What’s Going On: Yin and Yang keep partners together for 30 years
Scott Gladstone and Neil Ryan are always looking around for new business opportunities far removed from the Wireless Zone franchises for which they are best known locally.
But sometimes they jump into a new enterprise without knowing exactly where they might land. Luckily, they've made lots of friends who can help extract them from the proverbial snakepit.
That's what happened five years ago when they decided to buy a hotel in North Stonington not far from Foxwoods Resort Casino. Neither of them had ever operated a hotel, though they do own a campground and some trailer parks. So Gladstone decided to call Len Wolman, a longtime Wireless Zone customer and friend who runs The Waterford Hotel Group consultancy and lodging management company.
"Don't laugh at me; I bought a hotel," Gladstone blurted out over the phone. He then admitted he didn't know anything about the hotel business and asked for some advice.
"Don't you think you should have called me before you bought it?" came the bemused reply from the droll Wolman in an accent tinged by his South African upbringing.
Still, Wolman assured Gladstone he would sit down with him, along with his team, to help guide him through all the steps necessary to be successful. A few days later, there was a whole roomful of people at the Waterford Hotel Group headquarters, including Len's brother Mark Wolman, to offer expertise from a number of angles.
Gladstone said he expected to pay for the half day that Wolman's team took to answer all of his questions, but Wolman demurred, saying he was doing it out of friendship.
"It's part of being part of an unbelievable community," Gladstone said in an interview early this month with his longtime business partner and former Keene State College fraternity brother Ryan.
It's a business community Gladstone and Ryan broke into just over 30 years ago at their flagship Groton store with the first iteration of what would turn into lucrative Wireless Zone stores associated with Verizon. They now own seven of them, including ones in New London and Norwich, and at one time ran as many as nine.
But the beginning was a struggle. Their initial franchise called The Phone Store largely was geared toward business executives and sales representatives who needed to make calls from their cars.
The technology at the time proved clunky and expensive, with microphones lodged in the visor, squiggly antennas hanging off the back of the car and call rates of 37 cents a minute adding up fast, not to mention monthly fees.
The installation process was time consuming and expensive, requiring the partners to invest in a special space to retrofit cars with the latest technology. Then car manufacturers started installing phones directly in cars, and it was clear that the car phone installation business was drying up.
Luckily, technology changes quickly, and cell phones saved the day. Their business as The Wireless Zone was born, as the company’s founder Russ Weldon (who also started The Phone Store) gave them the first local franchise in Groton.
But it's been their relationships that have helped to grow the business over the years. And that has been nurtured by a laser-like attention to customer service that Ryan and Gladstone have since carried over to their other business interests, emphasizing going above and beyond to make sure exceeding expectations is the No. 1 goal.
"We're really in the customer service business," Gladstone said. "We're about relationships. It's white glove, concierge service."
"Taking care of people is a common thread of what we do," Ryan added.
They cited the story of A/Z Electric, now A/Z Corp. in North Stonington, and its leader, the late Ed Lorenz.
"They grew from one phone to hundreds over the decades," Gladstone said.
The same is true of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, hospitals, ambulance services, you name it.
As to how they have maintained consistently good service over the years, the pair credit their employees, as well as good training. They send employees personal notes on their birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. When someone does especially well, a handwritten note from one of the partners is common.
"If I don't exceed their expectations, how can I expect them to exceed mine," Gladstone said.
"Neil and I are huge ambassadors, with Zoom or in-person meetings every morning with at least one of our stores," he added. "We're boots on the ground, still."
"A lot of my job is just about the culture," said Ryan, who is the day-to-day overseer of the Wireless Zone stores they now operate in five locations, including Norwich.
"It's about going above and beyond,“ added Gladstone. ”We haven't changed. We've just sharpened our pencil."
And they’ve done it as business partners and friends for more than three decades -- no easy task.
"I make a mess, and he helps me clean it up," Gladstone joked about how it all works.
"It's yin and yang,“ offered Ryan. ”I'm analytical; he's more emotional. I'm into numbers and planning; he's more spur of the moment."
Whatever it is about their management styles, it translates into great customer loyalty, leading to many people who leave the area staying with the business. They have customers in Indiana, South Carolina and all over.
And a few years ago they made a conscious decision to diversify, adding real estate and several other service businesses to the mix, including one that specializes in lawn irrigation systems.
Through it all, the college buddies have made sure to give back to the community in small ways and big. Waterford Country School, which helps stabilize young people with various troubles, has been a big beneficiary. They also run a successful backpack giveaway at the start of the school year that also now includes many other staples students require. Their charitable contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars annually led them to being named the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut's Citizens of the Year in 2016.
They are both corporators, Gladstone with Chelsea Groton Bank and Ryan with the local Chamber.
As to the future, both admit they still enjoy what they’re doing, and hope now to pass down some knowledge to a new generation of businesspeople. They helped lead the charge locally in the Let’s Go 860 campaign during COVID that helped connect local businesses to resources that helped many survive a scary climate for everything from restaurants to nonprofits.
"In our world, retirement isn't even in the future, not in the next five or 10 years," Ryan said.
“I still feel a fire in my belly,” added Gladstone. “It excites me (going to work). I feel young at heart.”
Lee Howard is The Day’s community editor who spent 10 years covering the local business community. To reach him with a story idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org.