How Their Collaboration Brought Success

Technology companies work cooperatively to spur Okaloosa’s economic development

courtesy of Okaloosa EDC

With more than 156 technology-based businesses per 100,000 population, Okaloosa County can rightly claim the title of “technology hub” of Northwest Florida. 

Because of its location, nestled in the midst of several major Northwest Florida military installations that include Eglin Air Force Base and its research lab, Okaloosa has become a magnet for companies that are aerospace and defense-related. And to help that sector of the local economy grow, representatives from technology, engineering and manufacturing companies meet regularly to collaborate, share expertise and advice, and act as the premier business advocate for industries that focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

The Technology, Coast Manufacturing and Engineering Network, otherwise known as TeCMEN, was established in 1989 and two years later became part of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County. A top priority is getting local companies to do business with each other.

“The idea was to have companies getting to know each other and becoming familiar with each other’s capabilities,” said Jim Breitenfeld, the TeCMen manager. “They meet once a month and discuss issues that include collaboration on getting contracts. They talk about their future needs. The research lab talks about its workforce needs and what opportunities are coming up for future (Department of Defense) contracts. And the larger companies are interested in developing their supply chain.

“We spend a lot of time giving the companies an opportunity to explain their capabilities because it’s always more efficient and cheaper to do business next door.”

There’s a high degree of community cooperation, he added, “because we have to band together to be able to compete in the bigger world.”

Today there are 36 corporate members, including Fortune 500, midsized and small local businesses that include the likes of Lockheed Martin Corporation, Boeing Company and General Dynamics along with local companies like Fort Walton Machining, Bay State Cable Ties and Sunshine Aero Industries.

TeCMEN member companies represent every major manufacturing and engineering discipline necessary to support requirements of both the military missions and the civilian community including: aerospace and aviation; micro-electronics; biometric technology; precision machining; metal fabrication; and information technology.

Companies that participate must be a member of the EDC. Another 18 organizations such as Eglin Research Lab, Gulf Power, the University of West Florida and Enterprise Florida are listed as partners.

“We have members that provide support services,” explains Wayne Bernheisel of Cerified Manufacturing Inc., who is TeCMEN’s chairman. “They want to understand from the small and large businesses what they need, what type of workers do they need and what training do they need. And we’re reaching into primary and secondary education to educate students on why manufacturing can be fun, to get them understanding that we need workers in all sorts of technical vocations.” 

A big emphasis has been placed on helping manufacturing and engineering companies upgrade the skills of their employees with training and certification programs.

“For smaller companies, it can be costly to send people for training for certain industry certifications,” Breitenfeld says. “If we were able to provide that training locally, it would be more efficient and effective. And companies have control over what is provided, instead of going to a cookie-cutter conference.” 

TeCMEN’s influence in the county has helped lead to free certification and training programs that are specifically tailored to local business needs and offered by UWF on the Fort Walton Beach campus. Up to nine courses — based on the annual needs assessment filled out by companies — are made available each year.

courtesy of Okaloosa EDC

Jim Breitenfeld, the TeCMEN manager

“TeCMEN provides a unique opportunity for the business and education communities to come together to identify programs and projects they can collaborate on. That’s a huge piece of what we do,” Breitenfeld says of the unique program that breaks down silos and fosters communication for the betterment of the community. “It also allows the manufacturing community to sit around a table and explain their future needs. You’ll have the research lab talking about its workforce needs and companies looking for future contract opportunities, especially with the military.

“Any time you can put 30 to 40 smart, successful folks in a room together month after month, greatness can grow.” 

By building personal relationships during the monthly meetings, small local companies in particular have joined forces to bid on and secure larger military and aerospace contracts.

Says Breitenfeld, “If you put people in situations where there are opportunities, smart people will find opportunities.”