Business & Economic News

Franklin Tubular Gears Up to Grow

By Ryan Hanchett – | Date: January 18, 2017

Business is good, and projected to get even better over the next two years, for one of Macon County’s leading manufacturers.

Franklin Tubular Products General Manager John Edgemon updated the Macon County Economic Development Commission about his company’s progress at the EDC board’s January meeting. Edgemon was excited to share that Franklin Tubular is primed for high growth thanks to expanding corporate relationships and an increased workload.

“Things have been going really well at FTP, and we are excited for this year because we feel like the economy is finally beginning to turn around,” Edgemon said. “Our major business partners are John Deere, Caterpillar, Navistar, Eaton and we recently added Volvo.”

Edgemon added that Volvo had a previous relationship with Franklin Tubular before going to a different supplier. FTP was able to win Volvo’s business back due to their improvements in production efficiency and product quality.
“Anytime you can go and get a customer back it’s a big deal,” Edgemon said. “We are projecting as much as 20 percent revenue growth in the next year.”

Franklin Tubular produces a full range of industrial tubing products, including diesel injection lines used in heavy equipment.

As orders have begun to roll in for products in 2018, Edgemon noted that the company could potentially realize back-to-back years of 20 percent revenue growth.

“We are doing very well in terms of meeting our customers’ expectations, and at the same time some of our competitors are struggling in that area,” Edgemon said. “Some of the companies that were considering whether or not to stay with us three or four years ago, now consider us to be among their best suppliers.”

John Deere is one such company.

“John Deere was one of the first companies I met with when I came to FTP,” Edgemon said. “Their people told me later, at the time they were developing an exit strategy. Not only have we turned that relationship around, we now are getting more of their business than ever before.”

Despite Caterpillar’s efforts to consolidate facilities and streamline the manufacturing process, the company’s relationship with FranklinTubular is projected to expand. Edgemon noted that business with Caterpillar alone is expected to increase by 20 percent in the next year.

“Even with the new orders coming in and new customers coming on board, we have been able to deliver quality parts,” Edgemon said. “I have told my guys, as long as we keep delivering, our partners are going to keep piling orders on.”

Edgemon informed the EDC that the company will likely begin looking for additional employees later this spring and into the summer. Finding quality labor has been a problem in the past for FTP, but Edgemon expressed confidence when asked about the hiring process by EDC member Johnny Mira-Knippel.

Franklin Tubular currently employs 75 people and Edgemon said the company could eclipse the 100-employee mark in the next two years.

“We have worked with Dale West at N.C. Works and we have gotten much better at the hiring process,” Edgemon said. “We created some job profiles for different jobs and we have changed how we are sorting through resumes. The last time we added employees, we added four and all four are still on staff.”

EDC member Barbara McRae asked Edgemon if the current FTP facility on Van Raalte Street is large enough to handle the company’s projected growth.
“We are in good shape for now, but it could become cramped rather quickly,” Edgemon said. “I know that is something that I have talked with Tommy (Jenkins) and our CEO about. We still have some space that we could access if needed.”

Jenkins asked for consensus of the board to setup a site visit to FTP later this year. That consensus was granted.
“For some of us that haven’t been in that building in a while, it is really night and day what FTP has done to that facility,” Jenkins said. “I think it would be an excellent outing for this board to go and see first hand all of the advances that have been made there and get a feel for where they are headed.”

Steering STEM from classroom to workplace
By: Ryan Hanchett - | Date: January 18, 2017

Creating a pathway from the classroom to the labor force is part of the next generation of STEM education in Macon County according to program coordinator Jennifer Love.

The economic development commission (EDC) received an update on the STEM program’s progress in its first year and heard several ways that the business community can be more hands-on in the implementation of STEM in year two.

"Studies show that the jobs our current fourth-and fifth-graders will be seeking when they complete their education don’t even exist yet,” Love said. “We need to do everything we can to make sure they understand advanced problem solving, computer technology, basic programming and areas that will help them be prepared for the jobs of the future.”

Love noted that one of the areas that employers have pointed to as an increased need among new hires is in high-level problem solving.

“Employers are looking for grit and determination when it comes to problem solving,” Love said. “One of the things that I hear all the time is that if kids don’t understand something right away they give up and want someone to tell them the answer. STEM projects hopefully teach kids that it’s OK to fail and try again en route to finding the answer.”

In its first year, the Macon County STEM program has taken off.

According to Love, more than 100 students have taken part in regional robotics competitions, and dozens more have joined STEM activities in the classroom and after school. While students, educators and parents have all gotten on board with STEM, Love admitted that there is still a gap between classroom lessons and potential career applications.

To promote the better flow of information between students and employers, Love has begun looking at ways to show how STEM subjects are used in real-life occupations. There will be a STEM Career Fair on April 7 for Macon County students.

“We have 40 presenters coming in from across the region, and students will be allowed to sign up for three different classes in their field of interest,” Love said. “Rather than give the students a 10-minute snapshot of a career, we want them to be able to take 45-50 minutes and learn not only about the day-to-day of that career but also the educational requirements of that career and how they can get there.”

Love noted that among her five goals for the STEM program in the coming year is better career awareness. Also on the goals list are upgrading materials and technology, providing professional development for teachers, increasing enrichment opportunities and creating better professional resources.

“Teaching STEM is a different teaching philosophy altogether, and we want to prepare our teachers for that through professional development,” Love said. “Instead of being a ‘sage on a stage,’ a STEM teacher is more of a ‘guide on the side.’ It’s about helping kids figure out how to solve a problem and not necessarily laying out facts on a chalkboard.”

Love invited the EDC members and business leaders at the meeting to be part of the career fair or volunteer their time with initiatives like the Smoky Mountain Area Robotics League or the Science Olympiad. She also encouraged businesses in STEM fields that have internship openings to reach out as a way to connect students with career learning opportunities.

“We want to get kids into internships and career-building events early, because we don’t want to have a situation where a student goes through the STEM program wanting to be a nurse for, example, and then after doing a job shadow or unpaid internship decides as a senior that nursing isn’t for them,” Love said. “We want kids to learn about a potential career and be ready to pursue that career after they graduate.”

EDC member David Hubbs asked Love about the challenges in implementing a STEM program from scratch, specifically when it comes to end of grade testing.

“It isn’t easy to measure the success of a STEM program through the current testing because so many of the concepts don’t show up on a multiple choice bubble test,” Love said. “Now, hopefully, the problem solving and the critical thinking that students learn via STEM projects will lead them to be more successful on those tests based on their improved problem solving abilities.”

John Edgemon, general manager of Franklin Tubular Products, asked if there has been any way to aggregate the feedback from students and teachers in terms of what has or has not been successful to this point.

Love noted that there is a STEM survey that was given to sixth-graders at Mountain View Intermediate and Macon Middle, and to Franklin High School students at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. That survey will be replicated each fall to see how students are progressing through the program and to gain feedback on participating instructors and specific STEM projects.

“You would think with STEM it would be just the science and math teachers that are excited about this, but I have had several language arts and social science teachers come to me and ask about implementing STEM in their lessons,” Love said. “We want to be in a situation where students say that they really learned a lot in this teacher’s class or that teacher’s class based on a teacher using STEM principles in their lessons.”

For more information about the Macon County Schools STEM program, visit

Another runway extension in the wings for Macon airport

By: Jessi Stone - | DATE: January 11, 2017

With the last Macon County Airport runway extension project barely in the rearview, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has approved another $4.5 million airport project to make the runway even longer.

The last expansion project in 2011 extended the runway from 4,400 feet to 5,000 feet for safety reasons — the same reason why local officials say the runway now needs to be expanded to 6,000 feet.

“It’s still four to six more years until it actually happens, but it’s in the pipeline,” said Miles Gregory, chairman of the Macon County Airport Authority.

Though the project is still years away from construction, it is included in NCDOT’s newly released 10-year transportation plan. Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a 10 percent local match for the project last month, marking the second time the county has contributed $450,000 toward a runway extension project in the last five years.

Commission Chairman Jim Tate, who served as the board’s liaison to the airport authority for many years, said he was excited about what the future expansion will mean for Macon County and the rest of the region.

“It will be great for Western North Carolina to have an airport of that capacity,” he said. “The airport usage has gone up consistently every year since I’ve been on the board and it continues to grow.”

Gregory said the 1,000-foot expansion was needed to improve safety and make the airport accessible to more types of aircraft. While the last extension has helped increase traffic into the small airport in the Iotla Valley, he said landing is still difficult for most planes.

“Traffic has increased considerably since we did the extension to 5,000 feet — pilots have no trouble taking off now but landing is still a problem,” he said. “They’re burning out their brakes trying to get stopped so this will be an added safety feature.”

Costly investment

The county, state and federal taxpayer money that has gone into maintaining and improving the Macon County Airport has been substantial.

In addition to the $900,000 worth of local contributions made to runway expansion projects, the county has also approved annual funding to the Macon County Airport authority for capital improvements and other DOT improvement projects. 2013, commissioners narrowly approved allocating $290,000 to the airport authority so that it could leverage a $2.5 million Federal Aviation Authority grant. The grant covered the cost of expanding the width of the runway from 75 feet to 100 feet, repaving the runway and adding new lights along the airstrip.

The county allocates between $40,000-$50,000 a year for airport operating expenses and occasionally assists with capital improvement costs. Over the last three years alone, the county has allocated more than $420,000 for the airport in the annual budget.

While some taxpayers think the money is well spent considering all the benefits the airport provides, others think only a select few are actually benefitting from the millions being poured into the airport.

“Commissioners have been tremendously supportive of the airport, but it’s not a cost to the county — it’s an investment — a good investment,’ Gregory said. “If we’re going to have an airport we need to have the best one we can afford — it will pay off.”

While the current commissioners approved the $450,000 match, it could be a future board in four to six years that actually has to give the money. Tate said the current board wouldn’t put a future board on the hook for that kind of money if it didn’t think it was in the best interest of the entire county.

“Probably the biggest complaint I’ve heard from people is ‘we don’t have an airplane so it doesn’t help us any,’ but indirectly it affects all Macon County residents. Our largest employers use it on a daily basis, and those businesses would move elsewhere without the airport,” he said. “This decision will affect the county budget for several years, but it’s an important thing to do for the good of the county overall.”

Economic development

Gregory can share a number of anecdotal stories that show the economic benefits that come with having an airport in Macon County.

“Last year a jet came in on a Thursday and four teenaged girls got off. I talked to the pilot who was from Kentucky and he flew them here from the university to the Old Edwards Inn for a wedding — there are several incidents like that — those people pay a good deal of taxes while they’re here,” Gregory said.

Those people pay property tax on their second homes or they rent hotels and pay the occupancy tax, they buy groceries and they pay sales tax when they shop in Franklin and Highlands. Gregory also pointed out that plane owners pay a hefty personal property tax to the county, which goes into the county budget every year.

Cherokee and Harrah’s Casino also benefit from the airport. Many of the casino’s big musical acts use the airport, including Tony Bennett.

“Lots of second home owners use the airport and in fact, 50 percent of the airport usage has a final destination of Highlands and Cashiers,” Tate said.

The Macon County Airport may only employ a handful of people, but it helps support hundreds of jobs in Macon County.

Companies like Drake Enterprises that employ 900 people and Duotech Services that employs 50 people can speak to the advantages of having an airport close by.

Duotech owner Dan Rogers said the airport is essential to his defense company that needs to fly its technicians and engineers all over the country to meet with customers. Being able to fly out of Macon County on a private jet cuts down on his trip time compared to flying commercially.

“From a business standpoint the airport is invaluable — especially when the closest airports are hours away in Atlanta or Charlotte — you really can’t put a price on it,” Rogers said.

Drake CEO Phil Drake said the airport allows his business to visit multiple cities in one day.

“Some weeks we fly six days. Some days we go to two or three different locations returning to Franklin on each leg,” Drake said. “My pilot recently had a day that he was in Myrtle Beach, Teterboro, New Jersey, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in the same day, which would be impossible without the airport in Macon County.”

Drake employees specifically travel to Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee, often. Because of the Macon County Airport, they can make stops in both cities in one day and still make it home for dinner in Franklin. The airport allows employees to have the high quality of life offered in Macon County while also having a high-tech job that typically requires you to live in more urban areas.

“If we had to fly out of Asheville or Atlanta, it would take three days because we would have to fly out the day before a meeting, and then fly home the day after,” Drake said. “So it is not at all practical for us to fly commercially to those cities.”

Both companies said the airport was not a major factor when deciding to open a business in Macon County — mostly because the airport was still fairly primitive. But Drake said it is a major factor in whether the company can stay in Macon County in the future.

Gregory said the airport helps existing businesses and is something potential industries are looking for when they select a location to set up shop. Having the airport gives Macon County a better shot at landing new jobs.

“This is for future development — this airport will be a tremendous asset to Macon and Jackson and Swain counties, and also Rabun County (Georgia) because it’s centrally located and offers better facilities,” he said. “We need it to fly officials here to check out different spots — if we don’t have an airport, we’re out of the picture completely.”

Safety concerns

The question remains — does adding another 1,000 feet to the runway really make that much of a difference as far as safety is concerned?

Macon County Airport’s runway is already longer than Jackson County Airport’s 3,200-foot runway and is only slightly shorter than Andrews/Murphy Airport’s 5,500-foot runway.

But local pilots say it will make landing much safer and will also enable more types of planes and jets to utilize the airport.

Drake, CEO of Drake Enterprises, and his pilot David Phillips use the airport on almost a daily basis.

Phillips said the expansion from 5,000 feet to 6,000 would improve safety conditions, especially while flying at night and during heavy rain and fog.

“You should sit up front in the cockpit one dark and rainy night and get a firsthand look at why it would be so much safer with the additional 1,000 feet added to the runway,” he said. “The approach speeds in the Citation CJ2+ jet can be as high as 135 miles per hour. The runway looks really short at night in the rain.”

Duotech CEO Dan Rogers has used the airport for his business travel since 1989. He said the previous runway expansion project has been helpful in improving safety for pilots. Larger jets also need more runway space to land compared to smaller single-engine planes.

“From a safety standpoint, it gives you plenty of buffer for the pilots trying to land,” he said.

The expansion from 5,000 to 6,000 won’t make much of a difference for Rogers’ landings, but he said it would open up the airport for more private jet traffic. For example, he said XOJET, which provides private jet charter trips, is interested in utilizing the Macon County Airport but can’t right now because of the runway length.

“For my purposes it’s not a big difference, but nowadays you have commercial flights coming in here from NetJets and others that fly individuals from one place to another and those jets need 5,000 to 6000 feet of runway,” he said. “The amount of peripheral business the airport brings in is hard to measure.”

There have been two incidents within the last 20 years at the Macon County Airport that resulted in death. Back in 1995, a husband and wife crashed trying to land on the runway. In 2012, another plane crash near the airport killed the five people on board.

Gregory said both of those incidences might have been avoided if the runway was longer at the time.

“In 1995, that couple went into the field and flipped — that would not have happened if we had the runway extended,” he said.

However, a report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that the runway length had nothing to do with the crash. The cause of the crash was determined to be a “the pilot’s failure to maintain flying speed resulting in an aerodynamic stall. A factor was sun glare,” according to the report.

Split on support

The expansion and improvement projects at the airport haven’t exactly been met with enthusiasm from the entire community.

Before the last runway extension project was formally approved, several residents in the Iotla Valley near the airport were adamantly opposed to the project because they thought it would mean more disturbing vehicle and air traffic in the area.

While the board was unanimous in the latest vote to expand the runway, commissioners were divided on the previous runway project. Commissioner Paul Higdon and former commissioner Ron Haven voted against providing the $290,000 matching funds in 2013 for the repaving and widening project. For Haven, the airport just didn’t clearly show the economic benefits the project would have for all residents of Macon County.

Even more controversial was when the airport authority and commissioners began discussing lengthening the runway from 4,400 feet to 5,000 feet back in 2009. With Cherokee burial sites and artifacts surrounding the airport property, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was not happy with how Macon leaders were handling the sensitive expansion project.

The authority agreed to remove 25 percent of artifacts on the site, but Cherokee wanted 100 percent removed. They authority claimed it would cost too much — estimated $2 million — to remove all the artifacts and instead contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill to recover 25 percent of the artifacts for $535,000.

Several residents threatened lawsuits because of the project, but nothing ever came to fruition and the project was completed in 2011 after working through a lengthy environmental permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite the concerns about the increase in vehicle and air traffic in the rural community, Gregory said he hasn’t heard any complaints since the expansion was completed nearly five years ago. He said many people in the county couldn’t even tell you where the airport is located because they never notice the air traffic, which mostly occurs between Thursday and Sunday.

“Of course you have some people who’d rather have it somewhere else, but we can’t move it,” Gregory said.

Harmony House Foods, Inc. to Expand Operations in Macon County

The Macon County Economic Development Commission announced today that Harmony House Foods Inc. has purchased the current TekTone Sound and Signal Manufacturing, Inc facility in the Macon County Industrial Park, following the TekTone purchase of the former SKF building in the park.
Located in the Macon County Business Development Center, Harmony House is a seller and distributor of dehydrated foods, both domestically and internationally. Their honors include the Editor’s Choice Award from Backpacker Magazine and the “Business People of the Year” nomination by the Small Business Administration for the State of North Carolina.

“Harmony House will be expanding from an 8500 square foot facility to an over 32,000 square foot location, showing significant growth since becoming a Business Development Center tenant in 2013,” said Tommy Jenkins, Macon County Economic Development Director. “Being a family owned and operated business, as well as located in a region world renown for hiking and outdoor recreation, Harmony House is a perfect fit for our local economy.”

Harmony House plans to steadily increase their workforce over the next several years as new products come to market. “We have so many opportunities for product growth that it just made sense to expand,” said John Seaman, President of Harmony House. “Expanding right here in Franklin was an easy choice because Macon County has provided such an excellent business environment.” There are also plans for a future outlet store adjacent to the production facility. “AT hikers and local residents often ask if we have a storefront they can visit. We hope to provide that for them,” said Linda Seaman, Vice President.

Expansion by TekTone® Sound & Signal Mfg., Inc. Will Create 35 Jobs in Macon County

Governor Pat McCrory, North Carolina Commerce Secretary John E. Skvarla, III, and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) announced today that TekTone® Sound & Signal Mfg., Inc. will create 35 jobs over the next five years as it expands operations in Macon County. The company plans to invest $2.9 million in its facility over that time.

“TekTone® Sound & Signal is a key global player in the nurse call system market, doing business on five continents,” said Governor McCrory. “This company’s exciting growth in Macon County provides more evidence that modern manufacturers can thrive in every corner of our state.”

Founded in 1973, TekTone® Sound & Signal Mfg., Inc. opened its manufacturing facility in Franklin, N.C. in 1989. TekTone® designs & manufactures wired & wireless nurse call, apartment entry, area of rescue assistance, alert integration and resident wandering systems. TekTone® healthcare communications systems are found in hospitals, retirement communities, skilled nursing, and assisted/independent living facilities around the globe. TekTone® world headquarters is in Franklin and the company’s network of first-rate distributors and representatives stretches worldwide. The privately held company employs an existing workforce of 70 locally.

“Nothing compares to the manufacturing talent, access to global markets and competitive costs that companies like TekTone® Sound & Signal find in North Carolina,” said Secretary Skvarla. “These are among the factors that have made us the Southeast’s #1 state for manufacturing jobs.”

TekTone® Sound & Signal Mfg., Inc. will add engineers, technicians, and sales representatives among other positions at its new research, development and manufacturing facility. Salaries will vary by position, but will average more than $48,118 per year. Macon County’s current annual wages average $30,794.

The global market for nurse call systems is expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2022, according to a 2016 report by Grand View Research, Inc. Trends in healthcare technology, regulation and reimbursement are driving international demand for communications systems.

“The purchase of the former SKF facility is a significant investment for us. When it became clear we were outgrowing our current facility, we made it a priority to stay in Macon County, if at all possible. We thank our employees, customers, and partners for making this a reality, and look forward to expansion and growth in the Macon County Industrial Park,” commented Carlos Mira, President of TekTone®.

The project was made possible in part by a performance-based grant of up to $90,000 from the One North Carolina Fund. The One NC Fund provides financial assistance, through local governments, to attract business projects that will stimulate economic activity and create new jobs in the state. Companies receive no money up front and must meet job creation and investment performance standards to qualify for grant funds. One NC grants also require and are contingent on financial matches from local governments.

“Today’s announcement is great news for Macon County and its economy,” said N.C. Senator Jim Davis. “This company has been a mainstay in our business community and we are pleased to be a part of its latest stage of growth.”

“This expansion by TekTone Sound & Signal says good things about Macon County as a destination for high-quality jobs and investment,” said N.C. Representative Roger West. “I look forward to supporting this company’s continued growth and success.”

Among the allies working with EDPNC and N.C. Commerce on TekTone® Sound & Signal’s expansion are the North Carolina General Assembly, the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Macon County Economic Development Commission.

Drake Enterprises Purchases Caterpillar Building

Drake Enterprises has closed on the purchase of Caterpillar's former Precision Seals plant, located at 517 Industrial Park Road in Franklin. Industrial realtor Newmark Grubb Knight Frank (NGKF) placed the 101,810-square-foot, general-purpose industrial building and 20-acre lot on the market in March, intending to sell the property within 12-24 months.

"This space presents an excellent opportunity for growth," said Phil Drake, chairman and CEO of Drake Enterprises. "One of the reasons we chose this building was the availability of fiber Internet in the Industrial Park. As we expand operations, high-speed broadband is a necessity."

Drake's current plan is to house data storage and servers in the on-site tornado shelter. "The reinforced shelter has its own generator, so it's an ideal location," Phil explained. "We will also relocate the maintenance staff and Providence Builders to the new building: the 20-foot ceilings and 50-foot production bays are convenient for storing maintenance machinery and construction materials."

Macon County Economic Development Commission Director Tommy Jenkins commented, "As the largest private employer in Macon County, Drake Enterprises is a perfect fit for the Macon County Industrial Park. We salute Drake for their substantial contributions to our local economy and look forward to an exciting and successful future with this latest acquisition."

About Drake Enterprises

Drake Enterprises of Franklin, NC employs over 800 people and operates eighteen diverse businesses, which include Drake Software, the fourth largest professional tax preparation software company nationally; Macon Printing; Dnet Internet Services; and one-half ownership of Balsam West Fiber Network, which has a 256-mile underground fiber ring in Western North Carolina. Guided by Biblical principles, this rapidly growing company continues to expand through acquisitions and new business ventures.