They went all-in 25 years ago, but the gamble Steve and Leslie Cooke took paid off.
“We had to move back in with my parents to do it,” said Steve Cooke, co-founder of Advanced Electronic Services Inc.
Cooke said he had been schooled in electronics at a community college in South Carolina after a school counselor pushed him in the direction of what was a growing career field at the time. He went on to work for a number of companies, learning many skills and eventually realizing those companies were charging clients a lot of money for his services.
“We decided to do it for ourselves,” said Cooke, and in his mid-20s, he and wife Leslie poured everything they had into the endeavor in 1992.
“We moved back in with my parents,” recounted Cooke. “We had a few things, a Bayliner boat and a dirt bike, which we sold for some start-up funds.”
It started out simple. The couple did repairs in a little wooden building, but business did start to grow. Their first customer was Cross Creek Apparel, a memory with some irony.
“They were in this building,” said Cooke, as he gestured toward the A.E.S. headquarters on 101 Technology Lane in Mount Airy.
In the initial years, any money generated went right back into the company, said Cooke. It was in about 1994 when the company turned the corner. The Cookes could pay their bills with the money earned at their new business, and they could get out from under mom’s roof.
Now A.E.S. employs more than 130 people and inhabits a 90,000-square-foot facility.
“I don’t like to say it because it sounds conceited, but there was a dream behind moving in with my parents 25 years ago,” said Cooke. “That vision is absolutely what we have here at A.E.S. today.”
As he stood in that little wooden building where it all began, Cooke said he had come to the conclusion he wanted to own a business with a nice building and that employs 100 or more people.
“I’m very happy with the direction of the company,” added Cooke. “I can’t ask for or expect anything to be any better.”
A.E.S. has expanded quickly throughout its 25 years in operation, and it continues to do so.
Recently the company entered into the solar power industry, and it also purchased a Florida company which performs repairs on regulators. Soon A.E.S. will be manufacturing charging stations for electric vehicles, and for some time, the company has been repairing Kodak printers and performing hydraulic and mechanical repairs.
A.E.S. has always expanded at an expeditious rate, said Cooke. It was the nature of the electronics industry. However, now the company is expanding by continuing to branch into other lines of business.
“Others might say, ‘You can’t do that, Steve,’” remarked Cooke. “But anything we think we can learn, we bring it in.”
He further explained the company often uses one pilot customer in order to see if it can get good at the product or service.
“A lot of times it’s because we are doing a good job on something else,” explained Cooke. “They say, ‘Hey, why don’t you learn how to do this for us?’”
Cooke chuckled, adding, “They are usually related enough. We didn’t say we could make socks.”
Happy with his company’s progress throughout the course of the past quarter-century, Cooke said the sky is the limit.
In thinking about where he thinks he will be in 10 or 20 years, Cooke noted he will probably be on a walker, but A.E.S. will be chugging along better than ever.
“Based on our current direction, I see us expanding into several more industries,” said Cooke. “All of the right things are in place.”
Cooke said the company has dabbled in government contracts, and he believes A.E.S. will grow through nailing down larger government and military contracts in. An audit his company will soon undergo will help build the confidence in A.E.S. that is needed to be awarded those contracts.
The business owner said he had plenty of people to thank for the company’s success. That group includes his family, but he also owes some thanks to a supportive community.
“We were fortunate to have ended up in Mount Airy and Surry County,” said Cooke. “I don’t see how another city could have matched what this place had to offer.”
He noted the city and county have always supported his endeavors through incentives, and people in the community who had made it in business were always there to offer a little advice.
There was also a time when growth could have stopped at A.E.S. When the company needed to move from its humble first home it needed a loan.
“We went to a community bank, and we didn’t meet any of the criteria we needed to for that loan,” recounted Cooke. “The banker said, ‘You don’t qualify, but I believe in you, buddy.’”
He said there were some bumps in the road along the way. In the early days, cash-flow was an issue, and the company made some mistakes in the midst of its rapid growth.
“Thankfully, we had some customers who saw our loyalty and determination and stuck with us,” he said of the company’s ability to overcome those mistakes.
At times, it was tough to find qualified people to fill the technical jobs at A.E.S. However, the community has stepped up to the plate in that regard as well.
“Surry Community College helps us tremendously in recruiting our employees,” said Cooke.
He added A.E.S. offers a scholarship. Many employees take advantage of it and earn their associate’s degree at the college. Then some work for the company while attaining their bachelor’s degrees from four-year institutions.
Cooke said it’s been a long road and a lot of work, but he is delighted with what he, his family and his employees have built.
“It took a tremendous amount of sacrifice and work,” said Cooke. “We worked night and day, seven days a week.”
He kept doing that as the company grew, to a point in which he was blind to the company’s success. One day, at some point along the way, a long-time employee offered a reality check though. She pointed to the company’s financial statements.
“I didn’t even realize it had turned into something,” recounted Cooke. “I had never seen seven figures on a bank statement before.”