Down in the trenches

Runner-up

MERCER DESIGN GROUP PC Headquarters: Weaverville Principal: Marvin Mercer Employees: 10 Founded: 2003 Projected 2011 revenue: $650,000 Business: Civil and structural engineering

 

 In 2008 and 2009, Marvin Mercer scrapped for clients, calling on everyone he knew. Once, he heard two strangers talking about engineering in a restaurant, so he just walked up to the table and laid down his card. Nothing seemed to make a difference. Money was so tight that he and his wife, Wendy, who together own Mercer Design Group PC, were scrimping on paper and ink, and he had taken to nagging employees about turning out the lights. They even considered filing for bankruptcy. “We were probably within a week or two weeks of closing the doors,” he says.

Then, in January 2010, came the call they hoped would save their company. Jim Smith of United Developers Inc. wanted him to come to Fayetteville to talk about a project. But a snowstorm was bearing down on the state, with more than a foot forecast for the mountains and 6 inches in the Piedmont. Mercer was determined to make his appointment. What’s normally a five-hour drive took him three days.

He credits his grit to the military and growing up on a tobacco farm in Robeson County, tending brightleaf under a hot summer sun. He enlisted after finishing high school, and the Army taught him bridge building and demolition. After his discharge, he worked full time for an engineering firm while earning his bachelor’s at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. Married in college, he and his wife, who’s from Fayetteville, wanted to live in the mountains. Graduating in 2000, he got a job as a project engineer with the city of Asheville, then parlayed it into one with a local engineering company. In 2003, he struck out on his own, and within four years, Mercer Design had 18 employees and more than $1 million of revenue. “We had people literally working in the hallway,” he says.

Needing more space, the Mercers decided to buy rather than rent it, which turned out to be a big mistake. They moved into their new office in February 2007, just months after housing prices peaked. Work stopped coming in, but the mortgage didn’t go away. He hit the road to drum up business, even reaching out to potential international clients. “He was not getting any nods,” says his wife, the company’s business manager, “and we were kind of discouraged.” They reduced salaries once, then again. In late 2008, he laid off two people. The few remaining office personnel would work one week and collect unemployment the next. In the summer of 2009, he spent several weeks mining leads in Fayetteville, hoping his military background would help.

On a Thursday, five months later, the call came: Smith wanted to see him Monday. It’s an easy drive — on clear roads. Snow started falling Friday. He left around 3:30 p.m. and at 10 that night pulled into a motel in Lincolnton, normally two hours away. The next morning, he put chains on his Chevy Silverado 4X4 and made it to Laurinburg by dark. “The whole state was snowed in,” he recalls. He reached Fayetteville Sunday afternoon, and the next morning, he learned the developer needed help designing a 112-unit apartment complex on 11.5 acres. It had to be done in six weeks. “We all dove in like eager swimmers,” says Jim Mock, a Mercer project engineer. Preliminary plans were ready in a week, with the full site and utility plans finished in five. That project, along with other work from United Developers, turned 2010 into a profitable year.

The Mercers, both 44, say the business is still struggling. “We’re paying off our debt,” she says. “It’s very slow. Since July and August, it’s slowed way down. We’re writing a lot of proposals.” And there’s a lot of competition from engineers working out of their basements, keeping their overhead down and fees low. The Mercers might have been among them: Had that phone call never happened, he suspects the bank soon would have foreclosed on the mortgage. “They were going to have to ask me to get out of my chair and leave. But I wasn’t going to quit.”

— David Bailey