The Beginning

It was 1926. Thomas Edison was still working in his shop in Menlo Park; movies (still silent) featured Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, and William S. Hart; the country was driving the Model T and dancing the Charleston.

The world was eight years past “The War to End All Wars”, and Adolph Hitler was still only in charge of a small group of bullies and hoodlums. The tungsten filament lamp was still an innovation; “talkies” wouldn’t be introduced for another year; and a young, vibrant nation was building a new world for itself using abundant, inexpensive power as electrification began its inexorable march across the American landscape.

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History of EECO
It was 1926, and four men came together to realize an idea; a vision that became a reality in Raleigh, NC, with the founding of Electrical Equipment Company (EECO). Born in Albany, GA, in 1894, John Milton Cutliff had earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech and enjoyed a brief stint at General Electric plants in Schenectady and Philadelphia before joining the Army Signal Corps, serving in France beginning in 1918. Returning to GE at the end of the war, an intense entrepreneurial spirit led him to the Florida real estate boom (and bust) of the early 1920s. Soon, though, he found himself in North Carolina searching for a way to use his training and technical ability in the expanding electrical industry…

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Obviously, a business needed capital to get started properly, and Mr. Cutliff’s first contact was with a longtime friend he thought would help fill that requirement, Norwood Wilson of Hopewell, VA. The two of them discussed the formation of a partnership for the founding of a motor repair shop in Danville, VA. Mr. Cutliff began looking for a suitable location there while Mr. Wilson, who had some government and other contacts in Virginia, began to investigate the business potential for their venture.

At the same time, Herman Eugene Wood and Daniel R. Ponton, Sr. were also discussing the possibility of opening a motor repair shop, probably somewhere in the Greensboro or High Point, NC, area where they were then living. Mr. Wood was born in 1889 in High Point. Contracting a severe case of measles at age 10, he was forced to leave school for a year and never returned, going to work instead at Staley’s Silk Mill in High Point while still only 11 years old. Times were difficult for many hardworking people around the turn of the century, but this turn of events in young Master Wood’s life served him well over the years. It was at Staley’s that he was first introduced to the fascinating world of electric motors and machinery – how they operated and what made them run.

Dan Ponton was born in Nelson County, VA, in 1892 and later attended the Case School of Electrical Engineering in Detroit. By the time World War II broke out, Mr. Ponton had married his sweetheart. Interestingly enough, they had only seen each other three times. They first met on a train ride where she was accompanied by her mother and soon began a correspondence. A few months later their second meeting came when she was invited to meet Ponton’s family in Virginia. Soon afterward, they were married. The young lady was Miss Bertha Wood; and her new husband and Herman E. Wood, her brother, soon became close friends. Eventually, they would become business partners.

When the United States found itself involuntarily embroiled in World War I, Mr. Wood wasn’t accepted for service because of a lung problem, while Mr. Ponton missed seeing action in Europe because he had two children. Both families moved to Detroit where Mr. Wood worked in a munitions factory and Mr. Ponton worked in an automotive factory helping to build military trucks and tanks, both determined to do their part for the war effort.

After the war, both families returned to North Carolina. Mr. Wood attended night classes at State College in Raleigh, and he and Mr. Ponton began to dream about opening their own shop. No one is absolutely sure just how these two men met Messrs. Cutliff and Wilson. Apparently, Messrs. Cutliff and Wood both worked for a time at Charlotte Electric (later Southern Electric) in Greensboro. Mr. Ponton was then working for Walker Electric and was, at the time they first put their plans together, installing elevators in the Jefferson Life Insurance Building in Greensboro.

With his background in electrical engineering and Mr. Wilson’s financial resources, Mr. Cutliff needed men with the practical experience and ability to run the shop operation. Mr. Wood and Mr. Ponton had strong experience in these areas but needed the knowledge and resources that were being made available through Mr. Cutliff and Mr. Wilson. Suffice it to say, then, that each realized that the combination of knowledge and skills they possessed made them stronger as a team than they would have been separately. Their vision was taking shape.

The search for an appropriate location in Danville proved to be in vain, however. Nothing could be found that was both suitable and affordable. Luckily, an expanded search turned up a good location in an unexpected place- Raleigh, NC. The chosen facility on West Davie Street was barely affordable, but the size was right and it was close to a railroad siding, particularly important in those days when rail was still the primary means for moving freight. Before the year was out, the founders had moved into the 408 West Davie Street facility with Raleigh telephone #21. Holding its first corporate directors meeting in November 1926, Carolina Electrical Equipment Company had begun.

In addition to motor repair and rewind services, a brochure printed at the time lists an entire inventory as fewer than 75 GE renewal parts line items plus a number of unspecified generators and 34 rebuilt motors, ranging from a 1/4 HP, 1200 rpm Wagner motor to a 150 HP, 600 rpm GE.

By the end of the decade, facilities were occupied at 408-410 West Davie Street and emerging communications technology had required a telephone number change to four digits-3385. By this time the Company’s first employee, Tyree T. Thomas, had been hired; and in 1927 he, too, became an officer and director.

Through the long hours and worries of a start-up venture such as this, these men made it work; and in spite of hard times, loans from family members, pay cuts and personal sacrifice, a tradition of strong knowledge-based customer service was founded within the Company.

Coupled with the phenomenal growth of the electrical industry, enough success came their way to contemplate the exploitation of an untapped opportunity. The Company had found a good source of motor repair business in the tobacco industry, and the men realized that the tobacco processing companies in Richmond would be less affected by the economic hard times than virtually any other industry. In addition, Mr. Thomas had begun to develop some business in the paper mills in both Franklin and West Point, VA, both most easily accessible from Richmond. So, in spite of the crash of 1929 and the economic nightmare of the Great Depression, the Company, having been re-dubbed Electrical Equipment Company in May 1929, opened its second location on South Fifth Street in Richmond, VA, in 1930.

Mr. Wood, who moved his family to Richmond in June 1930, opened the Richmond Plant. He recognized the importance of his tobacco customers and was always sure to smoke the right brand of cigarettes when working on site at one of the tobacco processing plants. Shortly before her passing in 2005, his daughter, Frances Wood Rogers, clearly remembered the years of hard work and dedication by her father, as well as some of the more unpleasant realities of Depression life in Virginia. “… The move was a traumatic one for my family, leaving the known to face the unknown. Because of hard times and the scarcity of jobs, people from North Carolina were not welcomed in Virginia. They were more often greeted with hostility and resentment… Even I, a [child], met it. There were children in the neighborhood whose parents would not allow them to play with me because I was from North Carolina… [But] the company was my father’s dream child and its success was his goal, so it was an essential and important part of all our lives.”

By 1931 Mr. Thomas, too, was in Richmond, working with Mr. Wood to make this new venture a success as assistant manager responsible for “Sales and Correspondence.” Mr. Wood continued working at his passion and ran the Richmond shop.

At this time two new men, H. I. Lamb and Thomas Ray Duncan, took advantage of an investment opportunity and joined the Company. By 1932 “Hi” Lamb had become a Richmond Outside Salesman and Mr. Duncan took over administrative duties in Raleigh, allowing both Mr. Cutliff and Howard B. Upton to handle sales in North Carolina. In 1935 Mr. Duncan opened a third plant for the Company at 624 Ellis Street in Augusta, GA.

The year 1935 brought additional change to the young company with another significant event. One of the founders and then President, Norwood Wilson, decided to leave the Company and was bought out by Mr. Cutliff. No one is sure why he left so early in the Company’s life. Although the Company’s President from 1926 until his departure, Mr. Wilson was primarily involved with the company at the board level with Mr. Cutliff in the role of General Manager from the beginning. As a result, his departure had little impact on the daily operation of the Company.

With Mr. Wood’s tireless efforts in the shop and Mr. Thomas’ sales success, it appears that the Richmond Plant soon saw sufficient growth to need new facilities. A fire at the Fifth Street location underscored this need; and by 1941, the Company was preparing to move into a new location for its motor shop at 9-13 West Main Street near the Jefferson Hotel. At this point, too, the corporate minutes show that “it was decided that every effort should be exerted to line up a manufacturer to represent on a jobber basis. In this connection it was suggested that some thought be given to the feasibility of forming a sales organization separate from the service part of the Company.” The seed of Electrical Equipment Company’s business form had been planted and would last for many decades.

In 1941, too, with Mr. Upton the newly appointed Manager in Raleigh, the Company opted to purchase a lot on Hillsborough and Pogue Streets in Raleigh and erect a building on the site “not to exceed $32,000 maximum complete.” This facility was home to the Raleigh Plant until moving into its present facility in 1984. One of the special features of this new location was its use of fluorescent lamps. Having just been invented in 1938, very few businesses anywhere were then using this modern form of lighting. Travelers on U.S. Route 1 had to pass right by the Raleigh Plant, and it is said that many would stop at night and actually get out of their cars to have a look.

Technological innovations were not the Company’s only area of leadership. In fact, by 1943 the Company entered into a position of innovation in its employee benefits plan with the adoption of a resolution to “work out” a pension plan. Upon adoption in 1946, this pension benefit, extended to all employees, became one of the earliest plans of its type, and continued in place until its dissolution and replacement over 75 years later. Also in 1946 the Company was saddened to lose Herman Wood, Corporate Vice President, Manager of the Richmond Shop and one of its Founding Directors, who passed away on August 8.

The Company grew dramatically and by 1951 expansion was again under consideration. Approval was given to open a location in Laurinburg, NC; and Howard Upton and H.A. Gill, Jr. were charged with the responsibility for opening that new shop. Also in 1951 approval was given for the Augusta, GA, Plant to move into a new facility on Greene Street, where they were located until April, 2007. Rent on the 23,000-square-foot Augusta facility, occupied in 1953, was set at $550 per month.

By 1954, the management system for the Company was basically set in place with a Manager and Assistant Manager in each of the early locations, maintaining a high degree of autonomy within their own jurisdiction while coordinating energies where appropriate through a President’s overall leadership and joint participation in a Board of Directors. This independence was a source of strength for each “Operation” as the four divisions, based on the four original locations, were known. Although the company’s growth, changing technology and an evolving marketplace eventually made the system obsolete, for many decades it successfully encouraged consistency and unity where needed while allowing for quick response and the recognition of local market idiosyncrasies.

In 1963 at Dan Ponton’s death, the founders were gone; and leadership was turned over to a new group of leaders who were not family members or descendants of the four founders. This transition has continued to this day as the company is led by business professionals chosen for their ability and their commitment to the company and its stakeholders.

Milton Cutliff, served as General Manager from its founding until becoming company president in 1936. He served until his death in 1957 and during his tenure, clearly set the tone for what EECO was to become. Along with Mr. Wood and Mr. Ponton, he believed that the products we sold had to be among the very best but knew that achieving that wasn’t enough. He insisted that the real focus would be on gaining and demonstrating the technical expertise required to help our customers solve problems. Maintaining that competitive advantage has remained our most important goal and has been a firm commitment that every president has followed. Those following Mr. Cutliff at EECO’s helm were the following gentlemen:

Tyree T. Thomas (1957 – 1969) – Mr. Thomas was referenced earlier as the Company’s first employee. Although not achieving the top spot until 1957, Mr. Thomas’ impact was key. Soon after the end of WWII, the company’s minutes show that Mr. Thomas first suggested that the company become more than a motor repair company. He wanted to offer our customers the role of what was then called a “Jobber”. Today, we call it an Electrical Distributor. Maintaining the same commitment to understanding our customers’ technical and business needs well beyond repair and supplying good products, Mr. Thomas’ idea gave EECO a new direction for its future that proved over time to be its most successful.

Francis Cook (1969 – 1978) – Mr. Cook was first and foremost a motor shop leader and it’s where his passion truly lay. While increasing the company’s reputation in the motor rewind industry, he strongly supported the growing success of the distribution business. He also began the effort to have the company come together as a unified whole in those areas that the technology of the day best supported. Under his leadership the company saw continued strong growth with his beloved Augusta branch as our most successful location.

James R. Shearon (1980 – 1983) – Mr. Shearon oversaw the company at a critical juncture in its history recognizing the potential and necessity of more rapid growth. Conservative by nature, he transitioned the Richmond branch from its small, multi-location offices on Main Street, designing and building a large modern facility in mid-town Richmond giving it the room to take advantage of the area’s strong industrial marketplace. His actions, too, built the necessary foundation that made possible an important opportunity that arose during the transition between his tenure and that of his successor. During his tenure Virginia expanded into South Hill (manufactured housing) and Franklin (Union Camp) further embedding the company into Virginia’s manufacturing community.

Richard L. Hedgepeth (1984 – 1994) – Mr. Hedgepeth was a change agent extraordinaire. It was under his leadership that our three Virginia locations first became distributors of Allen-Bradley (A-B). EECO’s reputation as built by his predecessors coupled with the excellent regard held by customers for Hedgepeth’s engineering knowledge and deep customer commitment, the company won the Allen-Bradley (A-B) appointment in early 1984. A-B is by far the largest automation manufacturer in North America and is ranked 1, 2 or 3 in virtually every marketplace worldwide. They believe in limited distribution and have only one distributor in each U.S. marketplace. Their requirements are tremendous and challenging, but they were convinced that EECO was the partner they needed, and our success together continues to this day. Several years later the opportunity to compete for the Tidewater, VA territory opened up, and Hedgepeth led the team that won that authorization, too. Mr. Hedgepeth’s leadership combined with our A-B partnership rocketed EECO-Virginia to the top spot for growth and volume at EECO.

Mr. Hedgepeth didn’t stop there. He also led the effort to computerize EECO. He started this quest in 1985 with an RFQ, selecting the provider, and convinced the rest of the company that this was the right step and time to move forward. He tapped a new young manager (future CEO T.J. Lawson) to lead the implementation of the new system and together their team made it happen.

T. Jerry Walker (1994 – 2001) – Mr. Walker had been a salesman for EECO for many years and by the time he was running the company’s Raleigh region he had recognized a unique opportunity… and a great salesman makes things happen! A major telecom company was growing rapidly and needed someone to kit product, send it to any place in the world where their customers and OEM’s needed it, and bill the shipment by the kit. While not uncommon today, it was a new concept in the mid-1980’s. Mr. Walker ran with the opportunity. He and his team rapidly expanded it, too, and by the mid 1990’s Raleigh had supplanted Augusta and Richmond as the company’s growth power house. Regrettably, the telecom industry’s meteoric rise stopped even faster than it began, and a significant portion of existing telecom business disappeared virtually overnight soon after the feared Y2K crisis passed and just as his successor took the helm.

T. Jackson Lawson (2001 – 2016) – The rapid crash of the company’s key telecom customer began some very difficult years for the company just as Lawson took on his new leadership role. But the crisis also quickly proved that one area of change he proposed was necessary beyond doubt. The company’s geographically independent organizational structure which had served us well for many years, had finally become a liability. Mr. Lawson designed the needed strategy, built consensus for the change, and led the transition to a modern unified corporate structure. Not only was the operational structure fully revamped, but the company also transitioned from a management-led Board of Directors to one built around both broader stockholder representation and a newly added group of independent outside directors.

Lawson also brought additional A-B territory to EECO with two contiguous Virginia territories surrounding the cities of Fredericksburg and Winchester. He was determined to expand that authorization to include virtually all of Virginia and was finally able to do so through his leadership in the company’s acquisition of Williams Supply in the western part of Virginia (Harrisonburg/Roanoke/Wytheville). He also won the Rockwell authorization for the Lynchburg area through the acquisition of the large Eck Supply branch there. These acquisitions made EECO the Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation) distributor for virtually all of Virginia.

Starting at the nadir of the telecom crash, and including these two acquisitions, EECO more than doubled its business during his tenure as President. Mr. Lawson continues to serve EECO as a member of the EECO Board of Directors.

Mark Holmes (2016 – Present) – Mr. Holmes is the company’s current President and CEO. He has been with the company since 1990 and has worked in sales, technical product management, sales and branch leadership, and immediately before assuming the President/CEO role, was the sales leader for the entire company. Holmes has embraced the best of the company’s past and its overall direction, bringing a number of projects to successful completion. He has also quickly demonstrated that he is a superb change leader. He has refocused the organization in the automation, power, and electrical products areas by closing the motor shops which had become a very small percentage of the company’s volume and increasingly out of sync with the overall business. During his brief tenure to date, Mr. Holmes and his team have significantly enhanced the company’s sales and operations direction and leadership structure. EECO has also moved rapidly towards a fully revamped marketing philosophy, adding an award-winning digital presence including the production of the company’s first online ordering capability for customers. Mark and his team look solidly forward.

One leader from the company’s history never served the company as President or CEO, but any history of the company would be woefully inadequate if it failed to mention Mr. Frank Truslow, son-in-law of our founder, Milton Cutliff, and de facto Chairman of the Board from 1957 until his death in 2001. Upon Mr. Cutliff’s passing in 1957 the family suddenly needed an advisor who had their trust but who also had the experience required to provide value to the company. Frank Truslow was a chemical engineer and a contractor, and had earned his leadership stripes serving directly with Gen’l George Patton during WWII. Having earned Patton’s respect, he was readily able to do the same with the EECO board of directors. Although the company had no official Chairman of the Board position, Mr. Truslow served in that role until his death in 2001. His ability to transition the company to new leadership outside the founding families, his sound fiscal requirements, and his calm but firm leadership helped the company weather recession, growth, and change for the next 45 years and he continues to be remembered fondly by everyone who knew him.

Of course, no achievement of any leader is the result of the actions of these executives alone; and throughout the company’s history, this has been true and remains so. It takes many bright and committed people working together to implement new systems, integrate new businesses, and prove every day that we are the customer’s right choice. It takes a lot of very talented people to envision what the future requires of us and to get it done. And the EECO team gets it done.

By further exploring the company’s web site, you will see some of the things we do today and better understand the knowledge base we offer our customers and how we help them turn it into improved performance for you. I encourage you to explore and learn what we’re all about. If you’re not already a customer, you’ll discover that EECO is unlike any distributor you’ve used before.

We are excited to be a team of people building a great future together with our customer and supplier partners throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. Our commitment to technical expertise, to operational excellence, and to leading the marketplace with new ideas defines who we are. Change at EECO is not merely what we do. We lead change every day. As our company’s motto says in its perfect simplicity, what EECO represents is quite simply this:

Ideas Powering Performance

  • EECO founded in Raleigh, North Carolina.

  • EECO opens Richmond, Virginia location.

  • EECO opens their Augusta, Georgia location in 1935.

  • EECO expands business from motor sales and repair to full-line electrical distribution.

  • EECO opens business in Laurinburg, N.C.

  • Augusta branch moves to Greene St.

  • EECO becomes an Eaton distributor in GA, SC, NC, and VA.

  • South Hill, VA location opens for business.

  • Franklin, VA location opens for business

  • EECO becomes the Rockwell Automation distributor for the Virginia APR.

  • Greensboro, NC location opens for business.

  • Norfolk, VA location opens for business.

  • Fredericksburg, VA location opens for business.

  • Winchester, VA location opens for business

  • Columbia, SC location opens for business.

  • T. Jackson (Jack) Lawson appointed CEO.

  • Greensboro moves branch to International Drive.

  • Winchester moves to West Wyck Street.

  • Newport News, VA location opens for business.

  • Newport News, VA Service Center opens.

  • Lynchburg, VA location opens for business.

  • EECO becomes one of the largest Rockwell Automation distributors in the nation after Williams Supply becomes a wholly owned EECO subsidiary with locations in Harrisonburg, Martinsville, Roanoke, Salem and Wytheville.

  • Jack Lawson announces retirement. Mark Holmes named President and CEO.

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