Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Greenville (S.C.) News on Dec. 23, 2012.
By Angelia Davis
The Greenville News
GREENVILLE, S.C. — While Lori Morton was in college, she rebuilt the top half of the engine of her 1968 Pontiac.
Having that on her resume helped her get interviews with potential employers. They were “wowed,” she says, because to them, it was unusual for a woman to do.
The feat, however, was one of many non-typical accomplishments Morton had achieved before she even reached college age.
Before her teenage years, she’d been building furniture to put in a playhouse her dad had built. She and her younger brother were building tree forts for climbing and go-carts to race downhill. At the age of 12, she opened her first business, building and repairing bicycles. At 16, she built her first carport for her first car.
Excelling in abilities traditionally dominated by men continues to be one of Morton’s “wow factors.”
She is the founder and owner of Aerie Engineering in Greenville. And she has continued to grow the firm, says Michelle Brinn, the Greenville Chamber’s former vice president of development.
She has customers from small businesses to hospitals to GE, Brinn says, “so she’s serving the biggest, the brightest and the best in the community.”
People who know Morton say she’s high energy and always in motion.
She used to be known as “boss” (because she knew the most about construction) in her group of six friends called “Sister Sledge.” The friends would do remodeling projects at one another’s homes once a year.
“People around me a lot will tell me that I tire them out because I do so many things,” says Morton, a single mom. “I always have something I’m trying to accomplish.”
She and her son, Case, 9, are in the midst of building a campground and their third tree fort on their 12-acre property in Pumpkintown.
Suzanne Childs, owner of Childs Architecture, says Morton “is one of those people who inspires confidence in other people because she’s not afraid of doing anything.”
“She just gets in there and figures out how to do it. She’s a powerful person in that respect,” Childs says.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says mechanical engineers design, develop, build and test mechanical devices, including tools, engines, and machines.
Engineering overall, Morton says, is about problem-solving.
She believes the person best suited for engineering is one who uses a combination of the left and right brain — the left for math and special reasoning abilities and the right for creativity, the ability to think outside the box.
Morton says her parents nurtured both the reasoning and the creative sides of her brain. Her father was an electrical engineer. Her mother was a photographer and a musician.
Because of her dad, Morton feels she has the confidence to tackle any problem. He may not have solved every one, she says, but he persisted.
Because of her mother, Morton has a passion for art and for seeing things done “very, very well.”
As she was growing up in Granite Quarry, N.C., a town with a single traffic light and just over 2,000 people, Morton says her family often struggled to make ends meet. She was a middle child, with a younger and an older brother.
For years they lived in a mobile home, even as it was “falling apart,” she says.
“My dad worked on that mobile home and tried to keep it together. He would patch things and duct tape it together, just to try and keep us dry,” she says. There were many winters, she says, when “we ran out of heat.”
Morton’s family was into the DIY movement long before it came a marketable trend. Whether it was re-roofing the house or repairing the washing machine, “we would figure out how to do it,” she says.
Early on, Morton showed her love for taking things apart to see how they worked. She was 8 when she took apart her mom’s alarm clock to figure out how the bells worked.
She often used her imagination to create things for herself and her brother to play with. “We didn’t have toys, so we had to create our own,” Morton says.
When Morton was 17, her father died from a massive heart attack. When she turned 18, her mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She died 11 years later.
“Everyone has hard knocks, and I’ve had several in my life I’ve had to overcome,” Morton says. “Each time you face an obstacle and you get through it, it builds your confidence. It builds your resiliency.”
Morton says she’s found that there are challenges in anything you choose to do. She never considered being a woman engineer a challenge until she met other women who felt that way.
“One thing I do know is, being a minority in any field, everything you do is magnified,” she says. “Everything you accomplish is looked at and if you do a good job, people think you’re great. If you mess up, people think, ‘Oh, my gosh! You’re terrible.’ ”
Morton got into the field because she has a love for math and art.
“I fell in love with the very precise writing that you had to do,” she says. “I thought it was amazing.”
In 1986, Morton was one of four females in a class of 200 mechanical engineering graduates from North Carolina State University.
Her first job after graduation was as a maintenance engineer at Michelin, the company that brought her to Greenville.
Morton tells people that Michelin is where she “grew up as an engineer.” Eight years later, Morton went to work for Fujifilm in Greenwood.
Fuji, she says, prepared her to run Aerie Engineering. At Fujifilm, she had to consider for herself what processes, information, reports, etc., were necessary for the plant to run efficiently. At Michelin, where everything was already in place, all she had to do was learn to “draw between the lines,” she says.
At Fujifilm, she says, “I learned to think on my feet. I went there when the concrete had just been poured and was charged with the plant start-up. It was an exciting and exhausting time.
“I spent three months in Japan and was asked to gather information needed to install the production equipment. After repeatedly asking for the specifications, which at Michelin would have been an entire volume of information, I was given one page that listed the names of the 32 pieces of equipment,” she says.
“My Japanese manager handed it to me and said ‘Lori-san, please install. Thank you.’”
Fujifilm is also where Morton says “the stars lined up” for her to start her own business.
Morton had been thinking about owning her own business for years and she’d been saving money.
“I’d probably been saving money for five years to get to the point where I could stop working and live without a salary for two years,” she says.
The launch of Aerie came when she’d been working at Fujifilm for four years and was out of vacation time. A friend from college had invited her to Alaska where she’d planned to run a marathon.
Morton asked her boss to go on the trip and told him she’d be willing to take two weeks off with no pay. He said no.
“I went home and thought about it. I said, ‘I really want to go to Alaska. How many chances will I get to go to Alaska for two weeks?’” she recalls. “So I went in the next day and turned in my resignation. He said, ‘No. Wait. You can have two weeks off.’ By that time, I had already made up my mind.”
Morton had a great adventure in Alaska. When the two weeks were up, she wasn’t ready to come back home.
On her last day there, she approached the resort manager and asked for a job in exchange for room and board.
“I said, ‘I can do anything — wash dishes, pick up trash, build things — whatever you need,’ ” Morton says.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You wouldn’t happen to be an engineer, would you?’
“I said, actually, I am. She said, ‘Well, my maintenance manager is leaving for Italy in three days, and we don’t know what we’re going to do.”
She got the job — with no salary but a place to sleep and one meal a day. She says she went to bed that night scared to death.
“I thought to myself, I’ve got $50 in my pocket. I have a credit card. I have a return flight that was about a month out. What if I didn’t do a good job? What if they fire me? I don’t know anyone here, so it was pretty scary.”
The experience, though, was “fantastic.” The resort asked Morton to stay on all year and run the operations for two different resorts.
But she returned, instead, to start Aerie in a bedroom in a house that she was renting.
Morton had been purposeful in her intent to open a business. She had done a lot of renovations on the home she owned and sold it for a good profit. She lived off those earnings for two years so she could operate Aerie.
Her older brother, Reggie, does computer-aided design and drafting and was her first employee. The home-office arrangement was fine with him, she says, but after her second client meeting — held on her back porch — she knew that location wasn’t going to work.
The first few months of business for Aerie were very difficult, Morton says.
“You’d like to think that you just hang a shingle up and everyone will come running,” she says. “It doesn’t quite happen that way.”
Ultimately, a lead on a project at GE was what “really launched us,” she says. She was taking a project management class and invited the instructor to lunch to ask for advice on growing her business. The instructor gave her a tip that led to GE.
“We found out they had a problem we could fix for them. They became our first big client, and they’re still a very good client 14 years later,” she says.
She cohabited space with another company in the Merovan Center for four months before renting space in a Pelham Road complex.
In 2003, she bought the office building at 804 Pendleton St., gutted it, renovated it and transformed it into Aerie Engineering.
Brinn, Morton’s friend and former Greenville Chamber executive, says Morton was “truly a pioneer” when she bought that building in a place that was more risky than it is now.
“I’m sure it’s proven to be a great investment for her as well as an investment in the community,” Brinn says.
In addition to design and drafting, Aerie’s initial offerings included maintenance management and technical writing.
When Hal Westmoreland, a former manager at Aerie, met Morton, the company was focusing on document management for engineering drawings, basically a niche market.
Document management and knowledge management are among the new services that helped Aerie get through the recession.
Westmoreland, who now owns and runs a professional networking company, says among the many things that impress him about Morton is she’s a caring individual, and it shows in how she treats her employees and her customers.
For most of Morton’s life, she had been able to work to change the outcome of a situation, solve problems.
When she was 40, though, she met a situation that she couldn’t make better. She was enduring a difficult pregnancy, and it resulted in the loss of one of her twin sons.
Morton says until that moment, she’d carried the mindset that if she worked harder or did something differently, “I could change the outcome. But I couldn’t, and I was completely at the mercy of the universe, of God.”
“It was hard for me to accept that initially,” she says. “I’m used to being the one that would help other people out, so to actually receive that love and support was a big learning experience. It has shaped me and my thinking forever.”
Morton says she lives each day, thankful for having such a great child as Case.
She considers herself the student in their relationship, and he the teacher.
“He’s teaching me so much,” she says. “When you have a child, it makes you want to be a better person.”
One thing she also finds difficult is balancing parenthood and running a business.
“Young children need their parents. It’s just me, so it’s a constant balancing act,” she says. Having a child and a business is “almost like you have two children and both need you very much.”
Just recently she rushed from one meeting to get to her son’s school in northern Greenville County to see him perform with the choir.
When she got to the school, she made sure he saw her, waved, and listened as his group sang two songs.
Thirty minutes and 17 emails into the concert, she noticed that his choir was finished performing. At the next opportune time, she left.
She picked Case up that afternoon and told him how great he’d performed. His reply was, “Mom, I was really sad that you left early.”
“I said, ‘Honey I was there for all your singing. ‘But, he said, ‘You missed so many good things. It really made me sad,’ ” she says. “It’s constantly trying to figure out what that balance is.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Morton’s goals for starting her business were financial wealth, the ability to exercise creativity and the freedom to do what she wanted when she wanted to do it.
Slowly, some of those pieces are coming together. But she’s still reaching for that freedom, a lot of which she gave up when she worked for someone else 40 to 45 hours a week.
The firm is free of debt and growing with new clients and new employees. And as far as creativity, Morton says, the company is now in a position to turn down clients if the work isn’t a good fit.
So, one day, she says, she plans to not show up for work. She hopes the company’s 16 employees won’t notice her absence.
“What I mean by that is, to get to where I’m further and further away from the details of running the business so that they’re all self-sufficient, and at the end of the day they say, ‘Gosh, I never saw Lori today. I wonder if she was here.’ ”
She longs to be able to take a day off with Case when he’s out of school and just go play — no phone calls and no emails.
Case says, he, too, has the same longing.
“I just never have time to play with her and I wish I did. I wish she had time to play with me,” he says. “She’s fun, she’s funny, and she’s a good mom.”