Fighting the Good Fight
Employees at UEC Electronics have fun, see impact
UEC Electronics just turned 18 years old, but it’s been acting like a grown-up for a while.
The South Carolina-based company – its headquarters are just outside Charleston, the state’s second-largest city – is in the business of offering engineering, product development, prototyping and manufacturing services to military, aerospace and industrial clients, and its main campus comprises more than 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art product testing facilities.
Corporate growth has come at an average annual rate of 15 percent each year over the last 18 years, and UEC’s product offerings range from complex assemblies up to and including multi-rack functional systems and test equipment. Additionally, the company is a collective graduate of training programs established by the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense, and it’s a long-term protégé of the Raytheon Company.
And in January, the U.S. Marine Corps awarded UEC a $1.42 million contract to develop systems that will use solar collection and high-density batteries to reduce run time on tactical generators. The company will develop, design and build two of these mobile electric hybrid power systems in the next 18 months.
That’s all well and good, but it’s more than just adding to a burgeoning corporate bio that keeps a staff of 200 coming back each day, says Nancy Straight, UEC’s business development manager and a 10-year veteran of the Marines. More so than a lot of places, she says, our employees can easily see their tangible impacts, in this case, thanks to a recent visit from a representative of the Secretary of the Navy.
“They were thrilled that there was a substantial cost-savings for government and they were excited that this product was cutting down on noise pollution to forward deployed Marines” Straight says.
“But ultimately, reducing the number of convoys – for every 50 convoys there was a major IED incident – was saving lives. The fewer convoys on the road resupplying fuel the less exposure for our military to IEDs. That’s where the real sense of price came from. We’d never had a customer come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re saving Marines lives.’”
Still, while the reality of the products and the situations in which they’re used is always apparent to the UEC employees, company founders Rebecca and Philip Ufkes go to great lengths to mitigate that gravity by creating a workplace atmosphere in which there’s never a bad reason for a party or celebration.
“Their intent is that it should be fun here, so every month there’s an event,” Straight says.
“St. Patrick’s Day always comes to mind. On St. Patrick’s Day, we all come together and the whole company eats Lucky Charms cereal. We do an Easter egg hunt in the parking lot for Easter. In January, it was National Popcorn Month. There’s chili cook-offs and potlucks, each month there’s a major event that the whole company participates in every month.
“We do a summer party. We do holiday parties. It really has a family atmosphere. And that’s a real testament to the owners. It’s easy to have that when you’re a 20- or 30-person organization, but when you’re a 200-person organization that takes quite a bit of effort.”
The significant effort from the top down yields significant loyalty from the bottom up.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s working here just because of a job,” Straight says.
“Everybody likes coming here. It’s a great environment. It’s different every day. People we hire from other companies tell us they haven’t had the opportunity to work on so many different dynamic products before coming to us. The employees on our production floor are challenged every day. The engineers not only work for the Department of Defense and aerospace, but we support entrepreneurs, people that have good ideas. Most of the local patent attorneys refer their clients to us to help them take their products to market. So there’s a lot of discovery of new technology.
“It’s just a neat place to work.”
Another factor that breeds dedication is the willingness of the leadership to share the wealth.
UEC has been profitable each year since its inception in 1995 and the aforementioned executives – Rebecca Ufkes is the company’s president, Philip Ufkes is chief operating officer and chief engineer – instituted a profit-sharing program in the early days that has continued annually ever since.
“When you get a happy productive employee, profits are going to go up,” Straight says, “so the fact that the employees get to reap the rewards of their efforts is a big incentive.”
As the country transitions from war to peace, the mandate to continue the progress in hybrid energy and renewables will not change – particularly in the work UEC does with the Department of Defense.
The department’s needs for energy are 10 times today what they were 10 years ago, Straight says, which makes the search for efficiency even more important, particularly when budgets are an issue.
“When you run a generator 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end, it breaks,” she says. “The fact that we can turn those generators off for the bulk of the time extends their lives. They don’t have to be replaced. They don’t have to be maintained quite as often. Anything that we can do to reduce the need for overall people to support results in cost savings, as well.
“Those products become a force multiplier and they allow the military to do more with less. We all watch the news, they’re going to have to keep doing more with less.”
As for UEC itself, Straight’s agenda for the future, predictably, revolves around the people.
“No matter how large our organization is five years from now, I would still like to say that I know everybody’s name that works here,” she says. “I would like for us to maintain the same culture that we have right now, and, of course, for us to maintain our profitability and remain a leader in the industry. In the renewable energy market, as small as we are, we really are the leaders.
“We’d like to stay there.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: UEC Electronics
WHAT: Engineering design, product development, prototyping and manufacturing business
WHERE: Hanahan, S.C.