Fuel for success

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There weren't any balloons or cake for Meco's 50th anniversary on April 21 -- just a sales meeting.

"With the economy the way it is, we've been working hard to try some new things ... generate some profit to keep the wheels greased," company President Jeff Futrelle said.

He is officially Franklin J. Futrelle III, but he's known as Jeff.

Frank was his dad; Franklin was his grandfather; and his son makes the fourth generation with the same name.

Jeff Futrelle and his son are working together at the Gordon Park Road petroleum equipment company. It is a new business line, filtering diesel that might have been sitting in storage tanks for years.

Meco's bread and butter for most of its existence is the fuel storage tanks and gasoline dispensers at convenience stores. The company installs and services the equipment.

It's a small business, with 22 employees between the offices in Augusta and Greenville, S.C.

Meco is running lean, Mr. Futrelle said, having learned lessons from past recessions -- and is looking for other lines of work.

"We're not sitting around whining about the economy; we're doing things to generate income," Mr. Futrelle said.

The 57-year-old company president sees a gold mine on the horizon in that convenience stores are going to need to retool their pumps for encryption and security in debit cards.

"That is going to affect every gasoline dispenser in America," Mr. Futrelle said. "It is just cranking up."

The cost: $2,500 to $5,000 per gas pump and $5,000 to $15,000 to retool the counter sales.

Meco diversified over the years from just air compressors and gas pumps. The company handles convenience store operations software and security systems.

John Magee joined the business 18 months ago. Mr. Futrelle found him through his accountant and made him the general manager.

"He's real family-oriented and treats all the employees the same way. We're one big happy family here," Mr. Magee said.

Mr. Futrelle has Mr. Magee in the back of the shop with him developing a diesel tank with a urea dispenser in it.

It is a federal requirement that all diesel containers have them by 2010. The chemical blends with the fuel to clean the exhaust gases.

The Meco team is building some systems to take to local trucking firms.

"That's the kind of stuff we enjoy doing anyway, finding something new," Mr. Futrelle said.

Meco's growth relies on the stores, he said.

"Everything is good except for the new-store construction. That's the bulk of our volume. A new store now is $150,000 to $300,000 for us," he said. "It's off because the financing is really hard for these guys to get right now. We've got a lot of quoted forecasts and business, but people were just afraid to pull the trigger on it because of the economy. And some of them are having trouble getting money."

Although Meco provides service for chain stores, such as Pilot and Circle K, it doesn't install the equipment for them, but deals mainly with independent store owners with one or two stores.

After the economy turns, Mr. Futrelle said, he will ramp up his expansion plans by opening an office in Columbia.

He said he's been serious about the idea for the past 18 months and backed off only because of the economy.

"I've already got some résumés for people who'd like to work for us," he said.

Generations

The first Franklin Futrelle grew up in Effingham County. He ran the country store and was a county politician. He served during World War I -- his service picture adorns the wall in the Meco president's office.

Franklin Futrelle Jr. -- known as Frank -- grew up around that general store near Savannah. When he got out of the Army, he sold safety shoes in a paper mill in Savannah.

"The neighbor down the street worked for Meco. There was a job opening, and he told my dad. He got it. This was the first branch that was open down in Savannah. It all started in Savannah," Mr. Futrelle said.

Meco began as a company that made wrought-iron furniture, such as swing sets, until asked whether it could build small fuel oil tanks.

"That led to big tanks and the tank business," Mr. Futrelle said. "Then they divided the two businesses; one was manufacturing, and the other was the wholesale equipment business. One was Metal Equipment Co. and the other was Meco."

People ask what Meco stands for. Mr. Futrelle said it was a shortened version of Metal Equipment Co. at one time.

Mr. Futrelle's father came to Augusta in 1959 to open a Meco branch.

For the five years before that, Frank Futrelle was an equipment salesman with a wide territory.

"He worked half the state of Georgia and all the state of South Carolina, in a little station wagon, no air conditioning, in a suit and tie," Mr. Futrelle recalled of his father's life. "He left Sunday night and got back late Friday night. It was a whole different time back then."

Saturdays were spent with the family, and there was church on Sunday morning before he departed.

"That's what he had to do to get where I am right now," Mr. Futrelle said.

When Mr. Futrelle was working as a salesman for his father, his first sales routes were not as tough: "I left Tuesday morning and came back Friday."

He recalled his first day, at age 13, when his father woke him up and said, "We're going to work." They stopped at Sears on the way to buy a set of tools.

"He paid me $25 a week and took back $10 a week until the tools were paid for."

He went to work in the service department installing tanks under the watchful eye of a mentor, and handled some shipping and receiving after school.

Other than one summer with a civil engineering firm near Clemson University, he worked for his father during the summer college breaks, too.

Mr. Futrelle's two older sisters were going to the University of Georgia, so their father couldn't afford to have three going at the same time.

Mr. Futrelle went to Augusta College for two years, stopped and then transferred to Clemson for a year. His bad marks in two courses made his father angry.

"He brought me home, and here I sit," he said.

Mr. Futrelle said the one thing he wished he had done in his life was to finish that degree in mechanical engineering.

"It is one thing I regret," he said, "and is somewhat embarrassing."

In 1975, Mr. Futrelle began working the sales counter for Meco. A year later, he joined the sales force, where he would spend the majority of the next decade.

"Everyone was straight commission," Mr. Futrelle said. "Every time I would make good money in a territory, he'd shift me to another."

As aggravating as it was at the time, he now knows why his father did that.

"Looking back, he knew what he was doing because I knew every territory and customer," he said.

In 1985, he came off of the sales routes and worked in the office: "He was grooming me for his retirement."

Life changes

Frank Futrelle didn't get the chance to retire. He was killed in a head-on car crash in Burke County on Halloween night in 1986.

Mr. Futrelle was in the passenger seat. His mother and aunt were in the back of the car. They were returning from an uncle's funeral in Sardis.

Frank Futrelle was trying to pass a truck when the crash occurred.

Mr. Futrelle said his aunt was killed and his mother injured.

"I was in the passenger seat, which is usually the guy who gets it," Mr. Futrelle said.

He was uninjured but was suddenly thrust into running his father's company.

His wife, Lisa, was recovering from surgery and was minding two young children at home -- son Franklin was a year old, and daughter Elizabeth was weeks old.

"It was a tough couple of months adjusting. I had to spend all my time here. She was at home with two infants wondering why I wasn't home relieving her," Mr. Futrelle said,

As for taking over the company, "I don't know if I was completely ready."

Mr. Futrelle had married Lisa Sherrill in 1982, though they had met a long time before then.

"My sisters used to baby-sit for her. She's three years younger than I am," he said. They met again.

"I was at the Red Lion Pub. It was like Cheers. People would stop there on their way home from work," Mr. Futrelle said. "A friend of hers was in there."

He inquired about Lisa, and the friend called her at home to come to the pub.

"We talked and then we started dating."

The Sherrill and Futrelle families were connected previously. Bill Sherrill and Frank Futrelle were among those who started the Republican Party in Richmond County in the 1960s.

Mr. Futrelle said his father was a community-oriented man, serving as president of the Kiwanis Club and USO and on the board for Easter Seals.

The year he got married, his father asked him to join the Rotary Club.

Mr. Futrelle became the president of the downtown club in 1999. He has also served on the board for Easter Seals and Boy Scouts. He is a past elder for Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church.

"I enjoy the financial part of the church, the business end," he said.

Mr. Futrelle said he has trimmed his civic involvement down to one project, assisting the Community Outreach Initiative for the CSRA Women's Empowerment Center, which is seeking grant funding for a facility for women coming out of prison.

"These people are really devoted to it and have the right idea of what is wrong in the community," Mr. Futrelle said. "They're not trying to blame anyone. They're trying to solve the problems, and I'm all for that."

Although his father died more than two decades ago, Mr. Futrelle said he still hears stories about his dad.

"Dad had a lot of friends in this town. His friends are still my friends now," he said. "They always have a funny story to tell about my dad. It still goes on. ... He was a funny guy. He enjoyed every minute of life. He died when he was 60 years old, it was a full 60."

In a race

In a head-to-head race, Mr. Futrelle would probably lose out to his son, Franklin.

"Last year, he won the national championship in his class with Sports Car Club of America," the father said. "He is really talented."

Mr. Futrelle is no slouch behind the wheel, either; he won his share of races in his heyday. He gave it up immediately after getting married, but then got back into racing five years later.

Mr. Futrelle was a spec racer for 16 years. That means all the cars are identical and skills rule the day.

"I was racing when I got married," he said. "When the kids were 5 and 4, I bought one of these cars. It was in the warehouse down here for five weeks before I got up enough nerve to tell my wife that I bought it."

Racing has been a fun hobby for him with no real aspirations to turn into a professional race car driver.

"It is really close, it is bumping and shoving. You really can't get hurt because the cars are solid," Mr. Futrelle said.

Weekends -- or weeks, in some cases -- over the past few years have been spent with his son going to racetracks and watching him drive. Mr. Futrelle said his son is aiming his career toward a teaching post at a racing school.

Elizabeth is following in her mother's footsteps as a nurse. She is a senior at Auburn University.

Mr. Futrelle said the desire to race was born into him.

"I started taking bicycles apart as soon as I got one. I always had to take someone's go-kart apart. I loved to work on cars and used to restore old Porsches, the 356 Porsches," he said.

He raced dirt bikes and go-karts. He still races the spec cars, just enough to keep his license.

"It is really hard on me, it pulls a lot of Gs. It wears me out, especially in my neck," Jeff Futrelle said. "In the two or three times a year I get in a car, I'm pretty competitive."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

JEFF FUTRELLE

TITLE: President, Meco Augusta/Greenville

BORN: March 13, 1952, near Savannah, Ga.

CIVIC: Former president of Augusta Rotary Club, board member of Easter Seals and Boy Scouts, past elder at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church

FAMILY: Wife, Lisa; children, Elizabeth ad Franklin

HOBBIES: Race car driving, playing golf

Comments (2) Add comment
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aaa
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aaa 05/04/09 - 03:06 pm
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You mean it's still possible

You mean it's still possible to run a successful business in America using tried and proven free market tools?????? Watch out . . . Obama will say you are doing something illegal or that what you are doing is not fair, etc. He'll end up taking over your company!

paperReader1
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paperReader1 05/04/09 - 04:18 pm
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What does the Obama comment

What does the Obama comment have to do with this successful, long-time, locally owned business?

I believe you have let your dislike of a successful president bleed over to the wrong forum. This post should have been made on a different site or forum.

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