Sunday, April 21, 2024

Building a defense powerhouse in Murphy

I talked recently with Arlissa Vaughn, CEO of Aegis Power Systems, a 27-year-old power electronics firm and defense contractor located in Murphy.

Murphy is the county seat of Cherokee County, in the mountainous southwestern corner of North Carolina.  There is an old expression, “From Manteo to Murphy,” that folks use to describe the whole breadth of the state, from east to west. Murphy is about 15 miles from Tennessee, and half that to Georgia. You can drive to St. Louis as quickly as you can get to the Outer Banks.

Aegis just won a couple of Small Business Innovation Research grants from the Army, totaling $500,000.  These were the first SBIRs won by a Cherokee County business, according to Vaughn. We tend to think of R&D as being concentrated in areas around the big universities in North Carolina, which crank out scientists and engineers, and so I wondered about a Murphy R&D business. Getting more technology companies into rural counties is important, so I wanted to know what its story was.

The company was founded in 1995, but the story goes back further than that. Vaughn’s father, Bill Dockery, grew up in Murphy.  When he turned 18, he joined the Air Force. After eight years, he came back to attend UNC Charlotte and study electrical engineering. That is where he met his future wife, who was also an electrical engineering student.

“They rode off into the sunset to Silicon Valley, and bumped into the new industries that were popping up at the time,” said Vaughn. Eventually, they made their way to Colorado, where Dockery worked as the manager of hardware for what became the DISH Network, developing new power supplies for the emerging direct-broadcast satellite provider.

Back to Murphy

In 1992, Vaughn’s mother became ill and passed away, leaving Dockery with two girls to raise. He relocated the family back to Murphy.

It looked like he would have to commute to Atlanta a couple of hours to the south, but then another opportunity presented itself. He had been doing consulting work for Vicor, an Andover, Mass.-based power electronics firm. Vicor wanted to create new custom design operations, and it asked Dockery to set one up.  “They allowed him to build the production facilities at the location of his choice, so he stayed right here in Murphy, North Carolina,” his daughter says. Aegis Power Systems was born, a partnership between Dockery and Vicor.

Aegis started getting some important industry recognition from prime contractors for the military.  It got a “Most Valued Supplier” award from ManTech for work on a Marine Corps contract for a mobile testing platform designed to provide electronic repair support on the front lines. It won another award from Harris on a military satellite terminal contract. It also won multiple supplier honors from Northrop Grumman for work on its high-tech Army field command post contract.

Vicor and Dockery had a 20-year deal. When it was up, Dockery bought out Vicor’s share of the business. The deal closed at the end of December 2015. Four months later, he fell ill and was unable to continue leading the business.

A life-changing experience

“And our family was in the position of, OK, what do we do? We’ve got to figure out something about this business now,” recalls Vaughn. “Because, previously, Vicor would have come in, we would have just sold to them, or something. But we had to make some tough decisions, and with the support of my husband, I went on to become the CEO and owner.”

That was a life-changing experience, because she is an accomplished professional artist with a degree from East Carolina University.. Vaughn, her husband, Alan, and their children moved to Murphy from New Bern, her husband’s hometown. Her husband is now a full-time stay-at-home parent, homeschooling the children. “It’s been a complete 180 for us,” said Vaughn.  “Our lives have been completely changed by this situation, but we’re both happy with things. It’s been good for us.”

Hiring challenges

The company has 27 employees, and just hired its latest team member. Recruiting folks to come to Murphy poses challenges not experienced by companies in Raleigh or Charlotte.

“When I took on the company in 2017, we had three engineers.  We now have 10,” says Vaughn. “So I’ve been aggressively trying to grow our talent pool.”

There are good reasons to relocate to rural communities. No traffic jams. Real estate is affordable. And in the case of Murphy, plenty of mountain scenery. But it’s not for everyone, and Aegis has created marketing materials for applicants so they know where they might be working.

“It helps to eliminate some of the people who really didn’t do their research,” she said. “Where is Murphy, North Carolina? Is that the place I want to live?  We tried to help them on that journey, getting that research done ahead of time with some videos, collateral things like that. That seemed to work.”

In the earliest months of the pandemic, Aegis was still recruiting.  “We were actually able to hire five new people between March and May of 2020.  And they moved here. Some of them moved here without ever having stepped foot on the land. They watched our videos. We did the virtual interviews, and they just relocated here. I feel like that marketing worked.”

Getting help

When Aegis separated from Vicor, it was helped by economic development organizations like the Southwestern Commission, the Small Business and Technology Development Center, and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

“So many different organizations have really rallied around us,” she says. ‘This is how we even learned about SBIRs. We never knew about them before. They really encouraged us to look into applying to these.”

One of the SBIRs was awarded through the Army’s xTech Program, through a competition held in June. All branches of the military are trying to develop clean technologies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions while meeting their energy needs in more innovative ways. The contest handed out $250,000 contracts for Phase I SBIRs.

The Aegis proposal is a power unit that can replace a typical practice of powering field equipment by hooking them up to idling vehicles with auxiliary power units. This is noisy, requires a lot of fuel, and puts off heat. “When they turn those things on, it creates a huge thermal profile . . . They’re basically putting a big red X on their back.”

The proposed Aegis solution is a unit that can provide electricity conversion for the different power requirements of equipment, running off batteries. The unit will be able to run quietly for hours, and can be recharged by the vehicle engine when it is safe to do so.

Running a company

I was interested in what it was like to step in as CEO of a company like Aegis, and how her artistic background combines with her technology focus now.

“I definitely bring a different dynamic to the company,” she says, “but I’m very fortunate to have some excellent engineers working with me.”

What helped has been an executive MBA program at the University of Michigan, and studying the Michigan Model of Leadership.  One particular sector highlighted by the model deals with creative change. This includes promoting organizational learning, enabling change and innovation and developing a growth focus.  Vaughn sent me an email in response to my question:

“I have found creative flow and energy via being an enabler of change and innovation at my organization. By that I mean several things. On the inward-facing portion of the business, I am regularly promoting the design team to push our product capability and topology in new directions, working together with our sales and engineering to seek challenging strategic opportunities, and encouraging new internal cross-functional team building.

“On the customer-facing side, the very nature of our customized power solutions engages bricolage-type discussions with clients on use cases or trade-off considerations for products. Finally, I’ll mention another creative use of my time is where I’ve played a scouting role in business development such as for the recent SBIR projects. This creative milieu keeps me intertwined in both right- and left- brain activities at Aegis.”

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