Got a Quarter?

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If you’re in Milwaukee and see a deaf guy trying to get money out of a pay phone, don’t feel sorry for him. It’s only John Fletcher making a living.

Fletcher, 37, is the owner and president of Northlink of Wisconsin. “We basically monitor, repair, collect and maintain pay phone routes in Milwaukee and Northern Ilinois,” he explains. “That includes pay phones on streets, at malls, factories, and the penal system.”

Fletcher founded Northlink after returning from three years at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “My father has always been self-employed and motivated, so that rubbed off on me. When I came back from New York, I went with my father to his job, where he was selling long distance plans to small business owners. One of my father’s friends was unhappy with the service of a pay phone provider that was on his store property, and asked us to put a phone there.”

Fletcher and his father, unfamiliar with how to do this, researched the possibility of owning pay phones and learned about the industry. They then invested in six phones and equipment for the first six months. “The company started small, and I was working at the Target distribution center for Target stores in Wisconsin and Illinois,” he remembers. “I worked ten-hour days building my company. We moved a few phones around, learned from our mistakes and then grew and grew.”

Today, Northlink owns over 250 public pay phones, along with managing 400 pay phones for three companies based in Milwaukee, Ohio and New York. In addition, Fletcher is a service technician for AT&T. “AT&T owns the right to be the telephone dial-tone provider for the Kenosha County jails. The phones are coinless and only take collect calls from inmates at the jails, so I service the hardware should anything happen, like a broken handset or things like that,” says Fletcher, who uses a hearing aid to listen for dial tones and other sounds. “I also service the computer system of these phones because they’re monitored. It’s an interesting job, needless to say.”

Northlink also owns all 20 payphones at Miller Park Stadium, which houses the Milwaukee Brewers. “I installed them all when the stadium was under construction,” Fletcher says proudly. “That’s just one way we make revenue, which is in a number of ways. For instance, for every long distance call made from one of my pay phones, we receive payments from the long-distance company. We also are paid per phone by the company we manage phones for.”

Fletcher continues to work with his father, who is the vice president of the company and handles administrative work. “I love the freedom of being on the road to work, when, how and where I want,” says Fletcher, who drives anywhere between Milwaukee and Joliet, Ill. – a distance of over 100 miles one way. “At times I have to do big projects like installation of phones or wiring. These jobs require part-time workers, and I have always hired deaf workers because they are the best, work hard and don’t talk too much like hearing people. Although I’m kidding about the talking too much part, deaf people are definitely very hard workers.”

That’s not to say that Northlink’s growth has been without challenges. “The biggest challenges are in getting up and making things happen,” Fletcher says thoughtfully. “You know, this is a cliché but if you snooze, you lose. My job is a sales job, so I have to continuously go out looking for location and opportunity.”

Fletcher is also honest about the demands of being self-employed. “Self-employment hours are 25 hours a day and eight days a week. Like I said, you snooze, you lose. You are never finished, and if you do finish your job, find something else to add to your company.”

He’s gained some wisdom on the realities of being a company owner. “If you’re a deaf person wanting to do this work, you have to never be put down. You can do anything, and if you need assistance, it’s out there. Don’t be afraid to ask, research, question and proceed. Pessimism or discouragement isn’t worth it. There’s not a reason in the world that you cannot do what you want.”

Fletcher has no plans of changing careers any time soon. “I plan to stay with this form of work for as long as I can. I see and have no reason to ever stop this kind of job. Besides, I love the feeling of empowering yourself to greatness, and I get that feeling through this job.”

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