Appalachian Scene: Bringing High Tech Home
by Carl Hoffman
Ask Jack Galyean to describe his company, Printed Circuit Solutions Manufacturing (PCSM), Inc., and he says, "We're like sprinters." Indeed, blueprints for what PCSM made today zipped into its factory only yesterday, via a telephone line. Within 48 hours, a few ounces of plastic, copper, gold, and nickel were formed into a complex, custom-built electronic circuit board. Tested, inspected, and carefully packed, the board will soon be swept up by UPS or Federal Express and flown overnight to a high-tech company.
"The business is so extremely competitive that we shorten development times and make things fast," says entrepreneur Galyean, founder, part owner, and president of PCSM. "It's not uncommon for us to finish something at 4:00 A.M. and head to the airport to put it on a flight. That's our niche."
PCSM's elaborate, custom-printed circuit boards are the nerve cells of the electronic brains of the information age. You'll find the company not in California's Silicon Valley or along Boston's Route 128, but in Galax, Virginia, amidst the steep hills of Appalachian coal country: founder Galyean is a native son of Galax, a veteran of Fortune 500 high-technology firms in New Jersey and Florida come home. Why Galax? "It's a great place to live and raise a family," says Galyean with a shrug, as if the question were absurd.
In fact, Galyean was like all too many other kids when he graduated from Galax High School in 1971. "I did what everyone did; all I could think about was getting out of town." He served in the U.S. Army, graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in industrial technology, and went to work for Data General in North Carolina. Over the next two decades he worked for Honeywell in Tampa, Florida, Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and R&D Circuits in Edison, New Jersey, where he oversaw a workforce of 1,500 churning out thousands of printed circuit boards every day. Still, his heart remained in Galax, and, especially after he married and started a family, he began to yearn for the quiet and the family ties that 18-year-olds run away from in the first place. During visits home to see his parents, he often dreamed about building his own plant in Galax. "I'd come back and say to my parents, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a printed-circuit-board factory here?' But it was a fantasy," he says. "Where in the world was I to get $3 million?"
Finally, however, the call of home overwhelmed him. "We wanted our kids to know their grandparents," says Galyean simply.
In 1993, Galyean headed home. Immediately friends and family urged him to build his dream factory. " 'Look,' " he told them, " 'it's complex and brutal,' but they all challenged me to do it, and there seemed to be a real desire in the community."
A Vote of Confidence
Living on savings, Galyean and his wife, Linda (who today runs the financial side of the business), began putting together a business plan and looking for money. Immediately he walked into a wall, a catch-22 in which he needed commitments of money and support to get commitments of money and support. That is, until the city of Galax came to his rescue. Galyean smiles as he tells the tale of how he asked the city's industrial development authority for five acres of land in the industrial park, for free. "They looked over my business plan and drilled my eyes out," he says. Finally they offered him a deal: if Galyean could find some private money, Galax would allow him to acquire the land under very favorable terms and provide a low-interest loan.
"To be honest," says Galax city manager Dan Campbell, "it was a real commitment from Galax, and we probably would not have done it for a lot of start-ups. But we're like so many locations where the saying about there being no jobs for kids to come back to is true. Although our economy is very strong here right now, we have no diversification, and PCSM would give Galax the opportunity to employ a technically based person within a manufacturing setting. We scrutinized his business plan very closely, and then went forward with a resounding vote of confidence."
Indeed, Galax's blessing "gave us legitimacy," says Galyean, whose fund-raising efforts suddenly exploded. "There was a real excitement in the community," says Campbell. "People just started walking up with $10,000 or $20,000," says Galyean. People like Gary Guynn, who became one of his first investors and now serves on PCSM's board of directors. Like Galyean, Guynn was a Galax native—they'd played high school football together—who'd gone off to college, pursued a career (as an aeronautical engineer), and found himself back in Galax, surprisingly enraptured by the small-town life he'd once left behind. "There was just a hunger here for some [industry] for kids to come back to after school and to put Galax on the map," says Guynn, explaining his investment. "I did it for my kids, so there'd be something here for them."
With private money flowing in, everything else followed, including a small-business loan from Signet Bank. "They'd told me to get some money first, and when I walked in there with it, they about croaked," Galyean says, his light-blue eyes twinkling. "This project probably wouldn't have occurred without Galax's help," admits Campbell. "In southwest Virginia we don't have the advantages of Silicon Valley. There's no venture capital here, and the five acres we gave served as that venture capital." Giving credit where it's due, Galyean never talks about his company without citing the public and private help he got from Galax. "This is a community-owned business," he says unabashedly.
Investment Pays Off
PCSM opened for business in November 1995. Although the first two years were "brutal," says Galyean, business is booming now, and the $4 million investment, including loans and private and in-kind investments, is beginning to pay off. Some 34 employees (up from the opening day's staff of ten), most of whom had never worked with a circuit board before coming to PCSM, crank out custom-made prototype circuit boards for giants like Lucent Technologies, Unisys, Litton Polyscientific, and the U.S. Postal Service.
While the hundreds of thousands of boards those companies may ultimately need for the production of a line of computers or cellular telephones will be manufactured in huge plants, largely overseas where labor is cheap, heated competition means that new products are constantly being designed and tested. And every prototype of a computer, digital switch, or telephone needs a new circuit board that has to be custom-built. With expensive engineers and research and development teams on hold waiting for the prototype circuit boards, companies are willing to pay a premium to get those boards fast. That's where PCSM comes in. It can take the blueprints for a new 12-layer board that has well over 8,000 connections on it, yet is nearly as thin as a piece of paper, and ship the completed board in 24 to 48 hours. "There are only about five or six companies in the world that can turn out a 12-layer board in two days," says Galyean.
A board that may sell for a few dollars when ultimately produced in mass quantities on an assembly line will bring Galyean far more if he can turn it around that fast. " 'Can't' doesn't do very much around here," Galyean says, striding through his small, brightly lit, and immaculately clean factory, "and 'can' does. We want people to be interpreters and not just doers here. We solve problems here, and that's the advantage of having a small company in a place like Galax. Sure, proximity to your customers is important, but it's becoming less so with overnight shipping and electronic data transfer."
The technical challenge of manufacturing a complex board under what Galyean calls constant "controlled urgency" excites its employees. "Jack was looking for people who could learn, not who knew," says James Anderson, who went from helping paint PCSM's new building to supervising computer-aided manufacturing operations. Although he held a two-year college degree in drafting and design, Anderson had found himself doing hourly construction around Galax because there were no jobs in his field in the area. Anderson jumped on board PCSM doing whatever he could, from painting to working in the production line, and has moved up quickly. "Jack wanted people with an open mind who could learn quickly. I've always enjoyed a challenge, and this is a severe one. But no one is standing in your way here."
"This is more technical and intense than anything I've ever done before," says C.M. Edwards, who came to PCSM after 26 years at a nearby electronics factory. "Tolerances have to be exact, no job is the same, and everyone has to work together to be successful, which is fulfilling to me," he says, helping to pack freshly inspected boards for shipment. "Around Galax there're lots of people who go elsewhere looking for work, and we could keep them if there were more places like this. Just look at the wall—the future is open-ended," he says, pointing toward the break room bulletin board, where job descriptions and salaries—ranging from $8 an hour to nearly $70,000 a year-are posted.
When Galyean has time to slow down and put it all in perspective, which isn't often with his 70-hour weeks, he admits, "It's amazing that we're doing this in Galax, Virginia. My customers knew I could build boards, but they didn't know I could do it in Galax," he says, as his employees gather for an afternoon seminar on PCSM's 401(k) plan in the break room. "But this is the greatest and smartest group of people I've ever seen. And they've learned more in the last two-and-a-half years than lots of ten-year circuit board veterans. Here," says Galyean, looking over his employees, "we're breaking all the rules."
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.