Tue January 20, 2015

By Jacob Barron

Three carloads of Secret Service personnel arrived at SPI member Techmer PM’s plant on Jan. 3, and they didn’t leave for another six days. “They never left our plant until the president was gone,” said John Manuck, Techmer’s chairman and CEO.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Techmer’s Clinton, Tenn. facility on Jan. 9, touring the plant as part of an effort to promote American manufacturing and spotlight the creation of the administration’s newest manufacturing innovation hub. While the visit only lasted about an hour, its origins for Techmer were years in the making.

To paraphrase Hemingway, a visit from the president and vice president happens two ways: gradually, then suddenly. “The Department of Energy (DOE) is always looking for collaboration with private industry,” Manuck said. “About two years ago, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a DOE facility) became familiar with our capabilities and asked us to join them in a project of theirs in developing a new process to produce carbon fiber.” After his company connected with Oak Ridge, which is a 30-minute drive away from Techmer’s Clinton facility, Manuck said his company began working with the lab enough to build a relationship.

Then, early in 2014, Oak Ridge approached Techmer about a 3D printing project. “The word kind of got around that there’s this company down the road and we’re really easy to work with,” he said. Techmer and Oak Ridge began working and the results were two 3D-printed cars: one that Manuck said “was more like a dune buggy” and contained some of Techmer’s materials, and another that was a replica Shelby Cobra made entirely from Techmer’s materials.

But the two vehicles weren’t the only fruit that the positive working relationship between Techmer and Oak Ridge would eventually come to bear. When the White House began to plan its trip to the Knoxville area shortly after the 3D printing project had been completed, they naturally reached out to Oak Ridge, whose directors suggested that the president include a visit to Techmer’s facility.

Tom Drye, managing director of Techmer’s Engineered Solutions subsidiary and the company’s main point of contact for Oak Ridge, eventually received a phone call from the White House on Dec. 23, 2014, when staff members called asking for photos of the facility. Manuck managed to get hold of his assistant, who swore herself to secrecy both for security reasons and because by that point, only two short weeks before the visit actually happened, it still was not a guarantee. The day after Christmas Techmer’s phones rang again, with officials saying that they wanted a smaller Secret Service team to visit their facility the next Friday, Jan. 2. “We were scheduled to be closed that day and we let them know that, but that was actually probably a good thing to keep this confidential,” Manuck said.

Eventually more Secret Service members arrived, and the security protocols began, a process Manuck described as a “learning experience.” “I guess since the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the Secret Service does not like the president getting in and out of a car in a public place,” he said. “They pull the car inside, so they wanted to come in the back of the plant and we had to move some storage racks, which we did.”

While securing Techmer’s facility, Manuck also happened upon a new application for some of the company’s materials. “Our Gaylord boxes are filled with plastic pellets, and the Secret Service guys saw them and said ‘a bullet couldn’t get through this,’” he said. “So they had us move the Gaylords, and wherever he (the President) was going to go, we had a path laid out, part of which was made by stacking Gaylords where we wouldn’t normally have them.”

The day of the actual visit there was a final security follow-up from 7am-9am (“Bomb sniffing dogs, the whole thing,” according to Manuck) and then eventually, upon the President’s arrival, Manuck led him on a tour and had a chance to talk with the President. “I had made notes, and some were what I’ll call ‘self-promotional’ notes,” he said. “I wanted to promote manufacturing in the United States. I wanted to promote private companies, and that how, as a private company, we’re nimble. Most of these I was able to talk to the president about. We had a real dialogue, and that was my intention.”

Certain questions Manuck was able to prepare for ahead of time. “He was going to pepper me with questions. He’s not going to try to trick you, but he’s going to want some real information,” Manuck said. “He asked me how I started the business and I had prepared for that mentally, so I told him that I started off as an engineer working for a big company and just decided that I could do it better.” The President eventually referenced this response in the remarks he gave at the end of his visit.

Additionally, Manuck did research beforehand to dig up some information about his company that he thought the president might find interesting. “I dug up our employment stats and from Dec. 2008 to Dec. 2014, our employment had grown 33%, but that included an acquisition. If you exclude that it was still up 20%.” The President asked what kind of hires Manuck had made, whether they were college grads, two-year college grads or other. “All of the above,” he said, delving further into details about his workforce and hiring philosophy. “Out of high school, they’re not ready. It’s not only the math and the writing, it’s the soft skills, which is what I’ve found to be the biggest problem,” Manuck added. The President agreed with him.

It’s not every day that the president and vice president come to visit a factory, but Techmer clearly made the most of it, from their organizational flexibility and teamwork to Manuck’s preparation. “For us the obvious benefit is the positive publicity that we’ve gotten globally,” Manuck said. “People are still buzzing about it.” A great deal of time and work went in to the successful visit, obviously, but for Techmer and other manufacturers who open their doors for elected officials, and everyone else to see, the process of doing is its own benefit. “Some people have asked ‘was it worthwhile?’” Manuck said. “For us it’s a no brainer.”

Tips from the Presidential Visit to Techmer:

  • Make Connections: Had Techmer not made friends with a nearby government lab more than two years ago, and worked openly and productively with them in whatever way they could, the Presidential visit would never have happened.
  • Be Flexible: Techmer shut down its plant and rearranged its operational schedule in order to meet its visitors’ needs and make up for any downtime.
  • Be Prepared: It might seem obvious, but when you’re hosting an elected official or policymaker, don’t miss your opportunity to leave an impression.
  • Say Yes: Manuck said that the Secret Service repeatedly remarked on how accommodating his team was, which apparently isn’t always the case. “Whether it’s corporate red tape or whatever, companies will just say no to stuff,” Manuck said. “For us, the attitude of my people and I was that if the White House is coming here and they want something, we’re going to provide it.”