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Local manufacturer of high-tech military components preps for rapid growth

David Floyd • Jan 4, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Born out of a business incubator, Moog Protokraft has grown over the years from two employees — an engineer and a salesperson — to a bit less than 50.

“It’s all been done with talent from the Tri-Cities area,” said Bob Sullivan, the product line manager. “This is native-born Tennessee business.”

The business, which is now part a multi-billion dollar company called Moog Inc., recently outgrew the space it was leasing in Kingsport and in December moved to a new high-tech lab and manufacturing facility at 192 Bob Fitz Road in Gray. The company is looking at hiring 15 to 20 engineers this year and plans to hire an undetermined amount of manufacturing staff.

Sullivan said the company has enough space at its new facility to grow comfortably to 250 employees. He said Moog Protokraft is currently growing about 50% per year.

“It’s a very, very steep growth curve that we think is going to accelerate,” he said.

Sullivan said the company operates at the edge of known technology, building specialized systems and high-end electronics for advanced military equipment like the F-22 fighter jet, the P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft and the B-52 bomber.

“All of those platforms would not be able to complete their missions without the things that we make in Tennessee,” Sullivan said.

On a tangible level, Sullivan said the company produces equipment that transports data on an aircraft. For example, if there’s a camera on the outside of a plane, Moog Protokraft would be involved in producing the infrastructure that transports the visual information to a monitor. The company essentially creates three products: Transceivers, ethernet electronics and computers. The company also has commercial customers.

Moog Protokraft operates an engineering internship program with several local universities, which acts as a way for the company to find and hire qualified candidates.

Sullivan said the company aims to give young engineers a tremendous amount of responsibility. He said the company has engineers trained at East Tennessee State University who have been involved in building mission-critical systems for the F-22 aircraft after less than five years at Moog Protokraft.

Sullivan said Tennessee has done a good job of keeping manufacturing employees, but noted that he has heard concerns from politicians and business leaders about talented, trained professionals leaving the state.

“Our best and brightest students from our universities that are highly technically competent tend to leave Tennessee because they can’t find a job in Tennessee that’s exciting,” he said, “and what I want Tennessee to understand is that we’re looking for those best and brightest people.”

Lottie Ryans, director of workforce and literacy initiatives for First Tennessee Development District, said local leaders are working to keep students informed about the region’s job opportunities and amenities, like the low cost of living and the available outdoor recreation options. She said data on this kind of retention can oftentimes be anecdotal.

Ryans doesn’t think talent retention issues are a problem uniquely specific to the Tri-Cities region, but she said it does tend to particularly impact rural areas. Although she doesn’t anticipate numbers have changed significantly in recent years, Ryans believes the recent low unemployment rate has likely put a spotlight on the problem.

Bob Cantler, the president and CEO of the Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said it’s easier to retain talented young professionals than recruit them.

“We’re in an emerging phase, so we need to grow,” Cantler said, “so we need to do both.”

He said local officials need to enhance opportunities to retain people who are educated here but also need to figure out how to recruit more technical and remote workers to fit the needs of the region.

Sullivan said Moog Protokraft has jobs available for local, talented professionals, which will offer them responsibilities and challenges that they won’t find elsewhere.

“They can go to Silicon Valley, and they will not see anything like what we do,” Sullivan said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct a pair of mismatched captions in the photo gallery.

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