Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos by Anthony Harden
Jim Oliver and Mike Proffitt love challenges. Case in point: Their company, Asheville’s AvL Technologies, aims to enable communications where communication is not possible.
Jim Oliver knew his company’s products impacted the world, but he saw it firsthand last year when he visited Russia. While at the Kremlin, his tour group was told by their guide it appeared that Russian President Vladimir Putin was going to be there that day. As Oliver walked around Red Square, he saw a news truck ready to broadcast live on Russian television when Putin arrived. On top of the truck was an AvL Technologies’ antenna.
“Here I am in Red Square, and here is one of my antennas,” says Oliver, the founder, owner, and CEO of the company.
Oliver, an engineer’s engineer who can never stop creating things, founded AvL Technologies (AvL) in 1994 in his garage. Today, the Asheville-based company has 200 employees and produces satellite antennas and positioner systems for defense and homeland security organizations, news organizations, and disaster relief agencies around the world. AvL Technologies equipped 80 percent of the Army, 100 percent of the Special Forces, and 50 percent of the Marine Corp with transformable antennas. The Department of Defense is one of AvL’s largest customers. The military wants very small, lightweight products they can carry on their backs and use in the field very rapidly. They want to throw it on the ground, plug it in and be connected—anywhere in the world.
Oftentimes when something extreme happens in the world, an AvL Technologies product is used, enabling communications in difficult environments—a natural disaster or a military issue when other methods of communication are unavailable. Or a news organization broadcasting live from a location with an AvL antenna on top of their large news truck.
Oliver describes himself and Proffitt as a tag team. “I design the products then turn them over to Mike to produce,” says Oliver. “Business is a lot of luck; Mike coming in was very lucky. He knew how to manufacture and never turned down a challenge. He was critical to the success of AvL.”
Mike Proffitt, president and COO, joined AvL in 2001, right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He describes Oliver as “one of the best engineers I have ever worked with because Jim takes the complex and makes it simple. A lot of engineers that struggle to be good engineers end up making things complex. That’s not a good engineer. A good engineer takes the complex problems and makes them simple.”
Oliver describes himself and Proffitt as a tag team. “I design the products then turn them over to Mike to produce,” says Oliver. “Business is a lot of luck; Mike coming in was very lucky. He knew how to manufacture and never turned down a challenge. He was critical to the success of AvL. He’s Mr. Manufacturing. He can and will get it done. While Mike’s career has been in manufacturing, he has developed a great instinct on good product design. So with Mike’s and our staff’s ability, I no longer need to be intimately involved in product creation.”
Originally from Yancey County, Proffitt was previously in charge of new product introduction with Outboard Marine Corporation. As president of AvL, he makes sure he has a “10,000-foot view,” which he explains as management by walking around. He makes at least two or three trips through the AvL shop every day to see what is going on.
Jim Oliver grew up in Atlanta, and went to Georgia Tech, which was all his family could afford. He always liked design and making things, so he majored in industrial design, but ultimately came to a realization: “I know how to make them pretty, I know how to make them functional, but I don’t know how to make the inside work.” He subsequently went back to Georgia Tech for a degree in mechanical engineering. During this time, Oliver says he became infatuated with the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”—so much so, that when he received a job offer in San Francisco, he took it.
This job was with Lockheed Missiles and Space. By sheer luck, Oliver discovered that Lockheed would help pay for their employees to attend nearby Stanford University, where within their mechanical engineering department they had a design division. Oliver worked 30 hours a week and Lockheed helped pay for him to go to Stanford. This turned out to be a real watershed event for Oliver, mainly because they were creating a whole new paradigm about teaching design to engineers rather than keeping them separate.
“There’s a lot of luck in your life and that was luck for me,” says Oliver.
After four years, Oliver and his wife decided to move back to Atlanta. “We had just landed on the moon and engineer jobs had become way over surplused—and an advanced degree in engineering was even worse,” says Oliver. He worked at his dad’s service station for six months before an engineering job opened for him. Oliver worked at Scientific Atlanta, which he describes as the “Granddaddy of Satellite Communications,” where he was responsible for the development of antennas from 3M to 11M (meters) for the company, and later was co-founder of SatCom Technologies, where he developed another complete product line, including the first 2.4M Satellite News Gathering (SNG) antenna system.
By this time, Atlanta had changed drastically from the city that Oliver grew up in. His family visited Asheville and realized that the lifestyle was great. They started contemplating a move, and he now says one of the best things he ever did was move to Asheville.
Oliver was in Asheville for five years before he started AvL Technologies, whose origins can be traced back to when he was doing some consulting work and ran into an old customer who asked him to deliver an antenna for a satellite news gathering truck—a lighter, smaller one for vans in Europe. At that time, everything was analogue, but Oliver knew the direction was towards digital—and when you go digital, you go smaller. “Technology makes everything smaller,” he notes.
In 2000 when the economy crashed, Oliver decided he needed to do two things. Convinced that satellite would be great for the internet, he created an antenna controller that did all the work and could locate the satellite with the push of one button.
He also designed a fly away application which could be packed up and put in a case. This would become a key component of AvL’s success. The week after Proffitt joined AvL, 20 Special Forces people from Fort Bragg visited the company, looking for transportable satellite communications. AvL listened to their needs and created the right products—more evidence regarding how having good luck can be key to business success. “We basically had the right product at the right time,” says Oliver. “And Mike could get them made. We went all out and doubled in size, four years in a row. We ended up in four buildings in the River Arts District. It was a real challenge. But Mike and I live off of challenges. We like challenges. When you double in size four years in a row, the intensity is unbelievable. Mike and I worked many long hours—Saturdays, most Sundays. Not only were we busy, but we were supporting people who really depended on us—Special Forces, the Army, the Marine Corps, and the White House.”
Currently, AvL offers a base of 25 to 30 products, with many derivatives of the products available based on customer requirements. Competitors make very standardized products while AvL interfaces with the customer to provide them with exactly what they need. Their basic philosophy is take care of the customer—get them back on the air. Too, systematically over the last 15-16 years, AvL started making all the components needed for their antennas right here in Asheville, rather than buying from a third party. (Proffitt: “That’s one of the reasons you see more cars in the parking lot—more people here.”)
AvL has also impacted the safety of the military in many ways over the company’s history. Proffitt explains that, in the past, when young privates were out in the field and needed supplies, they would burn a supply list onto a CD and then drive a Humvee across the line of fire to deliver the list. Thirty people were killed a year doing this. It was very similar to the process used during the Civil War, but instead of a horse and letter, the privates were using a Humvee and CD.
“We came up with an antenna simple to put together—hit one button—[and the person] doesn’t have to get out of his secure area to order supplies. Young people can get online and order what they need and have it air-dropped to them.”
Their products also assisted in the disarming of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) in Iraq. Using an AvL Technologies antenna, soldiers were able to send a video of what an IED looked like back to the experts, so they could be given instructions on how to disarm them. Avl Technologies antennas were also used for streaming video for troop training on IEDs.
“Our products are very rugged and very dependable,” says AvL Marketing Director Krystal Dredge. “The carbon fiber reflectors are strong enough to take a bullet.”
“Mike and I have a philosophy: We take care of the demand,” says Oliver. “When a customer calls, we help select the right product and tell them a typical lead time, and then say, ‘When do you need it?’”
This was the case in 2004 when they were contacted by the White House Communications Agency. President George W. Bush wanted to be able to move around quicker, and at that point in time it would take technicians one week to get ready for him to visit a location since he had to have reliable communication available for the whole world. Proffitt and Oliver were asked to develop technology to make this possible. They had eight weeks to deliver the finished product. And deliver they did. “That made us the dominant transformable antenna producer,” says Oliver.
By 2010 the company had outgrown their River Arts District locations, so Oliver and Proffitt began the search for a new building. They needed easy access to the highway and most importantly, a clear view of the southern sky—a necessity for testing of their antennas because satellites are on a geostationary orbit.
They found the old Food Lion building in North Asheville. It was turned in the right direction; compartmentalized enough from the previous occupant to allow for all the different departments that AvL needed; allowed the necessary clear view; and had the needed infrastructure inside of the building. They bought and repurposed the whole building, moving in soon after.
In 2016 Oliver began to think of developing a multi-tenant facility across the street. He describes the idea as his “BHAG”— Big Hairy Audacious Goal, quoting from author Jim Collins’ book Built to Last. “All companies should have a BHAG. Something they really have to stretch for. That building across the street is for cool jobs in Asheville—hoping to attract new manufacturers.”
With the level of growth, AvL finds itself expanding into the new space but still has room for other tenants. (Both AvL facilities are located in the North Asheville section where Merrimon Avenue meets Weaverville Road.)
Oliver and Proffitt describe their growth strategy as “smart aggressive”—staying at the cutting edge of technology. There are other producers, but in terms of sales and market share, AvL leads the industry and sets the bar.
What’s in a name?
People sometimes accuse Jim Oliver of being the local chamber of commerce, as he is always promoting Asheville. In fact, when he started the company and was deciding what to call it, he considered naming it Asheville Technologies. “I love Asheville,” he says. “Everything about it. [But] it sounded a little like an oxymoron because Asheville at that time was noted for our arts and crafts. So I decided to use the call letters of the airport—which is AVL—but I made the ‘v’ lower case to give it character. It gave it a little flair.”
Oliver and Proffitt are committed to providing good manufacturing jobs in Western North Carolina.
“Both Jim and I want to create good paying manufacturing jobs,” says Proffitt. “We both feel that is something that has been lost over the years in Asheville. I remember when we had Square D and other large manufacturers that are now gone. Asheville used to be a manufacturing town; we used to have a huge manufacturing base here in Asheville, and it bothers me that it’s gone. We are trying to bring some of that back at AvL.”
Oliver notes that AvL has no minimum wage jobs and is Living Wage Certified. “Design and manufacturing are cool jobs. They are challenging, fun, and they pay well. Thirty years ago, manufacturing was king. Five years ago, it was almost all gone. Now it is starting to come back.”
They work closely with A-B Tech, UNC Asheville, Western Carolina University, and business management consultants WCI. “We use all those resources in the area to do training and bring people in who are qualified,” says Proffitt. AvL has an excellent retention rate of employees and offers bonus programs, including profit-sharing for all employees. (AvL also uses interns from the three colleges.)
AvL is also a privately-owned company, which allows Oliver and Proffitt additional latitude to focus on their products, customers, and employees.
“It gives us a different culture,” say Oliver. “Something we are proud of, and that’s tough when you are growing fast—not to take outside investors.”
“The nice thing about that is if Jim and I decide it’s a good thing to do, we do it,” adds Proffitt. “I don’t have to go to a board of directors or do a ROI investigation. We have competitors that are owned by large companies. They don’t seem as agile as AvL. We are very entrepreneurial.”
Long-term planning is important at AvL and they have a 2020 plan in place. Oliver and Proffitt consider what kinds of people and products they need, what kinds of markets they need to look at, and especially what their customers need.
Oliver and Proffitt describe their growth strategy as “smart aggressive”—staying at the cutting edge of technology. There are other producers, but in terms of sales and market share, AvL leads the industry and sets the bar. It has been that way because of Oliver’s designs and Proffitt’s ability to manufacture at a competitive price with high quality materials and workmanship.
“We’re working on some major breakthrough technology—like going from the automobile to the airplane, [or] the horse to the automobile,” says Oliver. “Or from big bag phones to the iPhone, which might be a better analogy. That’s exciting. The excitement is something that I love. I like products. I like taking chances. The excitement of pushing yourself motivates me, and Mike, too.
“We work hard and have fun,” he concludes. “We enjoy the intensity.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…