Founder and CEO of Aeneas Internet and Telephone and Downtown Jackson Pioneer
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Woody Woodard.
Jonathan Harlan is a native of Jackson, Tennessee. He is married to Fiona and the father of four children.
Harlan received a Bachelor of Arts with Honors from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He was a scholarship recipient for one year’s study at the University of Pune, Maharastra, India in 1986. In 1992 Harlan received a Masters of Arts degree from Miami University of Ohio. He did post graduate work at the University of Virginia in 1993.
In 1996 Harlan was named Jackson Jaycee’s Young Man of the Year. He was co-founder of the Lambuth Area Neighborhood Association (L.A.N.A.) in 1993, and in 2001 he received a L.A.N. A. Service Award. He served as a Madison County Commissioner from 1994-2001, and he has served on numerous boards and received many recognitions.
Harlan founded Aeneas Internet Services in 1995, and he founded Aeneas Internet and Telephone in 1999, of which he is Chief Executive Officer.
VIP: On that fateful day of May 3, 2003 at 12:30 pm when a tornado almost devastated downtown Jackson you lost your Aeneas building and everything in it! Was this a turning point in the life of your company—Aeneas Internet and Telephone?
Jonathan Harlan: Well, yes, not by choice of course. Where you normally grow a company organically step by step the tornado caused rebuilding of our company both physically and strategically. It definitely impacted the way we think, the way we operate and the way we serve our customers. We started Aeneas Internet Services in 1996 on Lafayette in the former Harlan Insurance Company building. Then we renovated 301 S. Church Street in 1999 until the storm of 2003. All of that hard work and renovation was a total loss!
VIP: Talk about the renovation of the former First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, your current business address in downtown Jackson. When you realized that your building was totally devastated, did you have a course of action or was it survival of the fittest?
JH: The first order of business was continuation of services for our customers. Aeneas had a disaster recovery plan, but we did not anticipate an F-5 tornado! (More often than not, customers do not think about business interruptions in the event of a disaster like a tornado or fire. Customers need to have continuity plans, and we offer that service.)
It was obvious at the time of the tornado that our business could not continue operations at the destroyed location. It was a moment of triage—making the best decision in the worst circumstances knowing that none of them was optimal. Quick decisions had to be made on how to serve the most customers in the best way.
Some services were restored within 24 to 48 hours, some within a week and some within a month. When finished we had an even better and more robust network. That involved sleepless nights for weeks, literally living on Coca Colas and candy bars. We got our telephone up first, long distance up second, one class of Internet services up and so on. We worked down the list of classes of customer services. We had a contingency site able to bring the customers up.
The next decision was where do we re-build the company. The decision happened on the street between 1 and 3 am. It was very dramatic. We had no power. The air had the smell of ozone in it. We had to dodge trees and telephone lines. There was the smell of natural gas and transformers. It was deathly quiet and eerie. It was almost a spiritual moment. Why me, I thought? I had a moment of self- indulgence. All of our work destroyed in a moment!...It makes your heart skip.
Slowly I reached my staff on a cellular phone and some started driving in. They all assembled in the middle of the night. They went home and showered and within three hours we started digging things out of our location. Then we removed debris and gathered equipment that was actually operational under piles of debris and water. The next few weeks we thought where do we go? A building on Court Square had crumbled. I had a moment of weakness when I thought about leaving downtown, but I am so thankful that we stayed downtown. Fiona suggested that I look at an old church on Cumberland. The brick was crumbling and tree roots were growing through the sidewalk. It looked abandoned and indeed it was. As I crawled into it I discovered that the building had a bunker! So that building where our business is now located is great, and it is next door to the BellSouth building. It made sense in my business to locate there. It was a great historical renovation with reinforced concrete walls. It is really built well. It was a win-win from a business sense, and it enhanced the beauty of downtown Jackson and encouraged others to further invest in downtown Jackson.
VIP: Not only were you a pioneer in downtown Jackson renovation but you were also a pioneer when you established Aeneas Internet Services in 1995. How difficult was it to explain your new business concept to potential local and regional customers?
JH: Aeneas Internet and Telephone as it exists today was definitely an evolution. It was a series of benchmarks and goals, each one leading to another challenge. But in 1995 it was just an interesting concept.
I knew that e-commerce—people buying things over the internet—was going to become commonplace. During my research I realized that there was no internet access in West Tennessee. We needed internet first In order to have e-commerce. So that’s when the idea for Aeneas began because I knew that Jackson and all of the counties surrounding Jackson from Kentucky to Alabama needed internet access. That’s when I became an internet service provider. From that, broadband evolved and from that we were so heavily involved in the telephone company. People used telephone lines to get on the internet. That was so poorly provided. There was a need and we could do a better job. So we became a telephone company. We have been moving at the pace of lightning ever since. It has been unfathomable! I never anticipated a 20-year plan. John Lennon says ‘life happens.’ I’ve been fortunate that the decisions and opportunities presented themselves serially.
VIP: Was the tornado the beginning of a re-birth of you and your company?
JH: Yes, you could say that. We built the business from the ground up twice. Initially it was a one-employee business. I was the one employee! Later we had 10 or 11 employees. Now we have 25 employees.
Today Aeneas Telephone and Internet customers may be found in every rural county in West Tennessee and many in Middle Tennessee and many out of state. Aeneas Internet and Telephone has been named to “Entrepreneur Magazine’s” Hot 500 list of fastest growing businesses in the United States as well as “Business Tennessee Magazine’s” Hot 100 and “Inc. Magazines” Inc. 5000.
VIP: Has your business concept exceeded expectations? You have been quoted as saying that you ‘are investing in the economic future of West Tennessee.” Elaborate on that statement.
JH: Yes, it has exceeded my expectations because as you move forward in time, your environment and changes expand. Business people get the short shrift in the area of creativity. Business people are enormously receptive and adaptive. This technology did not exist 20 years ago. Now it is ubiquitous and so the opportunity for services expands totally.
What I care about is West Tennessee’s future. You get to a point in your business career when you think about things objectively. What are the effects of your business? Our businesses are dependent upon the whole of West Tennessee’s economy, so I’m keenly aware that we need a lot of West Tennessee communities to thrive and grow. Some counties with a median age of 50s have fewer people living in them than they did in 1946! What we need is to reverse those trends. We need young people to choose to live here for jobs and recreation, and we want them to open businesses and help us to think bigger….
VIP: What are the biggest challenges in your business at present?
JH: There are many. We need more people moving to and staying in West Tennessee. My business will do just fine unless we de-populate West Tennessee. This is not visible to us in Jackson, but in other areas they are struggling to keep young people local. We want a pro-business environment in West Tennessee. We also want to encourage lifestyle, entertainment and outdoor activities as well as jobs. In West Tennessee Aeneas Internet and Telephone will do just fine as long as we have a population to serve.
VIP: What do you most enjoy about your business?
JH: I love my customers. I like being around intelligent people doing creative, unique things and who love what they do. That’s the definition of entrepreneurship. I see those attributes in people who use our technology. I work with a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs.
VIP: You are quite an entrepreneur. Your latest is a storage company called ControlStorage.com on College Street next door to Aeneas Internet and Telephone. Tell our readers about your new business.
JH: The building was built in 1952 as a grocery store and it was abandoned. ControlStorage.com is a climate and temperature-controlled facility geared for individuals and businesses. Fine furniture will not dry out or mildew, and you may store medical and legal documents there (Legally, hard copies must be kept for a period of time as we move toward digitalization.) I am also targeting those living in Jackson Walk and the Lambuth area.
VIP: Looking down the road in the next 5-10 years, what would you like to see in downtown Jackson?
JH: I would like to see a convention center and a hotel in downtown Jackson, and I would love to see more live entertainment venues. I want Jackson, Tennessee to return to its rightful place as a music center for original music development and performance and we have a history of that. It would contribute to livability. We’re missing the boat! I want to see more home ownership downtown and the Lambuth Area Neighborhood Association (L.A.N.A.) should be re-developed.
VIP: What are your hobbies? Do you enjoy travel?
JH: I’m a bicyclist. My most recent hobby is bee keeping. I have a small apiary. I love to travel any time I can—anywhere there is movement!
VIP: Tell me about your family.
JH: Fiona and I have two daughters and two sons. One daughter is a nurse and the other one is studying nursing. One son is about to graduate and he will attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and our other son will soon move to Florida to work at an aerospace company.