Aberdeen Company Thrives in the Self-Serve Business
Meridian Zero Degrees has the ability to deliver turnkey self-service solutions to customers around the world, but founder and CEO Chris Gilder has no desire to move the company from its 12-acre campus in Aberdeen.
"You have Silicon Valley in California," Gilder said. "We're building a Self-Service Valley here."
Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, said Gilder will need help to fulfill that vision.
"It can't be just his company alone. It's going to take others," Corso said. "But one of the great things about Chris is that he is committed to staying here because Meridian has grown organically. He has expressed on more than one occasion that he does not want to leave."
Meridian might not be a household name, but if you've used a self-serve kiosk or device, chances are you've used one of the company's products. Its long list of clients includes McDonald's, Walmart, Macy's, The Home Depot and Food Lion.
Corso said Meridian is "a shining example" of the type of company that can be started in, or attracted to, Moore County under the innovation and entrepreneurial initiative launched earlier this year.
"I think we're on the cusp of some really exciting things, but we have to go after them," Corso said. "We can't be passive. We have to engage other assets to take advantage of this opportunity."
Those "other" assets include Moore County Schools and Sandhills Community College, which is why Corso invited Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence and SCC President John Dempsey for a recent tour of Meridian.
"I was amazed because I didn't know they existed," Spence said. "They have a soup-to-nuts concept that requires no outsourcing, and it's obvious that Chris believes in the community. I walked away very excited about the potential for the school system to work with Meridian.
"We want to be collaborators with our community, and I think this is an excellent opportunity to explore that."
Spence said the school system is already mulling a Moore Innovation Hub at Union Pines High School called the School of High Tech Design and Production.
"The goal is to create different career pathways for our kids and help close the employee skills gap for our employers," he said. "I think bringing this to fruition would really be a success for all of us, especially our kids."
Corso said the tour was designed to "facilitate conversation."
"The educational component is a big deal," he said. "We hope the school system and the college will work with us to build a talent pipeline for Meridian and other local companies. The opportunity is in front of us, and the onus is on us to do something about it."
Meridian was founded in 1999 and has grown every year since, but Gilder said this year's jump has been "phenomenal."
"We've already exceeded our gross sales for 2011, which was our best year to date," he said. "We have a huge amount of opportunity that comes in here every week. And we've got a lot of positions that we're hiring for. One of our biggest challenges is finding the right employees."
Meridian has 60 full-time employees and up to 100 part-time employees, depending on the workload. It currently needs engineers, software developers, fabricators and salespeople.
"There's a ton of stuff going on," Gilder said. "We have a phenomenal team now. They're excited to work in a dynamic environment. I give them free reign to do what they do best. The last thing I want to do is micromanage every employee."
In fact, he would rather focus on managing the growth, because things are going so well for Meridian that the company recently maxed out its 65,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space on South Pine Street and will soon break ground on a 12,000-square-foot addition.
"We'd like to have it completed in the first quarter of next year," Gilder said. "The addition will enable our work to all flow one way from raw materials to finished products. Right now, we come in and go back out the same door."
Partners in Progress will help the company apply for a Building Reuse and Restor-ation grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Develop-ment Center in an effort to defray the six-figure cost of the project.
"The application is due in October and we'll have a decision in early December," Corso said. "There's a team now that wants to help Chris fulfill his vision. He's got resources now that he didn't have before."
Meridian is also exploring the possibility of opening a 4,000-square-foot executive briefing center, whether that means constructing a new building on its campus or purchasing an existing building elsewhere in Moore County.
"We hope to have a decision by year-end," Gilder said. "The center would display our hardware and software technology, and better help us find self-service solutions for our customers."
The customer list includes Delta Air Lines, Panasonic, Hewlett-Packard, Sam's Club, Subway and IBM, among others.
The self-service evolution is being driven on the demand side by educated consumers who are becoming increasingly comfortable with the improved technology, and businesses hit hard by the recession that are conducting thorough cost reviews to identify efficiencies that can improve their bottom line.
On the supply side, companies such as Meridian are exploring global opportunities to help clients operate more productively and better serve their customers.
The stakes are high, because U.S. consumers conducted $750 billion in transactions at self-service devices in 2009. The retail, hospitality and health care industries invested $3 billion in the technology that year.
But the potential is even greater, because the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that if self-service technology were more widely deployed, the U.S. economy would be $130 billion larger annually.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or tnatt@the pilot.com.
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