In 1990 Tektite was just a couple of fabrication machines in Scott Mele’s garage in Hamilton. Today it’s not exactly GM, but the company has nine employees who sell 100,000 units a year of LED lighting products to countries around the world from its factory on North Clinton Avenue in Trenton. Its main product is rugged lighting for outdoor, military, and survival purposes. Its biggest customer is the Department of Defense.
Mele, who is still the CEO of the company he founded, will discuss how this small business grew into a global manufacturer, and how others can do the same, at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s global business summit on Thursday, September 29, from 8 to 11:30 a.m. at the DoubleTree of Princeton. Johan Firmenich, of the Firmenich Charitable Foundation, will speak. Mele will be on a panel of locally relevant global businesses together with George M. Saives of the NJ Manufacturing Extension Program and Jeff Hermann of Hermann Transportation, and moderated by Maybelle Jadotte of the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Tickets are $50 for members, $60 for nonmembers. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Mele’s father, a state police officer, and his mother, a homemaker, raised him in the North Jersey Higlands. “Back then it was just called the sticks,” Mele says. He worked at local ski resorts growing up, including the Playboy Resort. That connection led him to Princeton in 1980 when a Playboy manager recruited him to work at the new Scanticon Hotel in Forrestal Village. He had studied engineering and business at Stevens Institute of Technology, Seton Hall, and Upsala College, and he knew electronics well enough to design some alarm systems for the hotel.
Later, Mele joined flashlight maker Princeton Tech, which has since moved to Florence but was based in Trenton at the time. He was the only non-family manager of the manufacturing business, and when the recession of the early 1990s hit, Mele decided it was time to strike out on his own. Princeton Tech had just turned down an offer to buy tooling from a California-based dive light maker that had gone out of business. Mele decided the time was right to jump on the opportunity and bought the machines on his own, setting them up in his garage.
It was a bold move. Even in the 1990s it was hard to make money as a U.S.-based manufacturer. “One way to make a small fortune in manufacturing is to start out with a large one,” Mele said.
But the company survived and in the late 1990s it made a technological shift that gave it a good position in the marketplace. Tektite was one of the first lighting manufacturers to switch to LED bulbs. White LEDs only became available in 1997, and Mele saw their potential and used them as much as possible. He says his company was the first one to file a patent for an LED flashlight. “We jumped on the new technology and never looked back,” Mele says.
The company buys its electronic components overseas and assembles them in its Trenton factory. It uses injection molding, computer-controlled machining, ultrasonic welding, and metal stamping to create the durable casing that makes its products competitive in the global marketplace. They are favorites of military operators, especially in the U.S. and France, and have found their way into niche applications around the world. The company also has a satellite location in San Francisco.
For example, 8,000 Tektite marker strobe lights were used to mark skimmer booms that cleaned up an oil slick. Mele takes pride in the durability of the lights his company makes — they can work for years with the battery that comes with them. A few years ago, he got a package from a dive boat operator. It was a Tektite light that he had lost three years ago and recently found on a reef. Mele put a new battery in it to see if it had survived. “It was still working even though it had coral growing on it,” Mele recalls. Others have sent him lights that were found floating in the ocean for years at a time, and they also still worked.
User feedback led to another unique application for LED lighting. Mele says a customer asked him to make battery-powered lights that could be used to mark runways in remote locations. After custom-building those units, he started making them for sale, and they since have become good sellers in Africa, where out-of-the-way and improvised runways and helipads are common.
Mele says most of his company’s overseas sales come from the Internet. While putting a product on the market to foreign countries is a simple matter of updating an online store, doing it right takes a bit more work. To drum up overseas business, Mele goes to trade shows overseas and domestic ones where he knows foreign buyers will be present.
According to Mele, the process starts with research. In some companies, products must gain the approval of a regulatory body. For example, EU environmental regulators require that electronic products not contain lead solder.
Other countries have unique requirements. Saudi Arabia forbids alcohol, for example. Other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, are under State Department sanctions and severe restrictions. Vendors can only sell humanitarian products to Iran and must apply for a license to do so.
Having operated businesses in Princeton, Trenton, California, and a few other places , Mele says each location has its own set of challenges, but that the manufacturing world overall is still a hard one. Recent problems with suppliers means it takes longer than ever to get parts. “Everybody has been hunkered down in survival mode,” he says.