Jim Edwards quickly built a long-distance-dialing empire. But he couldn't keep the distress calls on hold. Then the line went dead.

TELCAM president Terry Miller attested to the nature of the disagreement but says Edwards has his sides confused. It was Edwards, he says, who proposed taking a loan out of the company, stating that his lawyer had determined it could be done legally. Miller declined. "It was not my concern whether it was legal or not," Miller says. "I did not consider that a good business move." An alarmed TELCAM board voted Edwards out of office and bought him out for $100,000.

Heartline would later have its own problems, coming under fire for slamming and incurring several hundred thousand dollars in fines and judgments before filing for bankruptcy. Edwards insists that Heartline took its wrong turn after he left.

But the talk at Pappas was of the future, not the past, and the future looked bright. Then-county attorney Mike Driscoll, a longtime friend of Edwards's, saw no reason why the ideas that had worked so well at Heartline and TELCAM could not be duplicated. When he heard his friend had been squeezed out of TELCAM, Driscoll says, "I immediately thought, if you can do it once, you can do it again." Since Edwards was in no position to fund the new venture, Driscoll agreed to help; he tapped friends and contacts for $83,000 and lent the company some personal cash to get it off the ground.

"I was broke," confirms Edwards. "Without Mike, there would have been no BCI."

Attorney Jim Evans, whom Edwards had hired to settle his dispute with TELCAM, joined the team. A blustery right-wing talk-radio host in his spare time, Evans handled the incorporation and other legal details. The three each claimed 300,000 shares, or 30 percent of the company's stock, for which they paid $1,000 apiece. Most of the remaining 10 percent was split among the other investors.

The partners chose a name, Brittan Communications International, which Edwards says was oddly practical: The company needed offices, and they'd been thinking of renting an old building off the Gulf Freeway that still sported a sign from the former occupant, Brittan Furniture. Just cut off the end, and the need for at least one major purchase would be precluded.

Eventually they chose digs closer to downtown, at 602 Sawyer, but the name stuck. They hired a sales and marketing chief, a computer guru and a small clerical staff, and installed a bank of phones. By March 1995 BCI was ready to hustle a few customers.

BCI borrowed its basic marketing strategy from Heartline, though the particulars have long been part of the industry's bag of tricks. With a new Ford Mustang as bait, BCI set up tables in shopping malls or at special events and offered customers a chance to win the car in exchange for switching their long-distance service. In a parallel program, sales reps placed sweepstakes boxes in stores, with the Mustang again the lure; customers filled out an entry blank and dropped it in the box, and the reps collected the forms, which also authorized a switch to BCI.

Again lifting a Heartline hallmark, BCI courted the low end of the long-distance market, people with incomes less than $35,000 a year. That demographic was neglected by the bigger players, often didn't appear on direct-mail lists and could best be reached in the field. "Our target group was not Mr. and Mrs. Middle-class America," says Michael Lydon, who managed sales operations in the Northeast.

To find them meant going to less-savory places that others preferred to avoid. "You'd find BCI in the worst malls in the city," says John Macauda, the Virginia sales manager who set up Mustang booths in several southeastern states. "That's what we were told to go after."

Though it took BCI several months to gear up, the plan was a smash success. By the end of 1995, BCI had taken in $6 million. The following year, billings increased to more than $42 million. "The car was the hook," says Stan Jaffe, a regional sales manager for Texas and other western states before he resigned last July. "It was beyond the average person. It was a dream."

Toking furiously on a cigarette, Jim Edwards recalls the glory days with a certain pride. A massive man who, by his own count, chain smokes five packs of Benson & Hedges Ultra-Light 100 Menthols every day, he noisily sucks in one lungful after another, then gasps out a grayish cloud. Occasionally he has to pause to let a choking spasm pass. The process is so disturbingly relentless, it's as if he's trying to cram as much nicotine in his body as possible before the Reaper catches up to him.

Edwards takes rightful credit for BCI's meteoric growth -- he made all the big decisions. Former vice president of sales Bill Jones describes the corporate structure as a "Mayan pyramid," in which the usual hierarchy prevailed until the upper-management level. "You got to a certain point, and everybody was on equal footing," says Jones. "Then waaaay at the top was Mr. Edwards."

As the customers rolled in and revenues swelled, the company added staff to handle the load and quickly outgrew its Sawyer offices. In February 1996 BCI doubled its Houston workforce. "We had people in closets, wires running all over the floor," Edwards chuckles. He cut a deal for the entire fifth floor of 600 Jefferson, and the operation moved to the new address in April. Eventually BCI would lease the sixth floor and part of the seventh, with an option for additional space.

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