2015 Ground Support Lifetime Achievement Award: Jerry Eberle, PAGE Industries

June 18, 2015

Jerry Eberle’s definition of retirement may differ somewhat from Webster’s. “Retirement for me means reducing my work load while feeling confident that PAGE is in good hands,” he says. “I will keep on designing and developing concepts while traveling and relaxing.”

Spending more time with his wife Beth is crucial for them both. “Since Beth is technical, she understands that thinking about new things can be more relaxing than trying to figure out how to ‘retire.’ ”

Spoken like a man who truly loves his work, it is no wonder that Eberle accepted his lifetime achievement award on March 10 at the annual trade show, GSE Expo Worldwide in Las Vegas. The award, which is part of the Ground Support Leader of the Year Awards, is presented “to the person who has demonstrated commitment to the industry through numerous years of dedicated service.”

Humble Beginnings

When America was celebrating its Bicentennial, Eberle and his partner, Paul Aea, launched a business making avionics test equipment for avionics repair shops and military avionics manufacturers. The business was a logical fit for Eberle, who had both a pilot license and an FAA Avionics license, and had spent 10 years as an engineering supervisor with a major telecommunications equipment manufacturer before launching PAGE. His wife Beth played an integral role as well from the very beginning as she had expertise in circuit board design and wiring installation techniques.

Starting a business just made sense to Eberle, who was an entrepreneur from an early age.

“There just wasn’t enough challenge and I felt I would be better off getting into my own business,” he remembers. “Running a business was not anything new for me, as I had been doing so on and off since I was about 13 years old while living outside the United States providing marine radio/radar service along with radio and TV repair.”

Eberle says he had always enjoyed tinkering around with components, seeing how things worked and designing new ways to make them work.

From August 1976 to January 1979, PAGE (a company name that consists of the two founder’s initials) remained a two-man, part-time operation. This is not to say that Eberle did not keep busy. “My role in the beginning was mostly engineering, but at the startup of a small business, one has to do everything. No job is too low,” Eberle humbly reveals.

PAGE was asked by GTE Sprint to manufacture heavy DC power distribution equipment for its central offices. “This we did with a vengeance as we were well qualified and could produce product immediately,” Eberle says. “We provided the largest central office DC plant in the United States, a 25,000 amp system, for Sprint at Rialto, Calif. Nationwide, Sprint and the regional Bell operating companies were major customers.”

Working with McCormick-Morgan and Hamilton Standard, PAGE spearheaded a project within the Rockwell B1-B aircraft production facility in Pamdale, Calif. From that point on, PAGE had an established product line in the 400-Hz marketplace, developing gate boxes, line drop compensators, military ramp power distribution equipment, hangar power systems and a multitude of other 400-Hz distribution components.

Turn the PAGE

In 1980, PAGE hired two employees and began producing several products. Eberle’s wife Beth was well qualified in high-tech assembly and quality control. “She did both of these in the evening while holding a full-time day job at a large electronics manufacturer,” Eberle reveals. “Food and rent are just a little important, and Beth’s efforts allowed us to move forward in the shop.”

Eberle says grew carefully and slowly. By 1982  there were five employees at PAGE. By 1984, they had hired at least five more. By 1985, PAGE was heavily involved in aircraft ground support. Eberle says this is when the company acquired both a machine shop and a major painting facility. Then in 1987, PAGE purchased a large building and developed a significant production facility with about 40 employees.

Eberle and the business kept moving right along. “As we got busier, my role was mostly engineering and building first articles for evaluation,” Eberle says. “We were very fortunate to have a good distributor for our ground support equipment, which relieved us from the need to spend time marketing.”

Soon, though, the engineering load became overwhelming and they hired Frank Christian, “a very clever Cal Poly engineer,” Eberle says. “In addition to our ground support equipment efforts, we became very involved with research and development for NASA and the railroads. Our customer base played a heavy role in designing reliability into our products, as everything we built required extreme reliability. For instance, some of our NASA product was designated ‘flight critical’ and ‘life critical.’ The safety mindset [learned early on] does not go away,” Eberle explains.

There were a few times in Eberle’s career where NASA engineers had exhausted their options to find the solution they were seeking. “These guys walked into our conference room with bags of parts, dumped them on the table, and said, ‘Help us.’ It was like having a very expensive erector set,” Eberle jokes.

One of those times was in 1998 when the ER-2 High-altitude Airborne Science Aircraft was sent up 80,000 feet with sensors that were to measure holes in the ozone. PAGE developed the payload instrumentation for this aircraft. “We were able to engineer in a few days what they had been working on for months,” he recalls. Later on, the company developed payload instrumentation for the space shuttle.

After that, PAGE became the go-to for NASA. There was a blanket purchase order, which meant that when NASA came calling, PAGE found a solution. “No one ever had to ask, ‘What will it cost?’ ” he says.

A couple years after the ER-2 project, more bags of parts were brought to PAGE for the U.S.-Russia Cosmos 2000 project. “Monkeys were being sent into space, and they had been trying for three months to find a way to attach a skull cap to them. They needed a somewhat permanent solution but one that would not hurt the little guys because they were being sent up to do research. It took us a day and a half to solve that one,” Eberle reminisces.

It was 2005 when Aea retired and Eberle elected to stick with engineering and not run a factory. This meant farming out the production of its products to trusted subcontractors as well as selling the building. To this day, PAGE subcontracts its production and confines its activities to engineering, quality control and marketing.

Changing of the Guard

Eberle and Beth worked hard together for nearly four decades, nurturing PAGE Industries to build it into the thriving business it is today. When the subject of putting their careers on the shelf came up over dinner one evening, it was Beth who suggested they bring in Brian Piety to help them toward retirement. Piety seemed like a good successor, Eberle says, as he brings the same passion and customer service expertise that Eberle and Beth did over the years.

“We discussed this very seriously, made the decision to go ahead, and approached Brian,” Eberle says. “The timing was just right.”

Piety’s business relationship with the Eberle’s began in 1990 when he first entered the industry while working for Jetway. “Eberle and Lou Lombardi mentored me as to the complexities of central 400-Hz systems,” Piety remembers. Then in 2000 when Piety began working for J&B Aviation, he really started interacting with the Eberle’s more consistently. Eberle, at that time, utilized J&B to sell and market his products to the airline industry. In 2012, PAGE began selling its products directly to end-users, which continues today. Those traditional products included 400 -Hz gate boxes, load point control units, phase sequence testers, reactive load banks, baggage chutes, gate park systems, and PCAir hose reels and connectors. These product advancements are now commonplace in the industry.

“When Eberle and I started working together at PAGE, he took a more hands-on mentoring approach to educate me not only on the integrities of the PAGE product line, but also how to run a successful business, how important the selection of good manufacturing partners are to the longevity of the company, and what pitfalls to be aware of that otherwise might have been overlooked,” Piety says.

Piety joined PAGE in 2013 with the intention of developing a revised PAGE that would offer a greater selection of GSE products in addition to the high quality electrical power equipment, gate park systems and baggage chutes, which PAGE was previously known for. In January 2013, Shelly Morehead joined PAGE as inside sales coordinator and by March of that year Bruce Hrenko and Dale Miller also joined the company as partners. 

“Eberle remained on as president and controlling partner until January when he retired from PAGE, although he remains a very active and crucial consultant to PAGE. Currently, ownership has transferred to Bruce Hrenko, Dale Miller and myself,” Piety explains. In January, Piety took on the role of president and majority owner with Hrenko and Miller as the remaining owners, “who bring their vast expertise and knowledge to PAGE,” Piety says 

When asked what he has learned from working with Eberle over the years, Piety replies, “Jerry is the overall smartest person I have ever met as he knows a great deal about a very diverse amount of related and unrelated items. It always amazes me when Jerry and I are talking to an expert in a specific field and Jerry will explain to that individual how they can improve their product. Of course they take his advice and do as he suggests. This happens on an on-going basis.

“But more important to Bruce, Dale and I is that Jerry and Beth trusted us to take over the company--their ‘baby’ that they worked so hard to create. With Jerry and Beth’s assistance—and Bruce, Dale, Shelly and I joining together—we have created a well-rounded, creative and strong team that is bringing more new and innovative products to market than any other supplier in our industry. 

When asked what receiving this award means to him, Eberle says, “This is a very nice way to get a degree of closure to my active role at PAGE. I get to stay involved, but the award reminds me that I’ve ‘been there, seen it and done that.’ Brian, Bruce and Dale have the opportunity to prosper and control their destiny at a time when they have the experience to make the most of it.”

It is important to Piety that everyone understands that while it is true that Eberle is a brilliant engineer and business person, “more importantly he is a great man and a good friend to me and the industry.”

Many people in the GSE industry rely on Eberle to solve the most difficult problems they encounter. Eberle always has time to fully answer people’s questions and in a manner they can understand, be it in very simple terms to extremely intricate ones, depending on the understanding of the person to whom he is speaking.

Piety concludes, “He has been and will continue to be a business mentor to Bruce, Dale, Shelly and I, but he will also be the heart of PAGE as we carry on his legacy.”         

BIO: Sharon Spielman has been a freelance writer and editor for the trades for more than two decades. She resides in Lake County, Ill., with her husband and two teenage boys.

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Sharon Spielman