Taking the Highground

Published 9:49 am Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FRANKLIN—The Franklin Business Incubator is touting another success story — Highground Services Inc.

The engineering company, which specializes in process control and instrumentation projects in industrial and municipal markets, was recently given the Virginia Business Incubator Association’s Donna Noble Outstanding Virginia Incubator Client Award.

The winner, selected by the VBIA Board, receives an engraved award, along with a $500 contribution going to the American Cancer Society in honor of Noble, a founding VBIA board member, who died on May 29, 2001, at the age of 36.

“It’s really nice to be recognized for being successful,” said co-owner Jim Strozier. “It was nice to be celebrated as the top incubator client in the state.”

Nancy Parrish, director of the Franklin Business Incubator, nominated Highground for the honor. It triumphed over about 30 other nominees.

“Throughout their 22 months as a client in the Franklin Business Incubator, they have been nothing short of an outstanding cli ent,” Parrish said. “For this business to be recognized on the state level, however, is a huge honor and a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the owners of the company and the people whom they hire.

“I think they have a great concept, a wonderful business plan and a deep desire to succeed. Those are three necessary components to building a successful business.”

Highground, owned by Strozier and his wife, Lisa, and Jim and Rose Warren, targets small-to-medium sized engineering projects, providing a turn-key solution. The company provides project scope and design, equipment specifications and procurement, installation and start-up, or any combination. Their engineers work on designing systems, programming, installation, training and continued support.

Strozier said the company stood out in the incubator competition because of its workers and business growth.

“We were able to grow the business during a tough economy, and our employees are involved in the community in organizations such as the Ruritans, Boy Scouts and the Rotary Club.”

The firm started in 2006. The two couples had separate engineering firms and decided to merge and start a new company.

Their first project — providing the electrical connections to equipment relocated from a paper mill in Pensacola, Fla. to International Paper’s Converting Innovation Center — started in the spring of 2007 — the same year the company moved into the incubator.

Their first employee started in August 2007 and another one was added after three months. Today, Highground employs nine full-time workers and eight part-time and has moved to a larger first-floor space in the incubator.

Many of those employees, including Strozier and Warren, used to be employed by Union Camp, which was sold to International Paper in 1999.

Nearly 50 percent of Highground’s business is from IP, but the company has been trying to branch out.

“We’ve been working to diversify the company and planning a long time to not be dependent on one business,” Strozier said.

That broadened customer base includes Smithfield Packing and the Jordan Bridge in Chesapeake.

“We’re still looking for opportunities to grow the business, but we’ve got a good customer base,” Strozier said.

Now, they are focused on building business from Northrop Grumman’s shipbuilding operation in Newport News sand tapping into surrounding federal installations.

Both men said they were thankful for their office space in the incubator. Location is part of the company’s successful model, too, Warren said.

“We made a conscious decision to locate in a HUBZone. We like to think of it as giving back to the community,” he said.

A HUBZone is a Small Business Administration program for small companies that operate and employ people in Historically Underutilized Business Zones.

Locating here also helps the local economy, they said.

“We’ve got 17-18 people here who are all from the area,” Strozier added. “Our payroll is over $600,000 (each year). We’ve created a lot of well-paying jobs here.”

Highground now will be in the running for the national incubator client award, which is announced in the Spring.