It doesn’t get more grass roots than Cunningham Telephone & Cable. Its first calls, in 1944, ran through a circuit board in the basement of founders Dean and Hazel Cunningham. The couple offered party line service to tiny Glen Elder, in north central KS. Hazel helped run the basement switchboard, which resembled something you’d see on “The Andy Griffith Show.” The first day the company offered service, its acquired plant was in sorry shape. Dean told the lone service tech, “We don’t have nothing to sell but customer service. Let’s get to it.”

Skip forward 70 years and Cunningham Telephone now is Cunningham Telephone & Cable. It’s in 12 communities, providing digital and HD video, high-speed data and voice. But don’t get overwhelmed by the numbers. As Brent Cunningham, VP & GM, tells us, two of those communities have fewer than 30 subscribers. In all, Cunningham has about 4,500 video customers, with 25% taking digital service. Most communities it serves are rural; the nearest Walmart is 40 miles away.

Cunningham also remains a family business, with 3rd and 4th generations of Cunninghams running it, along with 30
employees. After Dean, who was Brent’s great grandfather, his grandfather Robert ran things; following him was Brent’s uncle David. Now it’s Brent’s father, John.

The company’s ethic remains pretty much what it’s always been—grow the business locally by providing great customer service and offering advanced products. Today those products are delivered by fiber optics, digital and IP equipment.

Cunningham’s customers are its neighbors. “We know almost all our customers by their _ rst name,” Brent says. On the morning we spoke with him, he received a call at 7:30 am at home from a customer. “I don’t mind that at all,” he says. “I think it’s an advantage that our customers can talk directly with the management of our company.”

It’s easy to see the roots of Cunningham’s commitment to community service. Commitment is a family trait. Two summers ago, a Cunningham contractor crew accidentally cut a sewer main. With all of its technicians occupied, company President John Cunningham grabbed a spade and soon was knee-deep in the mud. “That spoke volumes about commitment,” Brent says.

In this environment, community participation is essential, and Cunningham is heavily involved. Several years ago an area food bank was in dire need, so Cunningham ran a Christmas promotion in which customers could bring food items to its of_ ces and in return get a discount on their cable bills. “I was amazed at the response we got,” Brent says. “We’ve continued to do that every year since.” Other businesses have followed suit.

The company also works closely with the local technical college, serving on its advisory board, taking interns and providing supplies for classes. “This year we had the opportunity to be a founding member of the Solomon Valley Community Foundation, which help set up an endowment fund for scholarships and community projects.” Another recent initiative involved a donation of funds and volunteer labor to help build a city park.

“Cunningham is a great role-model for small-town cable companies, they care about their customers, and it is evident in their service and community involvement,” says NCTC VP, Communications Dan Mulvenon. Mulvenon knows first-hand. His father-in-law built the original system in Beloit, KS, now owned by Cunningham. When his mother-in-law was moving last year, Mulvenon’s wife visited the Beloit office. “She said it was like stepping back in time—the same office she visited often as a child, but more so in the care and time the office rep took to help her with her mom’s account.”

As Brent says, “We are fully vested in the success of these areas not just for our company, but to help the areas succeed for the benefit of all of us.” After all, “we and all our employees live here, too.”
-Seth Arenstein

Fast Facts
Cunningham has 4200 DOCSIS 3.0 cable-modem customers
and about 2,800 CLEC voice customers.

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