DOBSON — In serving up forecasts for the local business climate, the Surry County Economic Development Partnership (EDP) naturally relied on the head of a company that tackles weather-related disasters.
“When there’s an ice storm or hurricane, that’s usually when people know we are there,” Pike Corp. Chairman and CEO J. Eric Pike said during the EDP’s 22nd-annual meeting Friday at the N.C. Center for Viticulture and Enology at Surry Community College.
Pike, the keynote speaker for the lunchtime gathering attended by about 145 business representatives along with government and educational officials from across the county, added that the 70-year-old company has responded to every major storm for decades. The first was Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which caused widespread damage to Florida and other areas.
The company, headquartered in the Holly Springs community, started in 1945 with a single truck fished from Oregon Inlet, and now has a global reach through a variety of energy solutions services achieved through acquisitions and other moves.
Yet it is best known for dispatching crews of linemen to rescue downed power lines from trees blown over or ice accumulations in locations near and far — where the electrical contractor’s trucks have become a welcome sight.
Pros and cons forecast
In providing an outlook for the economy Friday afternoon, Pike sounded much like a long-range weather predictor, envisioning mostly blue skies but some turbulence along the way — a series of good news/bad news scenarios.
Pike said he wanted to avoid politics, but suggested that the economy is “definitely stronger” since the presidential election with employment opportunities becoming available at his company and others for those with the right skills.
“There are a lot of dollars going into infrastructure,” he said of one area being emphasized as a result, which is good news for a company with numerous engineering and construction capabilities such as Pike Corp.
“Most of this growth is urban,” Pike said of the downside, which leaves out rural communities such as Surry and other areas outside major cities.
Pike said this new emphasis on urban projects also relates to how company officials attract skilled workers, especially millennials born from 1982 to 2002 who desire to live in those areas because of leisure-time and other opportunities.
“People are going to where the jobs are,” the company official said of another factor, mentioning places such as Florida and Texas.
This has required Pike Corp., which has a major presence in Florida, to use creative approaches to attract employees there. The speaker cited plans to work with the governor of the Sunshine State, the Walt Disney Co. and others to assemble attractive relocation packages.
A Pike lineman can earn more than $100,000 per year in Florida, he said, where the cost of living is higher. “But that’s real money.”
Pike said the key, from both the employee and employer standpoint, is a skilled labor force in information technology (IT), management, engineering and other areas.
“There is a huge gap,” said the third-generation president of the company started by his grandfather, Floyd S. Pike.
Pike said an institution such as Surry Community College can play a big role in the training aspect by providing programs in computer-assisted design (CAD), which engineers at his company use in laying out power-distribution or other projects.
He also mentioned how company linemen are now trained using virtual-reality systems that simulate work atop a utility pole.
“You think you are going up,” Pike said of one effect.
The CEO and board chairman said the company began advertising Thursday to hire 20 new technicians.
“While the economy is really good,” Pike summed up, he also offered a word of caution. “Nothing comes for free,” the keynote speaker said in predicting that in addition to a shortage of skilled workers, higher inflation and other economic drawbacks are on the way.
‘Blessed’ in Africa
Surry Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker said during Friday’s meeting that the selection of the Pike Corp. official as its keynote speaker was an appropriate one.
“They’re a worldwide company — they’ve got a lot of things going on,” Tucker said.
“Today we work from Hawaii all the way back to the East Coast,” Pike said during his address.
He said the family led company’s reach also has extended to Africa, where Pike took part in an electrification project for areas that never had power before. The people there were elated.
“Twelve hundred students and parents put on a four-hour show for us,” Pike said, in addition to painting thank-you messages to the Mount Airy firm on school desks. “They were that grateful.”
In a corporate world where profits and losses reign, he said the experience in Africa gave him a new perspective. “You find yourself blessed in more ways than you can count,” Pike explained.
“It was probably one of the most amazing projects we’ve ever done.”
Similar to its work in disaster areas, Pike Corp. has weathered many changes over the years, including moving from a private company to a public one with stockholders in 2005, and then back to private two years ago.
While Pike acquired four different companies from 2008-2012 which allowed it to expand to more states and add capabilities, it also sold its fleet maintenance division in 2016 to an Alabama corporation that maintained the local operation.
“That was a fantastic move,” Pike said in admitting that truck-building was not a company specialty, but it sought to look out for those working in the division.
“We wanted to protect those employees,” he said. “If we had just shut that business down, it would have been a huge blow to Surry County.”
The outlook for the future is bright for Pike, its CEO said.
“We will continue to expand our service line,” the keynote speaker pledged.
“I’ve got a lot of second- and third-generations (of employees) that work with me — and we need to push it to the fourth generation.”
Year was “interesting”
Tucker, the EDP president, told Friday’s crowd that 2016 produced no announcements of large new plants or company expansions, but some bright spots nonetheless.
Local businesses grew in small increments, including adding employees and making investments.
“Five, 10, 20 (jobs) at a time, we see a lot of that growth,” Tucker said, although everyone wants larger projects. “But along the way, we have to take baby steps.”
He said a key factor is that businesses and industries which did expand kept their operations local instead of moving away.
Surry County’s labor force participation has grown by 2 percent over the past year, which doesn’t sound like much, Tucker said, yet that represents 660 more people who are working. Retail sales also have increased by 6.6 percent.
“Those metrics are trending up, making things look like they’re getting better,” the EDP president said.
“I think everybody knows that in the world we live in today, economic development is very challenging,” EDP Board of Directors Chairman Jud Brown said at Friday’s meeting.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.