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Howard anticipates hiring 400 new employees

Laurel — When Howard Industries opened its new transformer plant — its second — earlier this year, it was less of a notable occasion that it might have been for many other businesses.

It’s not that the opening of a 200,000-square-foot plant to produce 300,000-pound power transformers is any routine thing. It’s just that, since its 1969 founding with the original transformer company, Howard has not only grown to become one of Mississippi’s top 100 privately owned companies, but it has expanded into six diverse divisions and a wholly owned subsidiary that employ some 4,000 people.

Now, the new transformer plant has announced that it will hire 400 additional employees over the next few weeks, 200 of them as a direct result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“We’re ramping up operations to meet the demands of our customers,” according to Michael Howard, president of the transformer and ballast divisions. “We’ve been asked to supply transformers at an accelerated rate.

“We’ve been listening to our customers. You see windows of opportunity. When you see one, you have to evaluate it and make the most of it while you can.”

Howard plans to hire salaried employees such as technicians and engineers and hourly employees such as welders.

Howard supplies transformers to all of South Mississippi’s cooperative and utility companies, including Dixie Electric Power Association, the Southern Company (Mississippi Power) and the Pearl River Valley Electrical Power Association.

In Laurel, Howard received power immediately after the hospital because so many of Mississippi Power’s transformers were damaged or destroyed by Katrina that Howard had to manufacture new ones before the city’s power could be restored.

The transformers manufactured at the new plant (in Tech Park South in Ellisville, seven miles south of Laurel), are substation transformers for generation plants, large substations and similar locations to step down voltage so that the electricity can be used in homes and businesses.

The new plant also builds network transformers. “They go under the ground and are connected together electrically on the secondary side,” Howard said. “On a normal transformer, they’re connected on the primary side. These are used in big cities.

“A lot of our customers have been asking us if we’d get into this. They wanted more suppliers of the caliber of Howard Industries and wanted us to come into that business.”

Realignment and new development

The change in the alignment of Howard’s divisions and the development of new divisions out of old ones is a hallmark of Howard Industries.

The current divisions (in addition to the new transformer plant) include:

• Howard Lighting, which features Howard’s ballasts, offers a broad selection of lighting products for residential and commercial use.

“Howard Industries’ Lighting Division is a natural offshoot of the Ballast Division,” according to Derral Ward, vice president of sales. “Now our customers will be able to order both ballasts and luminaries on the same purchase order.

• Earlier this year, Howard Computers introduced the ELVM, a first-of-its-kind system that blends the performance and power of a traditional desktop PC with the ultra-thin, sleek form of a notebook and provides businesses the means to save significantly on their computer costs.

• Howard Medical is a spin-off from the computer division. In 2003, Howard was among the first companies to offer an innovative electronic medical cart that integrated into one unit all of the items that hospitals use for dispensing medication and allowed hospitals to meet the then-new bar code medication dispensing requirement of the Food and Drug Administration. Howard Medical offers a wide range of point-of-care technology, including ergonomically designed med dispensing and nurse charting carts fully integrated with tablets, notebooks or mobile desktops.

• Howard Ballast manufactures electronic and fluorescent ballasts and HID (high intensity discharge) ballasts and lighting components. Since its inception in 1994, the division has placed its products with Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Camp Pendelton, CIA headquarters, Fort Bragg and other U.S. government facilities.

• Currently it ranks number three in the business.

• The Laurel plant has 1.6 million square feet — approximately 43 acres — and is the largest transformer plant in the world.

• Howard Transportation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Howard Industries and consists of some 200 trucks that transport goods throughout the country, as well as a brokerage firm.

Billy Howard Sr. left General Electric after 12 years and started trying to pre-sell his new distribution transformer, although he had no plant and no product to show. With only drawings, his reputation at GE and his ability as a salesman, he pre-sold $4 million worth of transformers.

Howard then had to secure a state Balance Agriculture With Industry bond before the plant could get under way. The bond required approval by local voters and 96.5% voted in favor of the bond.

One of the principal reasons the Howard family gives for its steady growth and expansion into new fields is that it’s a privately held company that doesn’t have to answer to stockholders and a board of directors intent on the bottom line for the current year.

Another advantage of being privately held is that Howard can expand during bad economic times, according to president Linda Howard. So, the company with the capacity (such as Howard) can take advantage of the upturn when the economy picks up.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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