How 70 jobs stayed in city Nurad: Having outgrown its facility on Druid Park Drive, Nurad Technologies considered moving to Halethorpe, but then found just what it wanted nearby in Park Circle Industrial Park.

November 27, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Tony Barnard had looked at about 50 buildings in th Baltimore region to house Nurad Technologies Inc. and he didn't want to see any more.

Doing business had become unbearable at Nurad's two-building plant in Northwest Baltimore. Rain sometimes flooded one building. In the winter, workers had to negotiate sheets of ice while carrying parts of Nurad's microwave antenna systems between buildings.

Barnard, Nurad's president, was about to move the company and its 70 jobs to Halethorpe. That's when his manufacturing manager suggested looking at the nearby Park Circle Industrial Park London Fog plant, which was about to close.

"I don't want to look at any more buildings," Barnard recalled saying last spring. "I don't care how good it is. But I said, 'All right.' So I stopped by and poked my head in. When I looked in that door, I forgot about all the other buildings."

About 300 workers toiled at sewing machines. Racks of raincoats swirled about the factory floor. But that didn't stop Barnard from seeing opportunity for his company's microwave antenna business.

With few barriers, the building offered 54,000 square feet of mostly open space. That was 2,000 more than the company's Druid Park Drive plant. Furthermore, the space was in one building on one floor -- a dream compared with the two-story and three-story buildings that Nurad occupied.

Nurad's move to the former London Fog plant this month not only helped the Park Heights neighborhood keep one of the city's few remaining manufacturers, but it also took away some of the sting from the June closure of the London Fog plant, which eliminated 281 jobs.

Nurad's survival is itself a bit surprising.

Founded in 1965 by J. Gordon Neuberth, Nurad made antenna systems for military aircraft and mobile television news trucks. With a flush U.S. defense budget, Nurad sales topped $13 million in the late 1980s, when it employed about 300 people. But defense cutbacks were devastating, sending sales plummeting to $3 million and employment to just 40 in 1994.

"We couldn't lay off people fast enough or cut costs fast enough to make a profit," said Barnard, an Air Force Academy graduate who bought the company in 1992 from Virginia-based Carlton Industries in a management-led leveraged buyout. "We almost went bankrupt."

But Nurad, long a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., rebounded. The company had $7.2 million in sales in the fiscal year that ended in September, with a profit of almost $1 million, Barnard said.

Anirban Basu, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said a steady decrease in defense spending in Maryland -- from $4.8 billion in 1987 to $4 billion last year -- has decimated jobs.

Nurad remains primarily a defense contractor, with products like its "beavertail" antenna system protecting C-130 aircraft from missile attacks. Military sales account for about 94 percent of Nurad's sales. But Nurad hopes that commercial sales will help the company more than double revenue in the next four years. "Our goal is $21 million by 2001," Barnard said. "That would give us about 100 or 130 workers."

Nurad, which wants to make inroads into cellular communications and wireless cable systems, is manufacturing a dish-size product known as the "Worldvu" for a wireless cable system in Thailand.

Wireless cable, a hybrid technology that combines features of broadcast and cable television, faces tough competition from satellite broadcasting.

Just last year, Bell Atlantic Corp. and Nynex Corp. backed away from plans to develop wireless cable systems.

Still, Andrew Kreig, vice president of the Wireless Cable Association, said companies such as Nurad could do well. "One thing that characterizes the wireless market is the feast or famine characteristics, where the companies that have a good product at the right time can reap enormous benefits," he said.

Nurad said it now has the perfect plant for growth into the commercial sector. But the company came very close to not finding it.

Nurad was prepared to move into a plant behind the shuttered Stroh brewery in Halethorpe when Richard E. Hurley Jr., a former construction director for the Baltimore Development Corp., contacted Nurad's construction manager, Ray Vaughan.

"I had been familiar with the people at Nurad," said Hurley, a Park Heights resident. "And I could see that Londontown was closing."

Nurad, which has an annual payroll of about $2 million, pays its average worker about $25,000 a year. But it wasn't only Park Heights that stood to lose by Nurad's departure, Hurley said. "Had they gone to Halethorpe, they would have lost a good third of their employees."

The Park Heights plant is on a bus route a half-mile from the former plant, he explained. And half of Nurad's machinists, composite technicians and assemblers live in the city.

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