The wall of photographs tells the story.
Like parents scratching lines on a doorjamb to mark the growth of a child, Rebecca and Philip Ufkes can see the progress their Hanahan-based company has made just by looking at the company photos hanging in the hallways of UEC Electronics.
Starting with the 1995 photo of five people standing in front of their original building, the historical growth of the company is reflected in the ever-increasing number of people crowding into subsequent pictures – from nine people in 1999 to 17 in 2000 to 32 in 2006. In the 2010 staff picture, the building is barely noticeable behind the heads of nearly 100 employees who have squeezed into the shot.
“There are some days Phil and I look at each other and shake our heads in amazement,” Ufkes said. “We have gone from working with test systems and ground systems to expanding our technology capabilities and infrastructure to include aerospace manufacturing. The growth has been more than we expected.”
Quality work and attention to detail have been at the heart of their success. But along the way, the Charleston Area Small Business Development Center has played an integral role in how they’ve focused their energy, developed new markets and expanded their company.
A GOOD START
The Ufkeses are graduates of Michigan Technological University. Rebecca is a mechanical engineer and Philip is an electrical engineer. They moved to the Charleston area in the early 1990s and worked for various people before they decided to pool their talents and create UEC Electronics in 1995.
“We started with five people in a warehouse in North Charleston,” Ufkes recalled of the early years. “We had more space than we thought we’d need at first, so the original plan was to sublet part of the warehouse to another company. But we kept getting clients, and before we knew it, we had outgrown that space.”
Engineers, by nature, are problem-solvers. Much of the time, clients have a need and UEC Electronics helps create or fine-tune a design to meet the new product specifications. Other times, the client’s design is set and UEC handles production, usually finding ways to make the manufacturing process more efficient.
The Ufkeses applied those same principles of efficiency and innovation to their own company as Ufkes kept her eyes and mind open to finding better ways to maintain their success.
“I used to go to the small business freebies or attend the SC SBDC’s one-day seminars and finally I just called them,” she said. “Early on, I contacted them for general stuff – help with marketing materials and business planning issues.”
UEC continued to expand, but the SC SBDC was always there to help them through the growing pains and challenges of complying with government standards and regulations.
“Once you have over 50 people, you have to understand what regulations you have to comply with and how. You can really use the expertise of SC SBDC consultants to protect yourself as you grow,” Ufkes said.
A NEW OPPORTUNITY
By 2001, the bulk of UEC’s work fell into the commercial industrial sector. The business was still healthy, but the Ufkeses wanted to expand to work with U.S. Department of Defense contracts.
“That was a whole different playing field,” Ufkes recalled.
At the time, it seemed to be a monumental task just to get qualified to be placed on the Department of Defense’s central contractors list.
“Our Charleston Area SBDC counselor walked us through the CCR registration. They helped us understand proposal requirements and all the gates you need to get through to be a DoD supplier,” she said. “About 60 percent of our work is DoD-related now. We’ve seen a lot of growth in that area.”
Getting registered wasn’t the only step. SC SBDC business advisers also helped UEC Electronics expand their network of contacts and gain name recognition in the market. The watershed year was 2005 when UEC Electronics got involved in the Navy’s Manufacturing Technical Assistance Production Program which opened the company up to a fresh set of contacts.
“Everything grew from that. Because of those few referrals ours has been a continuous path forward,” Ufkes said, emphasizing the importance of getting involved in trade organizations. “You have to make your company known, make those connections. If they don’t know who you are, they can’t help you.”
The importance of becoming a defense contractor has hit home especially during this recessionary economy.
“The fact that we can do DoD work has given us more market diversity and certainly more stability,” Ufkes said.
According to the company’s website, UEC was named the fasted growing manufacturing business in South Carolina in 2011 by Inc. Magazine. UEC cites revenue growth of 106% with 52 additional employees over the past three years.
In November of 2011, Ufkes also was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change in recognition of creating jobs while saving resources through innovation.
The honor came primarily as a result of UEC’s work with the Marines on a new portable electric power system called GREENS – Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Networks System. The power generators allow military units to operate without needing to rely on a large supply of diesel fuel which would leave troops more vulnerable to attacks by sniper or improvised explosive devices.
UEC plans to fill the initial order of 270 of the 35,000 units by March of 2011 with an expectation of orders for another 5,000 generators to be placed over the next five years.
AN ONGOING RELATIONSHIP
UEC continues to move forward through a difficult economy. Today, the company has 119 employees working in an 80,000-square foot facility. As of August, the company had 25 open requisitions for new hires.
UEC generated more than $14 million in revenue in 2009 and sales reached $20 million the next year.
In 2010, Rebecca Ufkes was named South Carolina’s Small Business Person of the Year by the SBA. She was also selected as a national runner-up by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Throughout the growth of their business, the Ufkeses have kept an active relationship with their local office of the South Carolina Small Business Development Center. They view the Charleston Area SBDC as an important business resource. Ufkes said she appreciates the expertise that SC SBDC counselors share and their direct, objective feedback on business processes.
“In my experience, the resources they have available are phenomenal,” she said. “Do you know how much you’d have to pay for them as a consultant? It would be astronomical, but their services are free. I value the good relationship we’ve developed over the years. I still call them. A conversation with a SC SBDC consultant is always worthwhile.”