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March 17, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Jeff Bohanan building Protomet into the “Remmele of the South”

Like many of the region’s successful entrepreneurs, Jeff Bohanan says, “I always knew I wanted to start my own business.”

Today, the Chief Executive Officer of Oak Ridge-based Protomet is almost 16 years into his dream with two companies – the original manufacturing and machining enterprise and a newer, marine products-focused division called PTM Edge.

We sat down with Bohanan recently at his facility in the Bethel Valley Industrial Park. One indication of his success in spite of the tough economic times over the past few years is an expansion that will start later this year and more than double the size of the existing building.

Bohanan is a Knox County native who entered the mechanical engineering program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1981. During his six years in college, he was a coop student, working at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge. After graduation with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Industrial Engineering, Bohanan was hired full-time.

“You felt privileged to get on,” he said. “I got to participate in high-end manufacturing as part of a special rotational program.” The experience included work on the Navy’s Seawolf, where he was a lead Process Engineer for four years, and the Superconducting Super Collider project before it was cancelled.

After leaving Y-12, Bohanan and his partner founded Protomet as an engineering consulting firm. They were located in the Tech 20/20 incubator when they came across an opportunity to do a seatbelt system project for Mercedes Benz.

“They (Mercedes) could not find anyone to sign-up to make the part designed as a machine part,” he recalled. “We came-up with a stamping and machining alternative that saved them 40 percent on the target price.”

Protomet made one million of the parts over the next five years but, more important, “used the Mercedes cash flow to get into other work,” Bohanan said. The company did contract manufacturing for government agencies and commercial entities.

“You could bring us a concept, and we would help you get to a final design,” he explained.

Shortly after the millennium, Protomet started making components for the marine industry. The decision was a good one, Bohanan said, adding that Protomet “felt the pain a good deal” by 2008 when the marine sector tanked as the economy worsened.

Like any good businessman, Bohanan turned adversity into opportunity. He negotiated a strategic agreement with one company that reallocated all of its work to Protomet rather than five suppliers. He recognized that the marine industry “likes boat parts to be shiny,” so he added capability in electro-polishing and anodizing. This involved joining with a new partner to purchase a company in Greenback that fell on hard times during the protracted downturn in the marine sector.

As the company’s marine work grew, Bohanan decided to form PTM Edge to develop and market his own line of products. “This was my goal all along,” he said about launching his own products under the PTM Edge division.  In its first year, PTM Edge signed 120 different dealers in addition to a number of original equipment manufacturers.

“Mirrors seem straightforward, but they really are not” Bohanan said about PTM Edge’s initial product offering. The line has expanded to include ski and wake mirrors and brackets, both clamp-on and bolt-on pontoon mirror systems, tower arms, and other accessories.

Bohanan clearly understands the market although he admits that he did not even own a boat until 2008. The company’s initial “high definition prescription grade mirror” won an innovation award in the safety category in the 2011 International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference, and two of its products were selected among the top 13 most innovative products of 2012 by Wakeboarding Magazine.

The company has applied for three patents for the mirrors and a fourth associated with a clamping board rack.

Like most driven individuals, Bohanan still has many mountains to climb.

He describes the boating industry as 10 to 20 years behind the automotive sector in terms of technology integration. “We’re bringing expertise from other industries into the marine industry,” Bohanan explains, adding that “by playing in all industries, we can benefit the marine sector.”

Bohanan doesn’t expect more of others than he does of himself. “We’re always pushing ourselves, always pushing for excellence,” he says of his management style.

Then, there’s the matter of building a world-class manufacturing company. Bohanan visited what he described as the “mecca of machine shops” years ago in Minnesota as part of a benchmarking trip. Its name was Remmele Engineering, Inc. He has not forgotten the experience.

“I want to build the Remmele of the South,” Bohanan says of his long-term goal. “We’re on our way.”

As he continues the pursuit, Bohanan is driven by two principles – integrity and persistence or stick-to-itiveness. “You cannot take shortcuts with integrity,” he reminds us.