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Wednesday, 18 May 2011 19:54

Not your average startup: Aermor breaks the mold

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When having a conversation with Penny Morgan, you’ll hear a lot of phrases that aren’t often associated with business in Haywood County. “Military contracts” is probably the most notable. “Top secret” might be another.

Morgan owns a company called Aermor, and she just won $10,000 in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce’s yearly Business Start-up Competition to get the tech company off the ground.

Technically, Aermor provides “network operations and cyber operations support” to its clients, but really, it’s hard to put definite borders around exactly what the company does; it’s nebulous, it changes with contract and client. But here’s an example:

Recently, Morgan and her team won a role as a subcontractor with the military as part of an effort to combat improvised explosive devices. That initiative is funded to the tune of $157 million, and Aermor will be using its tech skills to add context, data and expert information — gleaned from a variety of sources — to the military’s traditional intelligence-gathering techniques, providing research, training and analysis to military personnel trying to combat IEDs in the field.

It’ll bring a top-secret security clearance to the company’s Canton office, and probably several new, highly skilled employees who are paid with federal funds.

And this, said Morgan, is what she believes is the highlight of her business and what set her apart from other competitors in the start-up contest, which is put on annually by the chamber and attracts potential entrepreneurs from around the county to compete for the startup cash.

“Aermor is looking to bring in funds that do not already exist in Haywood County. We’re not looking for the same people that take their money to one place and turn around and spend it somewhere else,” said Morgan.

And that’s what seemed to put her over the top with the judges, too.

The competition is judged by a four-person panel of representatives from the economic development and financial sectors in the county.

Scott Connor, senior vice president and marketing executive for First Citizens Bank in Haywood County, said it was the genesis of completely new money that really impressed him.

“We felt that it would be bringing jobs and dollars to Haywood County that may not come here otherwise,” said Connor. “It would be monies that she wouldn’t be taking from a neighboring business.”

And among the other small business owners in the competition, Morgan’s proposition is truly unique. She currently has four full-time workers and around 11 part-time, and she hopes to grow that number as her contracts increase, bringing jobs to the county that are well above minimum wage or minimum skill level.

She realizes that this isn’t your average startup, and it’ll probably fly under the radar of most in the county. Her predecessors in the first-place spot have often been consumer services — a dance studio, a brewery, and other service outfits seeking Haywood customers. But Morgan sees that lack of local customers as one of her greatest assets.

“It’s a very different kind of concept,” said Morgan. “I’m not asking anyone in Haywood County to come and use my business. I’m growing the job force, growing the training, and not asking for any patronage,” she said.

Plus, she’s got the skills and knowledge to back it up, which also went a long way towards winning the hearts and dollars of the judges.

Morgan spent much of her career in the military, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and going on to spend 14 years as a surface warfare officer. She did overseas deployments, she taught military strategy and seamanship, she worked with anti-terrorism squads. Basically, she knows the military and its people. And since those are now her clients, that knowledge and those contacts are pieces of capital that are invaluable to her company’s success.

“Her background is a very impressive resume,” said Connor, a contest judge. “She already has, it seems, the skills abilities and contacts to make it successful.”

Chamber Director CeCe Hipps said that the type of novelty and sustainability Morgan seems to bring to the table is precisely what the competition, now in its sixth year, is all about.

Each entrant must submit a business plan, but winning is about more than just having an impressive plan.

“It’s not just a business plan, but it has also to do with the sustainability in the county, the number of jobs it will create and if there are any other businesses in the area already doing the same thing,” said Hipps.

Small businesses that can bring long-term jobs and a unique economic perspective will always be a boon to the county, which is why, said Hipps, the competition was born and continues to remain strong.

“Small businesses are what make up our economy, and more than half of the jobs in America either own or work for a small business, so there’s a big drive to promote small business. That’s what the chamber does,” said Hipps. “The reality is that small businesses are an integral component of our economic future.”

Now that she’s won the money, Morgan said she plans to build it back into the company’s infrastructure, upgrading equipment and training to ensure that Aermor can keep its niche in the county’s business community for years to come. Her roots, she said, are in Haywood County, and she intends for her business to put down strong, lasting roots here as well.

“I was born and raised in Bethel. I’m not an outsider coming in. I was born and raised in Haywood County and that’s where my heart and soul is and will always be,” said Morgan.

Her plan is ambitious — to be a 100-person, $26 million outfit in five years — but she believes it’s feasible, especially with the injection of cash, which, she said, was a welcome but unexpected surprise.

“I was shocked, but I think I can be a good steward of those funds,” said Morgan. “And hopefully next year I can be sponsoring the competition.”

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