Mike Miller remembers standing in the parking lot and thinking, â€œWhat am I going to do next?â€ after being let go from Cleveland-based Interior Steel Equipment Co. when it was relocated to Mississippi in 1991. But today, Miller, president of IMAX Industries Inc., is singing quite a different tune – one he never thought possible.
Working in tight quarters in his Painesville office, Millerâ€™s business prospects are looking even brighter these days. Now in contractual agreements with Pemery Corp., a developer and producer of its patented PEM fuel cell power supplies, itâ€™s a whole new ballgame for Miller.
From unemployed laborer to flourishing entrepreneur, Miller, in that same year, started Design Network Associates, an automotive engineering, contracting and design firm, in Mentor. Miller and his 15-employee team design the manufacturing process and then build the machine to assemble car components. The jobs vary from pushing in fasteners to welding wires for reclining front seats; it all depends on the needs of a specific contract.
â€œWe design and build the controls, computers and equipment from start to finish,â€ says Miller, whose company outgrew its Mentor facility and relocated to Painesville in 2000, renaming it IMAX Industries Inc. in the process. â€œWe help automate our suppliers to make them more efficient.â€
IMAX is so far a small player on the manufacturing field.
â€œWe are basically at the bottom of the food chain,â€ says Miller. IMAX is hired by suppliers of big-name car manufacturers, such as Hyundai, Ford and Nissan, about five suppliers down the chain.
â€œWe work with a base software and then write and program the logic,â€ says Miller. On average, each job takes nearly 14 weeks to complete.
Miller, who earned an associateâ€™s degree in industrial engineering from Lakeland Community College, has learned a lot on the job. â€œIâ€™m mechanically intuitive,â€ he says. â€œLearning and experimenting have gotten me here.â€ The companyâ€™s growth has forced Miller to step away from the everyday building and designing of the machines to overseeing the managing of contracts, sales and concept work.
But today the focus of IMAX is changing gears.
A former colleague, David Pristash, from Millerâ€™s days with Interior Steel, contacted him with a business proposition to design and build a machine that would allow Pemery Corp. – who has a contract to produce fuel cells for the U.S. Army, the largest known unit production run of fuel cells in the world – to manufacture thousands of fuel cell batteries a month.
Pristash, president of Pemery, now co-located with IMAX, needed a company that was flexible enough to complete the job from start to finish. Norma Byron, co-principal for Pemery, says IMAX was the only company that was able to quote the entire job.
â€œThe logistics of it are overwhelming,â€ says Miller. â€œThe whole thing is a challenge for us because it is the first time for everything. What scares me is what I havenâ€™t come across yet.â€
Pemery Corp. was founded by Virginia-based The Ashlawn Group LLC, a small defense contractor to organize, manage and grow fuel cell activities. Pemery began the first of two contractual agreements with IMAX in November 2005. The first contract is a testing mode to build fuel cells with the exact specs of what the army is currently using. The second contract, proposed to start in 2008, is the green light to build a machine to crank out up to 100,000 fuel cells a year by 2020, changing the face of IMAX.
â€œIt looks very, very promising,â€ says Miller.
Very promising, indeed. With help from the City of Painesville, Pemery was awarded $775,300 in Third Frontier funding in March from the state of Ohio to move this project forward.
The city was instrumental in raising awareness to the appropriate state and local officials about the importance of this company and project.
â€œThis project has the potential for a dramatic impact on the city with increased jobs and income taxes,â€ says Cathy Bieterman, economic development coordinator for the City of Painesville. â€œIMAX has always been on the cutting edge of technology and has continued to increase their involvement.â€
The Third Frontier funding is critical, explains Pemeryâ€™s Byron. â€œWe probably wouldnâ€™t be able to continue the project if we didnâ€™t receive this funding because then I would be forced to go to the investment community.â€
The batteries will be used to power electronics for the military to keep troops further away from the frontlines. It will give artillery more accuracy and control.
With a byproduct of water, fuel cells are environmentally friendly and can withstand extreme temperatures. Standard batteries, on the other hand, contain biohazardous materials, are temperature sensitive and are less powerful than fuel cells.
â€œI see this as the wave of the future,â€ says Miller. â€œThe industry is in its infancy and thatâ€™s what attracted us.â€
When IMAX begins work on the second contract with Pemery in 2008, Miller will need to hire nearly 400 employees in the coming years and it will explode his revenues ten fold. Miller estimates it will double their current revenue each year for the first two or three years up to $50 million.
This project goes beyond Millerâ€™s wildest dreams. â€œIâ€™m just a hillbilly who likes to build stuff,â€ he laughs.