MERIDIAN — George McLean looks over the sprawling $200,000 gift-wrapping machine system with a sigh of satisfaction. Met-Tech, his firm, redesigned and built the work-saving device that puts out a newly wrapped package every 40 seconds. The first three machine systems were built to the specifications for QVC. And he’s ready to design other ideas into practical reality, but getting to this point has certainly been an odyssey.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, McLean was an “Army brat” moving all over Britain and abroad with his family.
“Before I was 15, I must have gone to 16 different schools because we moved around a lot,” McLean recalled with still a hint of Scottish burr. “In Britain, you end up in the bottom of the class every time you go to a new school, so I was basically uneducated when I left the family. I joined the British Army at 16 and had to sign up for 12 years.”
It turned out that McLean was congenitally deaf in one ear, which the Army failed to discover when he enlisted, so he was discharged four years later (two weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, he remembered). But he said, “The Army treated me quite well and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
During his four-year hitch, he took an apprenticeship course, passed two big trade tests and became a skilled engine fitter. But he wasn’t 21 — the legal employable age for a tradesman — so he took an 11-month government draftsman course.
“I had a talent for it and never looked back from there,” he said.
He hooked up for two years with a firm that built pipelines to transfer liquid helium — ”the coldest substance known to man,” he said — which means totally eliminating heat, a science known as cryogenics.
Continuing to chafe under the restrictive British regulations and taxation, McLean decided to move to Canada where his cousin lived. He left England in 1967 on one of the last immigration ships that, after eight days at sea, followed an icebreaker up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec. He remembered it as the coldest he’d ever been in his life.
After 14 years as an engineering designer with various companies in Toronto, including giants General Motors and Union Carbide, McLean formed Cramond, his own engineering design firm and subsequently Auto Coil, a manufacturing firm. And then in the early 1990s came fate in the form of an ad on a morning radio talk show.
The ad featured the sound of wildlife and flowing waters. In effect, it said, “If you like this sound, come visit Mississippi where you can enjoy all forms of outdoor recreation and where business is welcome. Just call this 800 number.” Resentful of “the super high taxes” and tired of the cold weather, he told his secretary to write the number down. He put it in his briefcase.
Six months later, the call was made — it was a Mississippi Power Company ad — and was routed to Charles Beasley, one of their economic development representatives in Gulfport.
“By coincidence I was planning a trip to Toronto about two weeks later, so we set up an appointment,” Beasley remembered. “After that I made another visit and we kept talking. Then he came to New Orleans for a trade show, so the Mississippi Development Authority provided a plane and we toured the Coast, then flew him and his wife up to Meridian. His call was the only response we got to that ad.”
McLean said that his visit to Meridian was “…just like coming home. It was like I knew everybody I met. I’ve lived in eight countries and I can’t ever see leaving here. Lynda (his wife who’s now in charge of patient registration at Rush Foundation Hospital) is from Toronto and there was no hesitation on her part to come here. We’ll die here.”
They made the decision to move in ‘95, but it took a year — and six or seven trips — to close shop in Canada, find a home in Meridian and open Met-Tech. He called off the names of eight or 10 local people, especially Jimmy Alexander, who were instrumental in assisting them and is still amazed over the fuss that was made by local officials.
“We appreciated it, but we were small fry,” McLean said.
That small fry is producing an array of products. The gift-wrapping machine evolved three Christmases ago when on-line shopping networks were clogged up by slow gift-wrapping. The robotic machine can take any one of six paper styles, measure the package to be wrapped and produce a ready-to-mail present in 40 seconds.
“It’s the first one that can do random sizes,” McLean said.
He redesigned it from a patent owned by a dentist in Rockford, Ill. Other products in the “Met-Tech Gallery” album include all types of heavy machinery primarily for the steel industry. One of his products was a CNC plate drill for his industrial park next-door neighbor, Structural Steel.
“It’s the first one we did and it’s still chugging away,” McLean said.
Which brings up the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that along with many other segments of the economy, the steel industry is struggling. That creates big problems for Met-Tech. The number of employees is down in the past year from 30 to eight plus two sub-contractors. The good news is that Structural Steel’s CEO, Tommy Dulaney, has ridden to the rescue.
“He’s responsible for keeping our doors open,” McLean said.
Dulaney now owns 80% of Met-Tech and serves as president while McLean is vice president until business picks up and McLean can re-purchase his equity.
But McLean remains optimistic and thinks a heat treatment plant could be successful in Meridian.
“Everyone has bad times, but you can’t give up. That’s when you get in trouble,” he said. “We can design and build machinery to anyone’s specifications and if people used more machinery, all those jobs wouldn’t be going to Mexico.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 485-7046.