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Couple keeps business success in the family

Howards building businesses with ‘windows of opportunity’

LAUREL — Linda Howard already had a bachelor’s degree in psychology, business and Spanish from Mercer University in Georgia, a master’s in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had studied for a doctorate in counseling psychology at Indiana State University when, as assistant vice president of student affairs, her boss made a phone call that changed her life.

Her boss? Billy Howard’s brother-in-law, an astute man who thought the two of them might like each other.

“My brother-in-law called me and told me that I should make a visit up there and see this lady,” said Billy Howard Sr., CEO of Howard Industries and Howard Computers. “I did, fell in love with her and we got married. It was that simple.”

The couple celebrated their 30th anniversary on April 30, around the same time they received word that Ernst & Young had selected them as two of Mississippi’s leading entrepreneurs.

When the two met, Billy Howard, a Laurel native who had received his electrical engineering degree from Mississippi State University and had worked for General Electric beginning in sales and ending up in an executive position with the national company, had “just barely” established Howard Transformers in Jones County, said Linda Howard, president of Howard Industries and Howard Computers.

“We met at almost the exact time he went into the very first transformers, so he came back and laid the groundwork, but from then on, it was a joint effort,” she said.

Approximately 3,800 employees are currently on the payroll in Howard Industries’ four divisions. The largest manufacturer of distribution transformers in the U.S., Howard Transformers has a 40% domestic market share and also markets transformers to 120 foreign countries. Their son, Michael Howard, runs the division.

In the late 1970s, soon after trucking was deregulated, the Howards formed Howard Transportation, which is now a wholly-owned subsidiary run by their son, Billy Howard Jr. With 200 flatbed trucks operating east of Texas, the company also has a brokerage division, acting as a middleman between shippers and smaller trucking firms.

In 1994, the Howards formed Howard Industries Ballast Products Division, now the fourth-largest ballast manufacturer in the U.S. In addition to the trucking company, Billy Howard Jr. runs the ballast division. An electronic ballast plant is located in Sandersville, near Laurel, and a magnetic ballast plant is located in the 285,000-square foot former Magnetek building in Mendenhall.

In 1996, the Howards were named Mississippi Exporters of the Year. Two years later, they were inducted into the Mississippi Business Hall of Fame. Both had already collected a bevy of awards and honors when they entered the computer business, a development that was the result of “sheer necessity,” Linda Howard said.

In the early 1990s, Howard Industries engineers had built computers for the company because they couldn’t find ones that could tolerate the rugged environment of a transformer manufacturing plant.

“We believe very strongly in windows of opportunity,” Linda Howard said. “First of all, you have to be able to recognize a window of opportunity when it comes along. Secondly, you have to have enough self-discipline to see if it’s a window you want to take advantage of or not. If it is, you have to make the appropriate decision and take advantage of that window. If you watch for windows of opportunity and take advantage of them, your priorities change constantly.”

In January 1999, Howard Computers went into production mode. Six months later, more than 200 computers were being produced each shift with the capability of 600 computers per day. At that time, Howard Computers was operating with four assemblers and 37 salespeople, engineers and other employees in its temporary facility south of Laurel. Production capabilities are now up to 300 computers per shift; a third shift has not yet been added. The operation’s ultimate location will be in the 600-acre Howard Technology Park, near Ellisville State School.

“In the last 30 years, the greatest challenges have been establishing a name, establishing a customer base and striking a balance to serve the customer by being very efficient,” said Billy Howard Sr. “The most important aspect is to attract proper people. If you don’t get the proper people, you’ll never get the job done.”

What’s next? “Computers, computers, computers,” said Billy Howard Sr.

“There are a few things in the offing, but we don’t make any announcements until we’re ready to announce a new division,” said Linda Howard. “Our daughter, Cyndi McCoy, heads up new business development.”

When asked about the best business move she ever made, Linda Howard quickly said, “marrying my husband.”

After a brief pause, she added, “and Billy better answer with ‘marrying my wife’.” In the background, amid laughter from both of them, Howard Sr. piped in, “she’s right!”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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