Jerry Pedley first arrived in Sanford in 1989 straight out of Chicago, in town to interview for a job he found a listing for in a Windy City newspaper. Pedley — who had worked as an electrician and a design engineer for the previous 20 years — got the job at Synchro Automation and worked for a guy “who knew a lot about robotics” at the time.
Six months later, Synchro closed its doors. Rather than head back north, Pedley started his own company. Electro-Mechanical Specialties was born in 1990, next door to Synchro, and Pedley grew the company — which provided custom assembly systems for automotive, medical cosmetic and small appliance industries — to nearly 30 employees over the next 12 years.
Pedley sold EMS to a company called Meikle Automation in 2002 and stayed on as a division manager. When that company closed its doors in 2009, Pedley was in a familiar position.
He started another company.
Mertek Solutions was born that year with Pedley keeping more than 20 employees from Meikle. It has grown over the last decade to become a go-to company for the design and manufacturing of assembly and test equipment for manufacturing companies.
Mertek builds the robots that make many of the products you use today. Many items that aren’t necessarily “Made in Sanford” have their roots here because of Mertek.
“Consumer goods are a big thing for us,” says Pedley. “If you’ve got a dishwasher in your house, there’s a good chance someone from Mertek had a hand in it. Or a range — we have machines we put in just recently that tests ranges for a company. We create the machines that put things together and make them better products.”
For example, when San Francisco-based Velano Vascular needed precise machines to produce their intricate PIVO single-use, needle-free blood collection devices (which attach to IV systems), they turned to Pedley and his team. The device is being used by hospitals all over the country.
Toilet bowl cleaners. Date rape fingernail kits. Inhalers. Vehicle intake manifolds. Hotel water bottles. Branded logos on cedar planks used for cooking fish. The machines that help create the fiber rods to catch those fish.
“We like to use the word ‘automated’ to describe what we do,” Pedley says. “If you need a part — maybe a brake sensor for your car and it has six or seven parts in it — our machine would put those together automatically at whatever speed they want. They might need one every three seconds. They might need one every minute. But we can put that whole part together and make sure that it’s correct. A lot of the things we make — these are things that you just can’t have operators doing all day long … repetitive stuff. We can do that.”
Mertek was named the small business of the year in 2017 by Business North Carolina, and Pedley was featured on the cover of BNC Magazine in December of that year with the title “Mr. Robot.” The year prior, Pedley was named the North Carolina Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center’s Outstanding Business and Industry Award winner for his work in education throughout the state.
“Mertek Solutions is a prime example of how business can partner with education to really make a difference,” the organization’s CEO and president Sam Houston said at the time. “While it is a small company in rural North Carolina, Mertek has a big impact on teachers and students interested in STEM education.”
And of all the “products” Mertek creates or helps create in Sanford, it’s the people who’ve come through Mertek during high school or college internships or straight out of school that Pedley is most proud of.
“We’ve got some of the best schools ever,” Pedley says. “I traveled to Dallas once for an engineering conference, and when I told people I was there from Lee County, North Carolina, they all knew about our school here [Central Carolina Community College]. And it was one of the biggest bragging points I could have.
“Lee County schools are amazing. We have students coming out of high school who come with us with certificates, and they can start designing things right here with that. And we have the community college, which has several programs for training young people in this industry. If I need electricians, they have the programs we need.
“Then we have Campbell University and NC State — the education resources are just fantastic.”
Pedley was recently asked to sit on a board for Fayetteville Tech, which has a computer-integrated machining program, and the director suggested one of his students — a young woman with “a lot of enthusiasm” — who would be a good fit at Mertek. Pedley says he could tell in the first five minutes talking to Fionna Walsh that she would be a fit.
“She wanted to learn, and she’s still out there today working with us and learning.”
Walsh, who works as a programming intern, works building panels and “doing a lot of the hand-wired electrical stuff.” She says working for Mertek not only keeps her employed while in school, but it also provides on-the-job training that you can’t get in a classroom environment.
“They want me to get my education,” she says. “When I got here, I was overly ecstatic. I was looking at older machines, looking at all the different programs. And in my head, I was trying to figure out how I would program those machines. And I think Jerry could see it in my face — just absolute enthusiasm that I have for stuff like this.”
When Meikle closed in 2009, and Pedley began forming his own company, he looked to his father — a lifelong farmer — for inspiration. Merle Pedley taught his son that determination and hard work were the keys to success in any business, whether farming or robotics.
“I remember his saying, ‘Can’t never did nothing,’ which he told me many times, Pedley told CCCC back in 2013 in a story about their partnership. “My dad and his brother started farming when they were 11 and 13, when their father was taken in a corn picker accident. My dad taught me that when something ends, you can either sit back and complain or go to work. I went to work harder than ever.”
Mertek is named for Merle Pedley, and a plaque in the lobby of the company features a painting of his father on a tractor and honors him with the words, “Merle Pedley, who has planted qualities of fairness, honesty, kindness, accountability, flexibility and strong work ethics in those that know him. Those qualities are the foundation of Mertek Solutions, Inc.”
Jerry Pedley says the key to Mertek’s success are the men and women who have stayed by his side for the past 20-plus years. When he started the company, he brought with him a core group of 15 from Meikle who he knew and trusted. They’re still with Mertek and, Pedley says, have just as much input as he does.
“I’ve said it many times, I think I work with the best people in the world,” he says. “We don’t have to have ‘big management’ or whatever to interview people. Sometimes I’ll have people come to me when they start and say, ‘Who’s going to be my boss,’ and I say, ‘Listen, if you need a boss, this isn’t the right place for you.’ So our guys work on their own. They take care of business. I think we have 30 owners here, and they all act like that and treat our customers like they were part of customer service as well. I preach it — the customer is always right, and we do what they want and give them the machines they need.”
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” adds Walsh. “It doesn’t feel like work. I come in, and I’m solving puzzles. I know it’s kind of cliché to say, ‘This workplace is a family,’ but I mean, I think manufacturing, you really do get that. The men I work with feel like my brothers. The people here are what make it worth it to me.”
Learn more about Mertek Solutions, the products they make and the machines they create to make those products by visiting merteknc.com.