MERIDIAN — It sounds like a business fairy tale. A guy from California is successful with a start-up custom steel foundry in Meridian. And the guy endured all sorts of political trauma in the process.
The guy, Fred Wile, carries all the baggage of having grown up in Whittier, Calif., Richard Nixon’s hometown. Then Wile got his master’s in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, while Mario Savio, et al, were leading the tumultuous student rights, free speech unrest.
“It was more of a happening, and a fun thing to watch,” Wile remembered. “We students would watch the six o’clock news and that report wasn’t the same thing we had seen.”
Less than 15 years later, he was Gil Carmichael’s pilot for part of the 1979 Mississippi gubernatorial campaign.
“It was fascinating,” Wile said.
Politics aside, today Southern Cast Products is a thriving business just northeast of Meridian in the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Industrial Park. The company produces 225 tons of customized steel castings a month for customers, most of whom are within a 700-mile radius encompassing Houston, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and points between.
Wile said, “Those customers need what we’re good at — making castings to their specifications.”
There’s a reward for all of the 95 employees when they meet monthly productivity goals. Wile becomes the head cook — complete with a chef’s hat — for a steak lunch the following month. They’ve missed that treat only once this year.
And Wile meets his civic responsibilities head on. He’s a member of the Meridian School Board and backs it up with, “I have such a strong belief that our schools are the foundation of our economic well being.”
He’s also the ringleader in the ongoing effort to purchase Weidmann’s and continue its reputation as one of the South’s premier restaurants.
Wile believes that this extracurricular activity is healthy for his business.
“Even though without my presence it sometimes gets frantic, that helps our management team to grow,” he said.
In developing that team, he’s made extensive use of consultants on topics ranging from product quality to industrial psychology.
Meridian accountant Randy Kemp has served as Wile’s financial consultant and recalled his first encounter with the bearded Wile.
“This flaky guy from California showed up and said he was going to start a foundry and I didn’t know what a foundry was. We were both young and we didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do something like that,” Kemp said.
“That” started at Berkeley when Wile became overly interested in a course on casting processes. An observant professor noticed and recommended Wile to Esco, a Portland, Ore., foundry. That led to an internship, a job and subsequently being named the plant manager of Esco’s Newton plant in 1973. He was 27 and had charge of 150 employees. Within a year, the plant reached a previously unattained goal of 500 tons of castings a month.
Then the entrepreneur bug struck. “After I moved to Newton and realized I could run a business for somebody else, I wanted to run one for myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to run a foundry because it’s hot, hard, dirty work, but when the chips are down, you do the one thing you know how to do. For me, that was a foundry.”
A market survey by the then Mississippi Research and Development Center confirmed the area’s need for a casting plant. Then a six-week R&D course run by Van Evans on “How to Start a Small Business” showed the way. Wile left Esco in mid-1978 and drew up his business plan. Noel Guthrie, an R&D official, said it was the best one he’d ever seen.
Meanwhile, Wile had a blind date with Sissie Watson from Meridian and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married in 1976. When he left Esco, she was pregnant with their first child thus increasing the pressure.
“Sissie was a lot of support,” Wile remembered. “Like most newlyweds, we didn’t have a long way to fall. This was a window of time, so if it failed, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
His confidence was buoyed by a previous job offer up North that would have increased his salary by 50%.
But success came fast and continues. The finances met SBA requirements in June 1979, and six months later, the first casting was poured. The goal of 22 employees and sales of $1 million was met in the second year. And Wile received the community’s Hartley Peavey Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1999.
And Sissie? She handled all the business end from the beginning and is still a part of today’s overall financial management. This while raising daughter Hailey, a Vanderbilt grad and recent bride, and son Daniel, a Stanford sophomore. Both have impeccable scholastic and leadership credentials.
After 21 years, Wile has changed some of his management style.
Chelda Beasley, his office supervisor since 1987 said, “Fred has mellowed. There was a lot on him when he was over everything. Now he has a management team, so he’s a lot less hands-on, but he still has that open door. If any employee’s got the guts to walk in, he’ll listen to them.”
Randy Kemp talked about his perception of the changes in Wile. “The main thing he’s learned is that for long-term success, the owner must make himself less important to the business and he’s done that. But the main thing is he’s intelligent and has a high energy level and that’s a sure fire formula for success.”
Given today’s economic climate, Wile hopes for continued slow growth. There are two shifts now — a third shift was cut in 1999 — and off-shore competition is coming from such places as China and India.
“So our goal is to understand how to market ourselves to people who need what we can provide,” he said. “The customers we want to bring in are the ones that fit what we can do best.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at email@example.com or (601) 485-7046.