When Grover "Jeep" Harned began tinkering with his hi-fi sets back in 1950 at MSU, he had no way of knowing that he was rehearsing for bigger things - to wit, manufacturing some of the finest professional recording equipment produced in the United States and abroad.
By Gerry Gilmer
Grover and Vernon stepped back and admired their project. It wasn't as picturesque as the distinctly grained walnut and pecan woods which cover today's component audio sound systems. It wasn't capable of the sophisticated high and low sounds emitted by today's combinations of woofers and tweeters. However, for 1950, the makeshift component hi-fi set they had just completed produced a quality sound, and it was also the envy of many of Vernon's and Grover's Sigma Chi brothers who shared the fraternity house near the Mississippi State campus.
Grover and Vernon knew they had something unique when they put on their "modern" 45-rpm records and heard the sounds of the Mills Brothers and Kaye Starr's Wheel of Fortune. What the two engineering students had done was take a 45-rpm record changer, and amplifier, and an old speaker and developed the forerunner of today's component sets. They were proud, but neither realized that they were rehearsing for a role that today includes administrating the manufacturing of personal recording equipment which has made their company number one in their field.
The Vernon is Vernon Hull ('52), director of manufacturing and lifelong friend of the founder and president of MCI, Grover C. "Jeep" Harned. Though you might not place Harned firmly into a Horatio Algier theme, he does have a success story to tell. And though Grover (please call him Jeep) wasn't exactly like Algier's "Ragged Tom," he did start from humble beginnings. In fact, if Jeep Harned were female his success story would fit very well into the Cinderella theme.
Harned is hardly the stereotype of a successful corporation president. In Mississippi, where he grew up, he'd been known as a "good ole boy," but his present home in luxurious south Florida they call him "unpretentious." Whatever the description, Harned, in his low-key manner, is making successful sounds in the professional recording equipment business.
Harned, who graduated from what was the Misssissippi State College in 1952, did grow up poor, but he's quick to tell you that everybody born prior to or during the Depression had poverty in common. In fact, it was these early beginnings that provided the foundation to Harned's success. "I absolutely fear being poor. . .I'm scared to death of it. So you're very careful of spending money and controlling costs. It's just born in you."
It was in his days as a small, energetic boy that he acquired his nickname, "Jeep." His older brother tagged him with the handle because he was in constant motion like the Jeep character in Popeye cartoons. The nickname is part of Harned today, and most of his employees call him Jeep. Harned prefers it that way. His informal nature is also demonstrated in his day-to-day dress - a blue denim shirt like the one that prompted the term "blue collar worker" and a comfortable pair of blue jeans. And Harned doesn't stay cooped up in his "unpretentious office." He moves throughout his 156,000-foot plant exchanging information about all aspects of the plant and sharing personal comments with his employees. It's not unusual to find Jeep anywhere on the premises, doing many things - some significant to his industry, others more incidental. One employee tells of arriving before 8 a.m. and finding Harned working on the sprinkler system out front of the newly-purchased $13 million property that formerly belonged to STP. Others describe him as a "softy" where personal matters are concerned, but uncompromising in demanding a superior product.
His ability to move throughout his multi-million dollar operation thoroughly acquainted with every job that's going on there shouldn't be surprising. The business today is merely an extension of an idea that began in 1955 when Jeep, unable to find a job, borrowed $8,500 and opened a hi-fi shop, selling records and components.
That first business - about 800 square feet in a now extinct old hotel on U.S. Highway 1 - was a dawn-to-dusk project with little financial progress. "But I had no choice," Jeep said. "I had left a good-paying job to join my brother here in Ft. Lauderdale. He said it was a booming city and you could do anything to be successful. I couldn't find a job. I even went to Eastern Airlines and applied as a mechanic, an electrical worker, or whatever they needed."
Even the hi-fi business never prospered.
"I was about $80,000 short of having the amount capital I should have had," Jeep remembered. "I struggled for 10 years and finally just gave up the retail business. I concentrated on service work, doing sound for commercials. I was doing some flying and fixing people's recording studio tape machines and counseling around the country."
Though his success didn't come overnight, the turning point came in 1959. A friend of Harned's dropped into his shop and asked him to play a record he had brought along. "This is the worst sounding piece of music I've ever heard," Jeep responded. The friend agreed and explained that it had been recorded at a Miami studio recently purchased by an acquaintance. The acquaintance was Mack Emerman and the studio was Criteria Recording, now one of the world's leading independent recording studios. After spending all he had on the studio, Emerman was in tears when Harned told him his equipment was responsible for his inferior records.
Two success stories had identical chapters when Harned offered to rebuild his equipment and accept payment on a piece-meal basis. Working after 9 p.m. each day when both men had completed their "normal" working hours , Jeep meticulously gave Criteria a rebirth while he established a reputation for building recording equipment which pleases recording artists as much as technicians and producers.
"Soon RCA and others started sending their artists down to Criteria because of its sound. These were in the tube days. Criteria could get a sound that none of the others could get. That put Mack on the map. Then people started coming to me," Jeep said.
Criteria now has almost 200 platinum and gold records on its walls, and groups like the Bee Gees and the Eagles record there regularly. Now, some 25 years later, Harned's original shop, Music Center Inc., has become simply MCI. The business grosses some $20 million a year and has captured almost 40 percent of the professional-recording-equipment market previously dominated by 3M, Ampex, and Studer of Switzerland. MCI is active in foreign markets with more than 50 percent of its business coming from out of the country. Harned developed the foreign markets as he did his domestic customers - with personal contacts. He has set up dealers in more than 30 foreign countries.
Although he gained his electronic training in the military, Jeep praises Mississippi State for his formal training. "It was a no-nonsense school. I think I would have been swallowed up at the University of Alabama or Ole Miss because I just wasn't a party person. I think that people are successful through the values they adopt as they go through life. My early association with Vernon, my being a Sigma Chi and attending Mississippi State were extremely important parts to my life."
Talk to Harned long and the name Vernon recurs as often as the word quality is posted on signs throughout the MCI building. His fraternity brother, former roommate, and namesake of his son, Hull has recently joined Jeep in his business. The reunion, after years of persuasion by Jeep, reestablishes the team that built that first hi-fi. It also has given MCI a unique talent. Vernon has already made great strides in improving the manufacturing division.
After graduation at State, the enterprising fraternity brothers went into military service together, studied electronics together, then separated to pursue their fields - Vernon to electrical engineering, Jeep to civil. However, it was at MSU where Jeep recalls his fondest memories of their association.
"Vernon did everything right," Jeep recalled. He won all the awards. He even won the freshman cake race, setting a new record. It was about a two-mile cross country thing and he ran on the cross country team. He was good; he got every award there was. He was president of one of our classes. I was the non-achiever. He was the guy who could do everything well."
Hull is just as quick to praise Harned, although he admits their personalities complement each other as much as their interests coincide. "Nobody but Jeep could build a company like this," said MCI's newest administrative leader. "His talent of working with artists, producers, and industry customers to give them a sound they want and can't get anywhere else is phenomenal. He also knows how to deal with our distributors, but he realizes that I offer him strong administrative ability in manufacturing to complement his strength."
Calling on his own success in establishing Mississippi businesses, Hull has changed the MCI advertising strategy by using an agency from Greenwood. He also made personnel changes and, most important, has gained the trust of skeptical company workers by demonstrating his skills.
Though Hull has the electrical engineering degree, Harned has a greater love for electronics. His infatuation came during the Korean conflict when the H-H team took a crash course to enable them to teach electronics. "I majored in the wrong thing," Jeep said. "All of us do, but if I had to do it over again, I would take mechanical engineering and pick up double E as a minor. You can do the bench-work in an hour, but it takes days and weeks to package a product," he continued as he lamented the difficulty of hiring good mechanical engineers.
Since good talent is always hard for employers to find, Jeep's search began nearby. His wife Joyce is the company's secretary and treasurer, son Gary V. is now training in all parts of the plant after receiving his degree from Mississippi State in 1980, and Gary's wife Emily (also a State graduate) handles credit, monitors freight rates, and deals with other financial matters.
Jeep's hobbies include: listening to music leisurely and professionally (Harned's ability to hear music as the performer hears it and design the recorder in a relatively simple manner made a fan of Ray Charles, who can make his own adjustments inside the machine); gardening ("Growing roses in Florida is like trying to get Khomeini to release the hostages, but they do nicely at my home in Ashville, NC"); and formerly car repairs ("All the kids in the neighborhood used to hang around the house and we rebuilt cars, sports cars, and that kind of thing").
Now that Vernon and Jeep are together again another revolution in electronics may be merely a day or two away. That's what happens when two good ole "unpretentious" boys from Mississippi state get together.