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Family business with futuristic ideas

Hardy building quality product in middle of nowhere

IN NESHOBA COUNTY — Hardy Manufacturing Company really is “in the middle of nowhere.” Even the company president uses that term in describing the location. It’s on Neshoba County Road 505 in the southwestern corner of the county. En route, you pass something called Happiness Hill Christian Home and Academy, not to mention grazing cows and horses.

And family members play a large part in the proprietorship and management. Two examples: Jerome Hardy founded the company in 1979. Today his daughter, Janet, and her husband, Frank Moore, are the owners with Frank serving as president. Another Hardy daughter, Linda Griffis, is president of Hardy Supply Co., the firm that supplies all of the plant’s raw materials, which includes 40,000 pounds of stainless steel every two weeks.

Meantime, Jerome lives just across the lake adjoining the plant and Frank lives just across the road. Both are comfortable, handsome homes. And Jerome’s cousin, Bobby Smith, who helped found the company, is in charge of the welding operation “about a half mile down the road.” The reason for the main plant’s location according to Moore is that “Jerome and Bobby farmed here.”

Just another old-fashioned family business, right? Take another look.

There are 79 employees in the seven metal buildings in this pastoral setting. Today, the only product is “The Hardy,” a stainless steel outside furnace that Jerome Hardy patented in 1979. Its primary fuel is hardwood, but as Moore said, “People burn all kinds of junk in it.” In any event, given the skyrocketing price of other fuels, demand for The Hardy has tripled in the past year. And the diversity of uses is amazing, especially to a Southerner.

Operating on the same principle as a car heater, the furnace heats water to varying degrees for a multitude of purposes. Its most popular use is as a forced air heater for homes, but other uses include heating floors and driveways (particularly popular in the northeast U. S.) and warming water for swimming pools.

More than 29,000 Hardy’s have been sold, and today sales exceed $6 million annually. Each furnace comes with a 10-year guarantee with most repairs free of charge. There are three sizes with the most popular product being the mid-size that sells for about $3,000 each. A band of states stretching from Arkansas and Missouri eastward to Pennsylvania and Virginia comprise 85% of the Hardy market.

As for competition, Moore names two companies, but said, “I really don’t feel like we have any competitors. We do the research and development and they just copy what we’ve done. They always have been chasing us. And we have the best marketing distributors out there.”

Willard Posey is a veteran 11-year Hardy distributor for Mississippi and 18 other states. When asked about competition, he airily dismissed it. “I can stand my ground anytime. I’ve replaced a lot of their stoves with my stoves.”

Then there’s management philosophy and employee retention. Hardy Manufacturing was 20 years ahead of its time. By sub-contracting seven of the production steps — including three to off-site points — management is decentralized and costs are controlled. That’s another feature that not only competitors, but major industries are now trying to emulate.

Moore said employee turnover is almost zero. “The last time somebody had to quit, I think it was because they moved to Texas,” he recalled.

It would be easy to rest on the laurels and success that comes with having a useful, reliable, competitively priced product, but that’s not the Hardy style. Moore said the future of the company lies in its next product soon to hit the market.

Danny Watkins presides over the metal building where he developed the Hardy Grill over a two-year period. “We believe we’ve resolved all the problems that other grills had,” Watkins said.

The Hardy Grill is made of — you guessed it — stainless steel, and has just received the Underwriters Laboratory approval. Fueled with propane gas, it’s a natural convection operation with a drip pan that prevents flare-ups and cooks evenly without requiring a rotisserie operation. Double temperature controls enable two dishes to be cooked simultaneously.

Moore said that the UL approval was the final step before production begins, so within three to four weeks, 20 grills a week will be rolling out to their distributors. Sale price will be about $1,200. The promotional literature says, “It’s the last grill you’ll ever have to buy.”

And that’s not all. There’s the four-wheel drive attachment for golf carts. That’s being promoted this month by Linda Griffis and her husband, Bill, at the Great Outdoors Festival in Memphis that will have about 100,000 people in attendance. It’s another Jerome Hardy innovation that emanated from his “tinkering shop” right next door to his nearby home.

And then there’s the commercial building outside wood-burning furnace that Greg Caldwell and Jerome have under development in the 2,000-square-foot research testing pad.

Overseeing all of that, the graying fortyish Frank Moore has a big job. He’s also father to three daughters — one a budding newspaper reporter. Yet he’s finding time to be (his description) “the token county business person” among the local civic leadership.

Moore’s just been elected chairman of the newly-formed umbrella organization, the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Economic Development Association, that has the huge task of combining the chamber of commerce, industrial development organization, convention and visitors bureau and, eventually, the Main Street program. And the plaque on the wall tells you he’s an avid follower of his alma mater’s athletic fortune — he’s a member of the Mississippi State Super Bulldog Club.

But Moore modestly denies credit for Hardy’s prosperity and said the secret to the company’s success is the people. And he’s talking about not only members of his family, but the family of company workers.

“Loyal and trustworthy employees make it easy to do business,” he said.

So in the middle of nowhere, you can find Hardy Manufacturing Company, “a little company that could.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com or (601) 485-7046. Johnson served as an economic development consultant in Starkville from August 1999-April 2000.

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