In these difficult times, with more high-tech companies shuttering office space than expanding and many hemorrhaging red ink, EMJ America is definitely running counter to both trends.

The wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian-based EMJ Data Systems put on an old-fashioned pig pickin’ Wednesday, celebrating its move into a new 13,500 square-foot headquarters in the Chatham Business Park on Wednesday.

And the move captured the essence of EMJ’s success from its humble beginnings in a one-room Cary office — sans windows — in 1990.

“It doesn’t feel like a pre-fabricated metal building” EMJ America President Lyle Estill, who opened the first lonely outpost, tells LocalTechWire. “It has pine floors and big windows. This is grade-A office space, and we paid a lot of attention to energy conservation.”

More than 100 people, including employees, city and county officials, family and friends, gathered on the grounds of the facility for a tour, barbeque and live music. EMJ America moved from a smaller location in Apex into the new building, which is nestled on a 10-acre site full of natural forests and wetlands. Even the building itself is environmentally friendly, with energy-efficient windows and a specially-designed geothermal heating and cooling system to go with a large screened-in porch and sizeable exercise room.

Along with his brother Mark, who is vice president, the Estills oversee a 30-employee operation divided into two distinct operations, each occupying one-half of the new headquarters.

‘A thing with windows’

Before it had two divisions, EMJ America was an even smaller distributor of computer parts. It was founded in 1990 as a subsidiary of EMJ Data Systems, which itself was founded in 1979 in Ontario by Mark and Lyle’s older brother Jim Estill (also president and chief executive officer) as a distributor of hardware and software. Lyle ran the American subsidiary as a one-man operation based in 10′ x 10′ office with no windows in Cary.

“Now, we’ve got a thing with windows,” says Lyle, referring to the new building, which has large floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into wooded areas and letting in ample amounts of light.

But getting to that point required several changes and had a few bumps a long the way. EMJ America had to adapt to the distribution landscape, says Lyle, meaning the company evolved with the market. Early on, growth was slow, but over that past five years or so, it has picked up.

Mark says the company currently has revenues near $10 million and is profitable every year. Its much larger Canadian parent pulls in close to $200 million per year and has been profitable for more than 20 years. EMJ Data Systems is also publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol EMJ. Its 52-week high is 5.2 and the low is 3.4, with the current price trading at around 4.6 Canadian dollars ($2.89).

Despite difficult economic times, Mark believes EMJ is on the right track.

“We’re in a good sector and the potential for growth is great,” he says. “We’re in a good space and have a successful niche.

“I see it exploding,” he adds. “How much are we going to sell? As much as possible.”

Divisions of growth

On one side is EMJ Embedded Systems, founded in 1995 as a distributor of a full line of single board computers, PC card disk drives and readers, PC/104 add-on cards and peripherals, alphanumeric displays and embedded software. Through its sales offices and warehouse, the division sells throughout North America to such companies as GE Medical Systems, Cisco Systems, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

“We allow the customer to come to us and have one source, so they don’t have to make five different phone calls,” Mark says. “Smaller is the way to go in everything. We serve anyone who wants to go small,” he adds, referring to the scaled-down, rugged models EMJ distributes for use in tight spaces that may or may not be exposed to the elements.

For example, EMJ has outfitted the University of Florida with a product to use in an underwater submarine for measuring ocean turbulence. The U.S. Navy also has used a device in air balloons for studying weather patterns. Mark says that with the high winds and temperature variations, a PC could not hold up like an embedded system.

EMJ Embedded Systems shares the new building, which is a few miles east down U.S. 64 from Pittsboro, with another division of EMJ America that designs and hosts Web sites. Called EMJI, the five-year-old division occupies a much more colorful space, with green and orange walls from which bikes hang and cluttered desks topped with iMacs. It employees 15 people who have done work for such sites as Mustang CAT, The Medical Foundation of North Carolina, SA&A Direct, Overton’s, Bear Rock Café, Great Outdoor Provision Company, The N.C. Museum of Art and WellPath.

‘A very simple development’

So why would EMJ America move from Cary, in the center of the Triangle, to Pittsboro, on the fringe? One word: convenience.

“We both live here in Chatham County, and it’s nicer to own than rent,” Lyle explains. “The location is good, but it’s not as if we’re citified.”

In fact, mostly rural Chatham County and Pittsboro are just now starting to experience the growth the rest of the Triangle has seen over the past decade or more. The roads are one indicator. U.S. 64, the county’s major east-west route is already four- anes and has a new $11-million bypass around Pittsboro. The major north-south route, U.S. 15-501, is in the process of being widened to four lanes, which should occur by the end of the year.

Richard Harkrader, manager of the Chatham Business Park where EMJ is located, says the increasing interconnectivity of the county, including via high speed Internet access, is making Chatham a more inviting place for business, not to mention the lower cost of living.

“Some companies are looking for better living situations for their employees with lower housing costs,” Harkrader says. “The housing costs here are half those of Raleigh or Chapel Hill.”

Those incentives help attract companies such as EMJ to the Chatham Business Park, which Harkrader calls ‘a very simple development.’ It opened in 1989 and now has two remaining parcels size two and four acres. Other current tenants of the park include the U.S. Postal Service, The Laurels of Chatham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and Premiere Motorsports, which has a 38,000 square-foot building housing its race shop, corporate offices and the Pitt Stop Café.

EMJ America is the largest and newest tenant of the Chatham Business Park, providing an economic boost and adding jobs in the growing county.

Franklin County, another mostly rural county on the periphery of the Triangle, also got a boost in February when Singapore-based Flextronics announced it would expand its 300-person Youngsville operation, potentially adding 1,500 jobs over the next three years.

Such moves are evidence indeed that the Triangle is expanding its technological boundaries and tapping into an employee base well beyond that of Wake, Durham and Orange counties. At least Mark Estill thinks so.

“If our employees live out here in the woods and want to drive to Pittsboro, they love it,” he says of EMJ America’s new location. “In RTP, we’d be fighting for the talent. Where we are now is good. There are some good people here in Chatham County.”

And for some that maybe weren’t too sure initially, they’re now packing their bags.

“I was not in favor of it at first, but now I love it,” Doug Phelps, an EMJI account manager, says of his company’s move. “I’m even thinking of moving to Chatham County. The new building is great. It fits us much better. We’re basically one big, happy company.”

EMJ Web sites:

EMJ America: www.emj.com

EMJ Embedded Systems: www.emjembedded.com

EMJI: www.emji.com

EMJ Data Systems: www.emj.ca