By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Greeneville-based Meco Corporation traces its heritage to the region’s historically robust tobacco industry, but the President of the consumer products and contract manufacturing company hopes that much of its future is based on technology Meco identifies and commercializes.
Mark Proffitt is a native of Greeneville who joined Meco 17 years ago and became the company’s President in 2012. When we met him November 3 at the “White House Forum on Connecting Regional Innovation Ecosystems to Federal and National Labs,” we were intrigued with comments he made about using Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) RevV program to help move Meco from a commodity-based business to one that makes value-added products.
So, we traveled recently to Greeneville to learn more about Meco and Proffitt’s plans for the 125-employee division of Unaka, a family of companies that started as Austin Tobacco Company.
“Tobacco was our game,” Proffitt said of the Austin enterprise. “We lived and breathed tobacco. They (our earlier leaders) had the wherewithal to recognize that tobacco wasn’t going to be forever.”
This realization led to the diversification of the parent into a number of affiliated companies. Meco, which is a shortened version of the name Metals Engineering Company, is one. Others are SOPAKCO Packaging, a leading supplier of “meals ready to eat” (MREs) to the U.S. military and others; SOPAKCO Distribution, a warehousing and distribution company; Crown Point, a commodity food trader; and Round Table Offices, a firm that supplies executive offices and apartments.
The strategy of moving from a commodity-based company to one that manufactures value-added products is based on Meco’s historical ability to meet exacting standards for its own branded products as well as those it produces for others. The company touts its capabilities in areas like metal stamping, fabrication, powder coating, welding, and CNC machining.
Proffitt says that Meco initially made items like footlockers and canteens, but began manufacturing furniture about 35 years ago, branding it at the time as Samsonite through a licensing agreement.
“We’ve been producing furniture since then,” he explains, adding that the company has made more than 150 million tables and chairs. About 18 months ago, Meco acquired a competitor that made wood furniture.
Another long-time consumer products sector is the BBQ grill business that Meco entered in 1969 and proudly notes on its website that it has produced more than 60 million grills. Its brands today include Americana Grills, Easy Street electric grills, Aussie, and Southern Country Smokers.
Throughout its history, Meco has also been a contract manufacturer, working for others. That work has intensified in recent years.
“Folks would show-up asking if we could build things for them,” Proffitt explained. “That led to a decision in 2012 to make a concerted effort to pursue even more contract manufacturing.”
As the company President looks to the future, he is taking a page from the company’s predecessors who recognized the importance of diversification. Proffitt wants to expand Meco’s opportunities by capitalizing on its historical manufacturing strengths that include everything being located under one roof in its large Greeneville facility.
“I want to identify a technology that we can either buy or license,” Proffitt says. “It’s about elevating the value that we bring to the market.”
He wants Meco to own the manufacturing process as well as the product. One sector that he sees as a significant possibility is automotive.
“I see us being a Tier 3 to a Tier 2,” Proffitt says. “We need to find a partner willing to work with us.”
His vision is what brought him to the University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services and ultimately ORNL. Current work under the RevV program involves testing a new coating process. Proffitt also recently joined the RAMP program operated by Tech 2020 to expand his network as he seeks customers and partners.
“Getting involved with the region is good,” Proffitt says.