance carrier, CommuniGroup. The only constant in the rapidly evolving telecommunication industry was— and still is—change, and Joey watched from the sidelines as her father successfully adapted.
Joey can’t remember a time when she was not aware of business, since she could walk out her back door and play on rolls of cable and see the trucks parked in her yard. Her dad came home for lunch every day, and business was dinnertime conversation. She adored her father who made family a high priority. He led the family devotions each night. He was always there to encourage and advise her, and as she watched him make decisions about the future of his business, she saw how very much he sought God’s direction before making a decision. Even as a little girl before she was sure what she wanted to become when she grew up, she did know that she wanted to be involved in the company her father and grandfather built.
Jody Fail says he always recognized in his daughter a unique skill set—“her determination to strive for excellence, her love for people, her competiveness and her positive attitude about life.” He did not set out to groom her to take over the company one day, but there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that she was capable. His goals for his first-born were not to be a CEO, but rather “to enjoy a happy Christian family life of her own and to succeed in her personal ambitions.” Well, that “personal ambition” was to work in her father’s company!
TEC’s growth and success afforded Joey a lot of opportunities to travel with her family during her formative years. Seeing the big world was its own education, but no matter how far she went, she always loved to get back home to Bay Springs. There was a deep connection to the town, the Baptist church, the school, and the people who were so much a part of her. Despite having lived in Ridgeland for more than a decade, she still answers the question, “Where are you from?” with “Bay Springs, Mississippi.”
A high school English teacher encouraged Joey, who was valedictorian of her class, to apply for early admission to Vanderbilt. She did and was accepted. Although her family bleeds purple and gold and roots for those LSU Tigers, Joey never applied for admission anywhere except Vanderbilt. She visited the campus only once before her freshman year and enrolled in the Engineering School because she was certain she was going to follow in her dad’s footsteps.
Joey laughs and says that it became apparent very early that she was not cut out to be an engineer. She switched her major to English and “loved every minute of it!”
It was in the summer following her freshman year that a friend invited her to spend a weekend in Jackson and attend a Bryan Adams concert at the Jackson Coliseum. The friend also arranged a blind date with a Mississippi State engineering student, James Garner. “I know it sounds corny,” she says, “But I knew from the start that he was the one for me.”
James was equally smitten with Joey saying that once he saw those blue eyes, she had him before the first “Hello!” After a three-year, long-distance courtship, they married in 1991, and spent the first year together in Huntsville, where James worked for Rockwell Industries, a company heavily involved in the construction of the space shuttle.
“When I graduated, I wondered how I was going to work for the company with a degree in English.” Jody Fail was a step ahead of her. As TEC was continuing to grow across the Southeast, it seemed important to develop a sense of connectedness among the divisions in different places. Fail wanted to start a corporate monthly newsletter, a very innovative idea for that time. He assigned the task to his English-major daughter. In order to do the thorough job that Joey felt compelled to do, she visited every company, interviewed everyone involved and gained a great understanding of every aspect of TEC. It was also important to Joey to win the trust, respect, and friendship of the people who made the company run. She did not want anyone to think she had the job simply because she was Jody Fail’s daughter.
Jody had no doubt his daughter would do a bang-up job. All these years later, the newsletter continues, and although Joey’s job titles and duties have grown with the years, she is still the one responsible for that newsletter. Her personal touch is all over it. She has a knack for making all 250 employees in four states feel not only connected, but like they are all essential members of a big family—because in Joey’s mind, they certainly are. It takes more than the expertise with nouns and verbs to inject warmth between the lines. Joey does that by being herself, by sharing parts of her family’s life lessons, and by her inclusive articles that introduce the TEC employees to each other and highlight numerous community projects that different divisions take on in their respective cities. Community service is a sort of “extension” of Jesus’ “salt and light” parable. The result is a common spirit of camaraderie and teamwork.
Lisa Clarke, Director of Marketing at TEC, tells me that meetings here always begin with prayer and a Bible verse. There is a very positive culture and a sense that everyone is pulling in the same direction. That sort of prevailing attitude starts at the top.
Amanda Wootton, one of Joey’s best friends, prayer partner, and 5 a.m. running buddy, says, “I have never met anybody who prays over every single thing the way Joey does.” She is a calm and serene person who has an amazing ability to see the big picture. In a situation where most of us panic first and seek God after all else has failed, Joey’s first instinct is always to pray and to listen and to let God lead.
Joey is a prayer warrior and always has been. In her unassuming way, she shrugs off her friend’s praise. She says she has just always talked to God—a practice she began as a small child and one that has always seemed quite natural to her. “I’ve had a close relationship with God my whole life, and that’s all because of my parents and the way they lived their lives.” There may have been times, she says, when she was slightly bothered by the fact that her testimony has no dramatic episodes and trials to recount. Does that make it any less real?
She says she wonders if there will be some big calamity down the road somewhere, and if there is, she prays she will be faithful and that she will trust God’s hand as much in that trial as she has trusted Him all her life.
It’s a delicate balance to nurture a family and simultaneously lead in a corporate environment. There is nothing easy about it since it requires maximum effort from both sides of the brain! Add to the “mommy” challenge the fact that she and husband James, Vice President of Operations, work in the same office every day. How do you blend work and marriage and children and make it all work? It is an inspiring story all by itself.
Although they take two cars to work every day so that Joey can leave in time to pick up the children from school and be home when they are home, they do see each other during the day. And they make it a point to have lunch together most days. Most psychologists do not recommend husbands and wives working together. Why does this combination work?
James says, “Joey is a giver. She gives herself completely to whatever she does.” He adds that even though it may not be the easiest thing to understand, it is true that she puts her family before her job and she balances it all because of her very strong faith. Her relationship with the Lord grounds her, prioritizes for her, and keeps her focused.
The artwork and photos in her office illustrate James’ words. When their twin sons were in the first grade they had to describe their mom with words and their own original portrait of her. The resulting works of art hang behind her desk. Such clues about Joey in her young sons’ own words are tender, hilarious, and heartfelt. “Her favorite thing is playing with us.” “She loves to throw the baseball.” “She washes our clothes.” “She takes care of us.” “She reads to us.” “Her favorite food is Special K.” Clearly, these boys adore their mom.
Admitting that she knew nothing about raising boys until she had two, she has loved every new experience that has come as a result. Had there been just one son, Joey might have opted out of a few very special occasions. For instance, John and Joseph, like their dad, enjoy hunting. Because each boy has to have an adult with him, Joey has relished being that second adult. Many a chilly winter morning will find her wearing her camouflage and patiently watching for deer with one of the boys. It is a memory she will always be thankful she has made.
The first year the boys could actually shoot, they drew straws to see who went with Dad and who went with Mom. Much to John’s visible disappointment he drew his mother. He was sure his brother had the advantage, would benefit from Dad’s expertise, and certainly get the first deer. Not so. It was John who got the big one that day!
You will find the Garners on Sundays at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison. Joey has a leadership position in several key committees. During the week, Joey starts her day at 5:37 a.m. with either a five-mile run or a Pilates class, gets everyone off to school, and then gets herself to the office. She picks up the boys around 3:30. Sixteen-year-old Jessica, a volleyball player at St. Andrews, usually has a practice after school, and she can now drive herself home.
“Schedules change with different seasons,” says Joey, “Things have to be flexible.”
Although the Garner children appreciate the “family business” factor, Joey says, “It’s a little different for them because they don’t walk out the door and see the business everywhere the same way I did as a child.” She and James make it a point to not talk about business at home— mostly because the family is so busy, and so engaged and interesting, that there is just no time to subtract from the here and now—and the fun of family—to talk about work!
The constant, however, for the Garner children, is observing the generational faith that just has to inspire. Joey’s parents, Jody and Nancy, make most ballgames their grandchildren play. Holidays and weekends are family affairs. Gratitude is a big deal—blessings are not taken for granted. Thanksgiving is around the corner. You can bet the Fails and Garners, along with sister, Brandi and her husband Alan Callison, will be together, and the emphasis will be on giving thanks—to God. He is at the center of all they do.