In 1960, three engineers and a lawyer founded RF Communications in Rochester, focused on the emerging long-range radio market.
They were onto something.
Fast forward to 2022 and that homegrown operation is part of L3Harris Technologies Inc., the leading global supplier of secure communications and high-grade encryption solutions for military, government, public safety and commercial organizations.
While L3Harris is headquartered in Florida, the business maintains a massive presence in Rochester. L3Harris ranked first on the most recent RBJ list of manufacturers with 3,775 local employees. The company ranked No. 6 on the 2022 RBJ 75 list.
The company’s Communication Systems segment is headquartered in Rochester. L3Harris also has a portion of its Space & Airborne Systems segment located here, as well.
Dana Mehnert is president of the Communication Systems segment for L3Harris Technologies. The segment logged sales of nearly $4.3 billion in 2021.
He is responsible for business strategy, as well as financial and operational execution covering a broad portfolio, including tactical and airborne radios, battle management systems, night vision technology and professional and public safety networks and products.
Mehnert previously served in a similar capacity, leading the Communications Systems segment at Harris Corp. before the company merged with L3 Technologies in June 2019.
He joined Harris in 1984 as an electrical engineer in the RF Communications rotational management training program and roles of increasing responsibility at the company, culminating in his role as president in 2006.
Mehnert recently sat down with the RBJ to talk about challenges brought on by the pandemic, how the company adjusted to those challenges and plans for growth.
Rochester remains at the forefront when it comes to growing the business, Mehnert said.
“We will continue to grow locally and strengthen the manufacturing base here in Rochester,” he said.
An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
Rochester Business Journal: How has COVID-19 impacted operations?
Mehnert: We’re just coming off our second year of COVID-19 and we’ve adapted to the challenges. At the onset, we were able to move quickly to remote work, adopt various protective measures and continue to serve our customers. We had at one time over half of our workforce here working remotely, and now we’re back up to about 70 percent onsite.
We didn’t miss a beat. Our product deliveries were met, and our international business is up about 29 percent. We hadn’t been traveling but are doing some of that now. I just returned from trips to the UK and Saudi Arabia. It’s good to be out again.
Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19, everybody adapted, and we were able to meet all of our requirements.
We were able to work through these challenges and deliver on our commitments to support our customers in the U.S. Department of Defense, state and local government and our allies throughout the world.
I’m proud of our team and the flexibility and agility they have shown over this time. COVID-19 challenged the assumptions of how we get things done and made us more flexible, more mentally agile.
RBJ: What was the biggest challenge the business faced in 2021?
Mehnert: The impact on the supply chain affected our business in 2021. Different countries closing down, markets collapsed, they all affected the supply chain.
Our orders on the tactical side of the business were up about 14 percent, yet our revenues were down about 3 percent; that was all about the supply chain. Revenues were down because the supply chain was disrupted.
We anticipated demand in our communications business model and built to that forecast. It has been an unprecedented 18 months for the global supply chain, with the nature and fragility of it being exposed.
We source integrated circuits from around the world and saw disruptions. Despite that, we met our DOD requirements. For others, we were able to delay some products and shipments. Sometimes we worked with our second- and third-tier suppliers so our first-tier suppliers were given preference when possible.
We also helped out where we could. (For example,) we sent welders to a supplier out-of-state who needed the workers to get the job done.
It requires more in-depth management of the supply chain. I used to spend about 5 percent of my time on supply chain management, and now that number is more like 35 percent.
RBJ: How are you addressing that challenge with the supply chain this year?
Mehnert: Because of those supply chain challenges, we are anticipating significant increases in throughput this year and are adding capacity to not only meet the backlog but also support the additional orders we are seeing, including with our international business.
We will also need to add workers as a result and are looking for about 100 technicians. That may not sound like a huge number given we have more than 3,500 workers here, but they are needed to keep up with demand.
RBJ: Will additional local workers mean more space will be needed for local operations?
Mehnert: We have focused on reconfiguring space. Last year we consolidated some operations (including the Victor site) into our Henrietta location (a 573,000-square-foot facility on Jefferson Road), which we have invested about $5 million in.
(The site operates four shifts around the clock, produces 12,000 products a month and those products contain a total of 60,000 circuit boards, according to Chris Monoski, senior director of operations at L3Harris).
Right now, we have the ability to meet our needs in the capacity we have. We’re in pretty good shape with the space we have.
RBJ: Can you talk about growth plans for the public safety side of the business?
Mehnert: The public safety side of the business was hit pretty hard at the onset of COVID-19, with municipalities taking the focus off of modernizing their communications systems. That said, there are still needs there and the (segment) has come back and we are now in a growth position in that market.
We were awarded a 15-year, $451 million contract from the State of Florida last year to maintain and upgrade the state’s law enforcement radio systems.
We have also worked with the National Fire Protection Association to develop a radio that can withstand extreme heat. The products are designed and produced in Rochester.
RBJ: What about growth on the tactical communications side of the business?
Mehnert: We are a world leader in that market and was recently awarded a $750 million contract from the U.S. Marine Corp. for our multi-channel handheld and vehicular radio systems. The same equipment has long been used by the U.S. Army and Air Force.
We have worked with the Ukraine Ministry of Defence since 2012 and are in daily contact to support the special forces there the best we can.
RBJ: How are you addressing the growing challenges related to cybersecurity?
Mehnert: Cyber presents challenges and opportunities. First off, we have to protect our networks and provide the highest level of security. There are sophisticated threats from adversaries. We need to have the most capable devices in the field. We need to have radios that are able to address those threats well into the future.
RBJ: What are the benefits of having business operations in Rochester?
Mehnert: Rochester is a hub for technology and innovation. It starts with the great universities we have here. We employ more engineers from Rochester Institute of Technology than anyone in the area. We also have many employees from the University of Rochester. The academic community is an asset.
There is a lot of innovative spirit here.
We also have great support from government at all levels, including representatives from local, state and federal levels of government. (Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce president and CEO) Bob Duffy is one of the best promoters of this region.
We also work to support the region. The company reinvests more than half a billion dollars back into the community, through payroll and to our suppliers. We have great local suppliers.
Even though we have been here since 1960, I feel we are often overlooked. We are a global company that is committed to the region and I’m very proud of the work we do here.
The business is built on a strong foundation of local entrepreneurship and that goes into our thinking when it comes to products and innovation. It’s in our DNA.
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