Photos by John Gessner
Not even a fall from the eaves of his Sanford warehouse that left him in a coma for 18 hours in the summer of 2010 could dissuade Jerry Pedley from rebuilding.
It had already been a lousy spring: The Canada-based company that bought his Electro-Mechanical Specialties eight years earlier abruptly shut down U.S. operations, leaving Pedley without a paycheck and holding the lease on the 25,000-square-foot property. The shares he received in the sale were suddenly worthless.
The heartiest of souls might have cut his losses. Instead, Pedley was more determined after his accident, growing Mertek Solutions Inc. in the same place he started in 1990. Seven years after his accident, the judges of Business North Carolina’s annual competition are recognizing Mertek as the 2017 Small Business of the Year.
Meikle Automation acquired Pedley’s robotic-manufacturing company in 2002. “When Meikle decided to close its Sanford shop and lay off its entire workforce, Jerry decided to start a new company to help [keep] workers and the town of Sanford from economic collapse,” wrote John Hardin, director of the N.C. Department of Commerce’s office of science, technology and innovation. He was one of the contest’s judges.
“In a town of 30,000, you don’t have lots of Jerry Pedleys, and you can’t afford to lose one,” says Chet Mann, Sanford’s mayor. “You can reinvent yourself, you can start over and go back to the fundamentals that got you there in the first place and build an even better company.”
For seven years running, Mertek has notched greater profits than its predecessor. When Meikle closed, about 20 employees remained. Today, Mertek has 46 workers who are all privy to information about the company’s finances, which Pedley shares at weekly staff meetings. Workers share in the good times. Last year, each employee received 10% of his or her gross salary in annual profit sharing. Pedley expects to share the same or greater this year, perhaps as much as 15%.
The work is the same — in a nutshell, making machines that put stuff together faster: Inhalers used to treat asthma. A cutter in a desktop electric pencil sharpener. A car’s intake manifold, the tubes that distribute air coming into the engine. Pedley picks up a woman’s cosmetics case from a shelf in his office and pops open the plastic lid. The case in his palm once took seven people to assemble. Now, it takes one, thanks to a machine made in Pedley’s plant.
To be clear, Mertek isn’t cranking out cosmetics cases or inhalers. Other companies use Mertek’s machines to produce goods. Pedley prefers the word “robotics” to “automation” — it’s more specific than the broad world of automation. A robot today is a bright-yellow arm, housed under a protective cube, swinging to pack breath mints at 225 parts per minute. But tomorrow, robotic workers may work alongside human ones. Sensor technology already exists to stop a robotic arm when it brushes against a human one.
Such a sci-fi scenario could be the future at the beige warehouse off U.S. 1 on Sanford’s north side, a corridor in Lee County that includes drug giant Pfizer’s gene therapy plant. Mertek’s nondescript warehouse looks identical to its neighbors but inside is an inventor’s paradise. Truck doors lean against a machine ready to drill holes for a side-view mirror. The latest head-scratcher is a new kind of wall socket slot for ethernet cables — the tiny parts are driving Pedley’s team crazy. But six months from now, he says, those projects will be done, shipped off to plants as far away as India or China, replaced with new puzzles to solve.
Tinkering isn’t just encouraged here, it’s required. When Pedley interviews prospective employees, he’s more interested in whether they make a habit of changing the oil in their cars than fancy academic degrees, though Mertek employs engineers, designers, programmers and others with staunch credentials.
Pedley went to work straight out of community college. Now, he serves on advisory boards including the one for Campbell University’s new engineering school and a round table at the Charlotte office of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. He’s received state and national attention for his efforts to give students work-based experience. Mertek received the 2016 Outstanding Business and Industry Award from the N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center, and in September, Pedley was one of three U.S. business leaders recognized by the National Academy Foundation for providing opportunities for high school and college students.
Not bad for an Iowa farm boy who had barely heard of North Carolina before moving to Sanford in 1989 to take a job at an automation company. Pedley responded to a classified ad in a Chicago newspaper, flew down for an interview on a weekend — squeezing in a trip to Myrtle Beach, his first time seeing the ocean — and accepted the new job Monday morning. The company declared bankruptcy six months later, prompting Pedley to start his own business in 1990. After the bank turned him down for a loan, a former customer wrote him a check for $40,000. Pedley and a partner used the money to found Electro-Mechanical Specialties, which Pedley sold 12 years later to Ontario-based Meikle Automation.
“The arc of Jerry’s career is really amazing,” says Bob Joyce, economic-development director for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance. “He has that aw-shucks, easygoing attitude, but he comes to Sanford working for somebody else, takes a risk, borrows money, builds this great business and sells it. Then the recession comes, and the company that purchased his outfit just did not weather the storm.”
Pedley had one ace: the real estate he retained in the sale to Meikle. He not only built Mertek there, but he expanded, buying up neighboring properties and renting them to other businesses.
“He’s a one-man [industry] incubator out there,” Joyce says.
Pedley, 65, is cagey about the future. He leans back in an office chair, holding up an imaginary deck of cards. Is moving to his beach house in Florida in the cards, he muses, or taking on more business risk? In front of him is a set of blueprints for 11 warehouses on the 50 acres he owns. He already owns seven with an eighth in the works.
“He works nonstop,” says his banker, Jimmy Keen, a BB&T vice president in Sanford. “If you ride by there on the weekends, you may see him on a bulldozer working on the site. He’s passionate about not only Mertek, he’s building a mini industrial park. He may say he’s going to retire to Florida, but I’d have to see it to believe it.”
Sanford and Lee County are in the midst of a building boom, Mayor Mann says, including expansions at Pfizer ($140 million), chicken producer Pilgrim’s Pride ($120 million) and auto-parts supplier Magneti Marelli ($15 million), where Mertek has supplied machines. In that mix, Joyce says, Pedley is the link to smaller manufacturers, such as the local mechanic who developed a technology to more cheaply recondition electric car batteries and sold it to Pennsylvania-based Dorman Products Inc. Pedley has served as a mentor to the mechanic and the maker of high-end fishing rods who’s his next-door neighbor and tenant.
“I’ll be very selfish,” Joyce says. “I hope he does unroll that blueprint and build that small business park.”
Pedley chuckles when he hears that. He pantomimes his deck of cards once more, fanning out his options — life on the beach or building those 11 warehouses. This is a man so determined to build a business after his accident that just days after leaving the hospital he continued to call on prospective customers with his wife, Donna, at the wheel of his car. Pedley has plenty of comebacks yet to come.
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