As good as his word

A son steps up

Written by Karen Long

It was during a road trip in 2015 that Eric Eakins made his dad a promise. Father and son had been logging multiple hours together on I-35 as Eric drove his father, Rolland, back and forth to Dallas to receive treatments for pulmonary fibrosis, a life-threatening lung disease. During the long miles, a frequent topic of conversation was TEC Systems Group, the business that Rolland had started in 1984, specializing in industrial automation and process control solutions.

On one of those drives, Eric promised his dad, “I’ll give you two years of my life, and I’ll come over and run TEC. You just focus on getting healthy.”

Eric’s two-year plan turned into a much larger commitment later in the year. Rolland took an abrupt turn for the worse after a seemingly successful lung transplant. Infection and surgical complications claimed his life in February of 2016, and Eric found himself solely responsible for his father’s business.

“I went from, ‘I’m parking myself here for two years until Dad gets healthy,’ to ‘Now I own it.’ ”

Taking over TEC

At the time Eric was in the middle of a flourishing career as an architect with GLMV Architecture. He had designed prominent buildings in the region, such as Goddard Middle School, Saint Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, and the Wichita Advanced Learning Library. When Eric left that position to become president and CEO of TEC, he brought two pieces of wisdom from his father.

“The first thing my dad asked me to do was to take care of the people at TEC, because he just really cared for them and didn’t want to see anyone lose their jobs. The second thing was, the company was meant to be bigger and more expansive than what it had become.”

Eric was going from a “creative and free-flowing” position as an architect to leading a team of engineers. Over time he was able to draw on previous experience as a small business owner and manager, and he laid out a vision for growing and modernizing the company. He rebranded TEC with a new logo and website and became more aggressive with recruiting, forming a partnership with the WSU engineering department. And revenues saw a steady upward trend, with just a single dip in 2018.

The father of invention

“We increased revenue dramatically through the pandemic.” Eric says. He attributes that to another nugget of wisdom learned from his dad, decades earlier: “In every downturn there’s an opportunity, you just have to look for it.”

So Eric went mining for opportunities — and found them. When a competitor laid off staff, Eric applied for a PPP loan and landed some stellar hires. When industrial plants in the Midwest shut down operations due to virus outbreaks, TEC salespeople were waiting with automation solutions.

“We had the capacity to do more work and we started doing more work,” Eric says.

Wall-to-wall TEC

One of the main aspects of the business that Eric wanted to modernize was the TEC office space. He purchased a warehouse at 127 S. Washington St. in Old Town, situated on property with a long history going back to 1906. It had been through several lives as a lumberyard, auto repair shop and a Shriners’ storage facility. Eric turned the windowless brick shell into a light-filled space complete with accent walls, eye-catching angles and open ductwork running under a soaring wooden barrel-vault ceiling.

Expressing what TEC does as a business was high on Eric’s list as he designed the space: “We work in industrial environments where you see the workings of the plants. I just wanted to inspire our guys with the types of spaces where they install our control systems,” Eric says.

Preserving historic details and character was also key. The main hallway is set on an angle and studded with rustic I-beams bearing weathered paint. The open employee lounge is framed by the original 1906 Wichita Lumber Company brick building on one side, which Eric preserved, and an expansive glass garage door on the other.

The door can be rolled open during balmy weather to bring in fresh air and sun — also revealing a ‘40s-era, wall-painted sign advertising “Auto Repair: All Kind.” Garage doors on the other side of the building were transformed into windows overlooking the primary space and an industrial mezzanine housing the tech lab.

TEC moved into its new home last month, along with a company owned by Eric’s wife, Joy Eakins. Cornerstone Data “takes businesses from data to decisions with advanced analytical skills.” This partnership allows TEC to offer beginning-to-end industrial data solutions.

Expanding the vision

As he grew the number of employees by over 25 percent, Eric’s vision has evolved into a larger dream for the Wichita community and drawing workers to the area. “I wanted to build something that would energize our employees, excite them, be downtown, be around all the restaurants — and also help us attract young talent, which has actually played out this last weekend.”

His most recent hire, an engineer from Seattle, just informed Eric that the new building “sealed the deal” in the decision-making process for him and his wife.

“You can get people to move here,” Eric says, “you just have to give them the right opportunity and the right kind of work environment.”

While he doesn’t rule out a return to his prior career at some point, Eric says, “I don’t mind doing this — in fact I feel called to do this, and I feel like I made Dad a promise and I’m fulfilling a promise.”

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