Scott Hedges and Mike Grady make a powerful team. As president and vice president of Power Sonix Inc., located in Martinsburg, this dynamic duo has designed and manufactured the most effective aircraft loud hailer systems available, gaining them a worldwide reputation.
It is this distinction that has led to Hedges and Grady being selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2010 Small Business Exporter of the Year for West Virginia.
Power Sonix originated in 1997 in the basement of Hedges’ home under the name Applied Electro-Mechanics Inc. Both men were previously employed at Applied Electro Mechanics Inc. in Point of Rocks, Md., Hedges as the plant manager and Grady as director of research and development.
“We tried to keep our new name similar to that of the original company so we could continue to do business with the foreign companies we were dealing with through our overseas agent at the time,” Hedges said. “We just added a hyphen to the old name.”
In 1995, Grady developed the world’s first, light-weight neodymium magnet, compression driver for high-powered speech projection devices used on ships and aircraft. The device was the precursor to the current technology used in the hailer systems now manufactured at Power Sonix.
It was just after the design of the light-weight driver that the company was sold to a British multi-national firm allowing Hedges and Grady to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs.
“The firm wanted us to go to work for them but we decided we could do better as their competitor,” Grady said.
What makes the loud hailer system so attractive to those in the aviation field is the minimal weight, compact design, and compatibility with most cockpit audio controllers. The system is engineered to project extremely clear speech and sounds over the noise of engines, rotors and other conditions at distances over a mile.
“A good example of the effectiveness of our system happened in Oregon in March,” Grady said. “A 4-year-old girl was located in the rugged terrain around her home after being missing 28 hours when she recognized her grandmother’s recorded voice being projected from an airplane circling a quarter mile above her. That gives you an idea as to the clarity of the speech projection capacity of our system.”
“We are probably 95 percent recognized as the world leader in this type of technology in speech communication,” he added.
The company exports to over 20 countries worldwide which accounts for nearly 95 percent of their business. In the United States, sales have been primarily airborne law enforcement organizations in seven states, but domestic sales are steadily growing as a result of word of mouth and reputation.
“The airborne segment of the law enforcement is a small community and a niche market,” Grady said. “They talk among each other at trade shows and via the Internet and those with our system tell others ‘if you want to talk to someone from the air, you need a Power Sonix system.’”
Hedges recalls an overseas incident where the Power Sonix system was being used to relay instructions at an event alongside of a competitors system. “The commander couldn’t understand what was being said through the other system but ours was crystal clear. Needless to say, we made a few more sales after that day.”
Both men realize they manufacture a well-made, successful product that fills a specific need in a niche market.
“It’s a great product when there is a need, but there has to be a need,” Grady said. “And with the durability of the system, they generally have a 10- to 12-year life span and a less than 1 percent return rate, it’s good in one sense, but in terms of resale, we don’t have as many opportunities to make a sale.”
As far as advice to other businesses looking into the world of exporting, Hedges and Grady offer the following: “Be realistic about your expectations; pursue quality and excellence in your products; make your customer relationships as personal as you can; persistence and believe in yourself is an absolute requirement; and deep pockets wouldn’t hurt either.”
As a small business owner since 2001, Diane Lewis measures success in various ways. The president of Action Facilities Management, a site support company based in Morgantown, has grown her business from a 2-person operation to its current level of 170 full- and part-time employees in just 9 years. But it’s the advice and support she provides to other entrepreneurs that really makes her feel successful.
This is what has made Lewis the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2010 Minority Small Business Champion for West Virginia.
“Being named West Virginia’s 2010 Minority Small Business Champion is awesome, but it’s also a very humbling award,” Lewis said. “The real reward is watching other minority-owned companies develop and become successful. I love sharing my business experience and growing pains to make things easier for them.”
Lewis’ nearly 10-year career as an entrepreneur started when she was a contract administrator for a small business. She was encouraged to delve into entrepreneurship when the owner became ill and considered closing the business. With her knowledge of government contracting, and support of husband, Ken Jackson, Action Facilities Management was created.
“Working in a small business support role, I never dreamed I would someday become an entrepreneur,” she said. “I was fortunate to have a good mentor in Ken and just followed his example.”
Even with all the encouragement in the world, becoming a successful small business owner doesn’t happen overnight.
“I was really nervous at first,” Lewis said. “I knew I had a good product and service to offer, but wasn’t sure I could sell it. Also, being a minority female in a male dominated field didn’t ease the anxiety,” she said.
But sell it she did. With prior experience in contract administration, Lewis knew the federal government sector was a good place to look for opportunities. She began focusing her marketing efforts on federal agencies in West Virginia and surrounding states eventually landing her first contract with the Center for Disease Control.
That contact led to more contracts and the opportunity to not only focus on work in West Virginia, but branch out to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Colorado.
“As a site support company, our main focus is on security services, but we also offer support administrative services, janitorial and building maintenance services, which includes grounds,” Lewis said. “We recently branched into warehousing and will be looking into opportunities to expand into program management.”
Action Facilities Management (AFM) is also a participant in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) business development program — an essential instrument for helping socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs gain a foothold in government contracting. The program helps firms build competitive and institutional know-how through sole-source government contracts as well as encouraging participation in competitive and commercial contracts.
“AFM wouldn’t be at the level they are today without the SBA’s 8(a) program,” Lewis said. “The staff at the West Virginia District works hard to make sure small businesses get their fair share of federal contracting opportunities. I use their expertise on a regular basis.”
She stressed the importance of providing assistance to other minority-owned companies on business related issues.
“I do it all the time,” Lewis said. “It is a way to help others avoid the pitfalls and problems I went through over the past 10 years as an entrepreneur. I really enjoy helping others succeed and making a difference in someone else’s life. It makes me feel like a proud parent. I am blessed to have a staff that does their jobs to the degree which allows me to help other companies. I know the company won’t suffer due to their expertise and support.”
She is also proud of that her children are both involved in the business and learning the ropes as well. Her son, Donald Hill is running the Washington D.C. office and has been able to secure two federal contracts. Daughter Stephanie works at the corporate office and is putting her recently attained college degree to work to ensure all potential candidates are able to meet our requirements.
Another project near and dear to her heart is her participation in the Members of Diversity group in the Morgantown area. As the group’s vice president, Lewis works with high school youth in grades 11 and 12 to provide “life skills.”
“About a year or so ago, Ken and I noticed a lot of local minority youth were getting in trouble,” Lewis said. “We teamed with the local Board of Education and went into the local high schools to provide 11th and 12th graders with such skills as going through an interview process, how to prepare a resume, how to fill out a job application, how to dress for an interview, and stressed how important it was to not have something in your background that might affect their future. It’s a way to demonstrate to them that someone cares and is paying attention to them.”
As far as advice for minorities and others considering venturing into the world of entrepreneurship, Lewis stresses to not only know your product, but know the paperwork that goes with it. Do your homework, learn about business planning, attend business related classes offered by the SBA and the Small Business Development Center, and know what you are getting into before taking that first step, she said.
Once you do become a small business owner, remember the other 125,000 West Virginia small businesses and support them by using their products or services in your business. “Don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk,” Lewis said.
Whether it is spearheading a meeting for a local women’s group, organizing an annual women’s conference, passing along business advice in a networking situation, or setting an example for her two young daughters, Kara Gray loves helping women entrepreneurs succeed.
For that reason, and for her contributions toward supporting entrepreneurship, business ownership and professional development for women in West Virginia, Gray has been named the 2010 Women in Business Champion of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s West Virginia District Office.
Gray is the owner of New Horizon Consulting, a freelance copywriting and public relations consulting practice she operates out of her home in Dallas, W.Va. She describes her chosen profession as a career field she “accidently” discovered while a student at Bethany College.
“I actually went to college with the intention of becoming a television news reporter,” Gray said. “I had no idea public relations existed as a field, but sometime during my freshman year, I talked to a classmate who was studying public relations and I thought, ‘That sounds more like me!’ and immediately changed fields.”
Upon graduation, Gray went to work as the communications administrator for Ormet Corp., then the fourth largest aluminum producer in the United States with 3,500 employees at seven locations. She took this corporate experience to the National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University, where she promoted the NASA Commercial Technology program and MountainMade, an e-commerce startup selling West Virginia art and crafts. When MountainMade became a separate company, she went to work there full- time, but was let go after just two years due to budget constraints.
“When I left MountainMade, I sent an e-mail to everyone I’d worked with to let them know who they should contact at the company in my absence, and that I would keep in touch,” Gray said. “I immediately received about four responses back from people offering me freelance projects to work on while I looked for work.”
She’d always thought about starting her own business, but the idea of leaving behind a steady paycheck and benefits to do so was tough to overcome. Gray stayed quite busy with projects from friends and acquaintances for about six months, which got her thinking, “Maybe I can do this for a living.”
She joined the Editorial Freelancers Association and began responding to job postings. This led to her first “real” client — someone she didn’t know for a change.
Not sure how to start a small business the proper way, Gray contacted her local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and scheduled an appointment with Donna Schramm, the center manager in the Wheeling office. Once she had all the particulars in place and was an official ‘small business owner,’ she soon began working with the SBDC to organize an Orchestrating Your Life women’s conference, which is now an annual event in Wheeling.
She serves on the organizing committee for the conference and continues to facilitate the monthly Ohio Valley Women’s Group meetings that were born out of the conference. She is a charter member of the Marshall County Women’s Leadership Council, which serves to enhance women’s leadership opportunities.
“Being a woman entrepreneur, it is very rewarding to help others overcome obstacles,” she said. “If I can save someone the time and frustration of learning the same lessons I’ve learned ‘the hard way’ then I’m happy to do it. It’s such an honor to receive this award and be recognized for something I absolutely love to do.”
New Horizon Consulting was founded in 2003 and has clients throughout the United States and around the world. Working mostly in the high-tech and information technology sectors, Gray helps her clients develop and deploy marketing and public relations strategies to help grow awareness of their brands and products. She specializes in crafting effective press releases and ghost writing by-lined articles, blog posts and other promotional content for brochures, websites and newsletters for businesses of all sizes.
“Of all the work I’ve done so far, I’m most proud of the example I’ve tried to set for my daughters,” Gray said. “I hope what I’m doing shows them a woman can do whatever she sets her mind to professionally and still enjoy her role as a wife, mother and daughter. And, thanks to modern technology, geography is no limitation to the career opportunities available today.”