Geist previews new Lincoln HQ - Omaha World Herald

Geist previews new Lincoln HQ - Omaha World Herald

TUESDAY, JUNE 14, 2016
By Steve Jordon / World-Herald Bureau

LINCOLN — A company here that makes super-sized, complex power strips and other equipment for data centers is an example of an American manufacturer that can compete internationally, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday.

He toured the new $12.5 million, 87,000-square-foot headquarters of Geist, the largest division of PCE Inc. of Lincoln, getting a preview of the company’s ribbon-cutting and open house scheduled for Friday.

“As we look to grow jobs and create opportunities for people, especially our young people here in Nebraska, manufacturing offers wonderful opportunities to help do that,” the governor said. He toured the company’s manufacturing floor, warehouse and offices, located at 1777 Yolande Ave. north of downtown.

Executives from Geist, which began by making equipment for Lincoln’s telephone system in 1948, said they compete with lower-cost foreign labor by having exclusive products, customized manufacturing, on-time delivery and top-notch customer service.

The company has a dozen patents issued or pending for product features that no other supplier can match, said Brad Wilson, executive vice president.

But one limiting factor, said Sam Featherston, chief executive of parent company PCE, is finding qualified people, from technicians with two-year degrees, who can make $45,000 to $55,000 a year, to software engineers whose salaries may be quadruple that.

The company has an internship program for college students and an education assistance program to help employees add training or college degrees. Both build loyalty to the company, he said.

Featherston said he looks at the small number of software engineers who graduate from Nebraska colleges each year and wonders how they can meet the demand from employers across the state. He asked Ricketts to mention the problem to University of Nebraska leaders, and the governor said he would.

University officials have said they are working to increase the number of computer engineering and computer science majors, including having a goal of 1,500 at its Omaha campus by next year. Efforts to recruit more women into information technology careers also are underway.

Ricketts said agriculture makes up about one-quarter of the state’s economy, but manufacturing accounts for 13 percent and has the potential to grow by following the lead of companies like Geist.

“We want to help young people understand that there’s tremendous opportunities in the manufacturing field that don’t require that four-year degree,” he said.

Wilson showed Ricketts a row of testing laboratories that Geist installed so it could certify its new products, saving the time and expense of sending products to independent testing facilities. Another room is dedicated to customizing products.

Wilson said Geist’s engineers design products for specific customers’ uses. Its standard equipment also can be shipped quickly to customers who need something immediately.

“If they call us, we can react very quickly,” he said.

Geist has a sales office — not a manufacturing plant — in China. Its United Kingdom facilities serve European customers.

Some competitors’ labor costs are lower because they manufacture in India or China, Wilson said. “We make up for it in our efficiency. ... A lot of people don’t think of Nebraska as a place where there is manufacturing.”

Featherston said Microsoft and some other large technology companies use Geist’s products in their data centers, and he hopes to add others, including Yahoo and Google.

A display inside the new headquarters shows founders Alex Geist and Rex Winders, two telephone company employees who figured out ways to cover telephone cables in switch rooms and other facilities so that people wouldn’t trip over them.

Their low-profile conduits — first wood, then rubber, metal and finally plastic — led to a business that made all sorts of telephone-related products, evolving into today’s equipment for computer data centers. Geist is the third-largest supplier of such equipment nationally, with sales of about $80 million a year.

In 1997 Geist was acquired by Featherston’s Plastics Companies Enterprises, now called PCE Inc.

During a trade mission to Japan last year, the governor and officials from the Department of Economic Development helped Geist executives reach a partnership with Meikyo Denki, a Japanese manufacturer of power distribution panels, to bridge the language and culture gap and establish a sales network in Japan.

Ricketts is taking a trade trip to China in November. Featherston said Geist officials in that country could help make connections.

About 200 people are expected at Friday’s ribbon-cutting, including elected officials, suppliers, building contractors and their workers and other Nebraska manufacturers.

As part of the event, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler designated Friday as Data Center Manufacturing Day in Lincoln.

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