Never mind the traffic signal hardware that defines his successful manufacturing career. When Phil Parduhn, president of Edmond-based Pelco Products Inc., recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his life's work, it wasn't long before the conversation turned to the “Bacon Barn.”
A BLT lover who grows his own tomatoes, Parduhn designed the two-piece product years ago, after brainstorming a better way to cook bacon in the microwave.
Bacon is cooked on an arched plastic tray so the strips don't curl up and grease rolls into troughs on either side, he demonstrated. Meanwhile, its clear plastic lid prevents splatters in the microwave, he said.
After the Home Shopping Network debuted the product at 9 a.m. one Tuesday in 1995, the retailer sold 700 of the barns in just three minutes, said Parduhn, who believes that, given the attention, the Bacon Barn could sell like hotcakes.
An industrial engineer, Parduhn has brought the same kind of ingenuity to the 27-year-old Pelco, now North America's largest traffic signal hardware manufacturer, and Pelco Structural, a sister pole company he opened in Claremore in 2005. Between them, the companies have about $60 million in annual revenues and employ 312, including Parduhn's three adult children and Jim Stravlo, a childhood friend who's worked with him his entire career.
From his 100,000-square-foot headquarters at 320 W 18 in Edmond, Parduhn, 80, shared more about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your childhood.
A: I was born at St. Anthony Hospital, and grew up in Oklahoma City at 3216 NW 15. My father was an auto parts salesman and my mother, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, raised me and my older sister from a wheelchair. Helping my mother is how I learned to do for myself, from gardening to jelly making.
At age 15, I bought my own horse — a Kentucky Prairie Mare. The only way I could afford her was to work where she was stabled at 36th and May. May was a two-lane road with a dirt shoulder then and 36th, a gravel road.
I went to school at Linwood Elementary, Taft Junior High and one semester at Classen High School, before transferring to Central, my parents' alma mater.
Q: And college?
A: At Central, I ran track — the 440 and mile relay — and went on a full-ride track scholarship to Midland College, a small school in Freemont, Neb., where I studied pre-engineering. After two years, I transferred to OSU, then Oklahoma A&M, where Lois, my wife (then girlfriend), went. Lois and I grew up together in the First Lutheran Church in downtown Oklahoma City and started dating when we were in the church youth group, which my mom and dad sponsored. At OSU, we spent many a night at the Student Union, drinking Coca-Cola and dancing the jitterbug. I majored in automotive technology and service management. Having worked since I was 10 alongside my dad, I knew some subjects better than my instructors.
Q: And after graduation?
A: I was drafted into the Army. Lois and I decided to go ahead and get married 10 days before I deployed to Germany. We spent our honeymoon in Arkansas via Muskogee, where we were waylaid one night when the timing gear broke down on the car I borrowed from my brother-in-law. We were apart 16 months before my return, as a sergeant, on Christmas Eve 1957. Overseas, I served in training exercises with the 10th Infantry Division as a forward observer on a 4.2 inch mortar company. Back home, Lois, who's been a lifelong painter, sketched dresses for the newspaper advertisements of Harry Katz dressmakers. We spent the following year in Fort Worth, where I worked for an exchange parts company and Lois, as a drafter for the soil conservation service.
Q: How did you move into the engineering field?
A: Lois encouraged me to get my engineering degree from OU, so we moved home and she worked full time in drafting for Superior Oil Company, while I went to school full time. Many of my course credits at Midland transferred, so it only took me two years. When I graduated, Bill McCurdy — my sister's husband and longtime traffic engineer for the state — and I started VePed Traffic Controls Inc., which was in business 21 years and grew to 90 employees. We started out as factory reps for the paint, sign and other companies that contracted with the state. But as we went along, we had ideas of our own, which we started making and selling.
Q: What is your bread-and-butter product?
A: The Astro-Brac, a universal mounting system for traffic signals, cameras and sensors that can be fitted with bands or cables and rotate 360 degrees. I invented it in 1968 and, with astronauts bound for the moon, we incorporated “astro” in its name and billed it as a product that was “out of this world.” Today, it remains our cornerstone product.
Q: What became of VePed?
A: It died. We had what's now the Maaco building on seven acres at Hefner and Broadway Extension. A complex was planned for the four corners there, causing the property at the intersection to shoot up in value. But when the planned construction fell through, the bank foreclosed on our appreciated property, forcing us to auction the building and land. My brother-in-law and I separated. He took Trafco Constructors, which incidentally had built the Myriad Gardens tube in 1984, and I took VePed, which my son Steve and I renamed and rebranded Pelco in 1985. Steve had just graduated from OSU in marketing. It was one of those cases where bad things turn out to be good.
Q: What's next for you?
A: I plan to move to chairman of Pelco, and Steve will become president. Then I can spend more of my time on the Bacon Barn, a bandage dispenser and other products I've developed and market under the name Unico, which is the Spanish word for unique. Between traffic signal hardware and other products, I have some 28 patents. I don't plan to quit working. I believe the mind is like any other muscle. If you don't use it, it will atrophy.