REI employs 74 people. 17 are engineers and the rest are instructors, administrative staff or production
Cookeville – It looked like sand in a vile small enough to blow away and disappear into the world, but at Research Electronic International (REI) the sand isn’t sand at all. It is a powerful component in technology advancement and the future of counter-surveillance, and is one of many things dreamed, workshopped, created and assembled by REI right here in Cookeville.
“No pictures,” we were told Thursday afternoon as we strolled through an impressive room filled with whirring, high gloss machines creating micro components and mini-PC boards. It was the nature of the business, after all. The whirring machine in that room was called a “pick and place” machine.
Think of every cool science fiction movie you have ever seen. Why were we there? It was a public celebration for 40 years of REI before the “real celebration” with employees, Tom Jones (Jones), President of REI, told the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. There was a ribbon cutting with local government leaders, REI sales and management, the media and full-service catering.
Ribbon Cutting – A day to celebrate 40 years in business.
This day was about community and PR.
“We will have a much bigger celebration for the employees,” said Jones with a laugh. “The more important thing to me is not today’s celebration, but when we celebrate with our employees.”
REI takes pride in everything they do, but Jones said it all starts with the people who have made the company successful.
“We have very low turnover,” said Jones. “I tell my employees, and I truly believe this, I don’t want anyone to leave for money. I believe in paying people very well, respecting them for what they do, giving them responsibility and letting them fly. This is a wonderful place to live with great people. People have good work ethic, great attitudes and dedication.”
Jones said it is often tough to find the technical help needed, but he does have a local talent pool to pull from.
“Now, I do hire a lot from Tennessee Tech,” said Jones. “That’s a fantastic source for us for engineers.”
REI employs 74 people. 17 are engineers and the rest are instructors, administrative staff or production.
“We hire people that don’t necessarily have college degrees,” said Jones. “But they have to be intelligent.”
Production work is done in-house.
“We are high complexity, low volume,” said Jones. “So, it’s not factory work, it’s detailed technical work. That pick and place machine out there, all those people working on that line have never done it before because I don’t think there is a line like that in the surrounding counties. Now they run it, take care of it, manage it and do a fantastic job.”
Jones said his employees do not work for him. He works for them.
“I want to create an environment and opportunity and product they can be successful and take part in producing,” said Jones.
Sales and production have grown dramatically over the last 28 years.
“But our workforce hasn’t grown as large,” he said. “We work smarter and not necessarily harder without a lot of overtime, and they try to pay us back.”
Jones told the story of an employee named Greg Atchley. Greg was diagnosed with a terminal illness and died. One of Atchley’s final gestures touched REI’s president.
“I truly valued Greg,” said Jones. “He was a test technician. We tried to take care of him the best we could, but he passed away. Well, when he passed away, he chose to be buried in an REI shirt and he was.”
Jones shared story after story of employees helping one another and taking time to care. He told of an employee named Debbie.
“I noticed people were taking random days of vacation,” said Jones. “Not on a Friday or Monday, but randomly.”
Jones asked what was going on.
“They said Debbie didn’t have anyone to take her to her Chemo treatments,” recalled Jones. “Employees were using their PTO to take care of their co-worker.”
A decision was made then and there. Any employee taking personal days to help out a fellow worker would not have to use their PTO. That’s another example of putting people first.
“You take care of your people, and they take care of you,” said Jones.
Maybe that is the secret to longevity.
Longevity is tough for any business. Over 40 years, challenges have become exceedingly more difficult, especially for a small business such as REI.
“The thing that is tough,” said Jones, “is I think it’s harder and harder for smaller businesses, and I still consider us a small business, to navigate the bureaucracy that exists in this country.”
Four years ago REI sold a big part of the company to HEICO. HEICO is now their parent company.
“The reason we did it is because it gave my partner an exit strategy,” said Jones. “The owner of HEICO came here and said, ‘wow this is an awesome company,’ and he wanted to do business.”
Jones said he asked a simple question.
“If my company is so awesome, why in the world would I sell any part of it,” said Jones. “He looked at me and said because being a small business can be a liability and things can take you down beyond your control.”
With a family-oriented attitude and like-minded partners, REI has been able to avoid some of the pratfalls of life as a small business. But in 2023, some things are unavoidable, according to sales manager Lee Jones (Lee).
“For us, the technology changes,” said Lee. “Also as the world politically changes it gets more difficult for us. With things going on in the world, instability sometimes makes it difficult for us.”
It’s all about the Supply chain.
“The supply chain has been difficult for us,” said Lee. “Because we are a small manufacturer, we manufacture everything ourselves. Because of that, we have been dealing with supply chain issues way before the pandemic. It was worse after, but we adapted quicker than most companies.”
REI’s flagship product is called an Oscar. It scans the electromagnetic spectrum to look for signals that aren’t supposed to be there. Pretty cool, huh?
Jones says that is not even the coolest thing REI creates and sells.
“To me, the coolest product is Oscar’s baby brother, which is a smaller spectrum analyzer called the Mesa,” said Jones with a smile. “It is easier to use, has a broader market and application and it does some things that the Oscar doesn’t do. It’s exciting.”
Technology advances at light speed. That is just the sort of environment where REI excels.