Hometown boy makes a living in Mooresville

Aug 13, 2013
Photo by: Donated photo Ron Howard, a native of Haywood County and a 1970 graduate of Pisgah High School, serves as CEO and president of IOMAX, now based in Mooresville.

Headquartered in a brick office building in the heart of NASCAR country, IOMAX USA has worked in a shroud of secrecy for years.

As company President and CEO Ron Howard puts it, 2013 is IOMAX's year to venture into the mainstream. Mooresville, just a half hour north of Charlotte, is mostly unaware that a $120 million signals intelligence and aircraft technologies company is in its backyard — and it’s growing. IOMAX moved its aircraft technologies team from Orlando to Mooresville early August.

Howard, a native of Haywood County and 1970 graduate of Pisgah High School, is simply happy to be back home in North Carolina. IOMAX is a family business: Howard’s two daughters, both sons-in-law and his son, a graduate of The Citadel, also work at the company.

Howard co-founded four successful companies between 2001 to 2004 and remains at the helm of IOMAX.  He retired as a Chief Warrant Officer Five in 2001 after spending 31 years in the Army. He was an airborne infantryman in Vietnam and later attended flight school. After that, he flew everything from Little Birds and Hueys to Kiowas and Black Hawks.

His 10 years with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) in the 1980s brought him back home to North Carolina, where he was also assigned to Joint Special Operations Command for more than a year.

To put it simply, he's a Special Operations Guy (SOCOM) accustomed to working under the radar.

"Nothing we've done here has ever been conventional," Howard said.

IOMAX was the first to field and market wireless cellular exploitation equipment. The company has provided ground and air support to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Afghanistan for seven years for counterdrug and counterterrorism operations. IOMAX is still on the ground in Afghanistan supporting the counter drug/counter terrorists operations. Its list of former customers ranges from the CIA to the New York Stock Exchange.

But the leap into aircraft technologies in 2009 is what bumped IOMAX from $20 million a year to a revenue that exceeds more than $100 million.

In June, the company attended the International Paris Air Show, where it displayed the Archangel in Paris to raised eyebrows. The Archangel has long, thick wings, a sharp nose and a two-seater cockpit with few controls — but after IOMAX has completed upgrades, the Archangel will be a powerful force in flight. Electro-optic/infrared sensors will be used for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and Howard has former Lockheed Martin, BAE, Raytheon and Martin Marietta weapons integration engineers on staff to help him do it.

"These are armed surveillance airplanes," Howard said. "It's basically a manned Predator."

At the core, the plane's simple design makes it easy to maintain in the field. It can carry a 5,000 lb. weapons load and stay airborne eight to 10 hours, Howard said.

His primary customers are overseas allies who rely on commercial, off-the-shelf technology to address their defense needs.

IOMAX is providing 24 Archangel aircraft to the United Arab Emirates. Howard says his team hopes to seal contracts this year with Jordan and Libya, who want to use the aircraft to patrol their borders.

"There's a huge amount of interest around the world to solve the problems this airplane addresses," Howard said.

The company keeps an eye on its competition — there are nine types of aircraft around the world that compete in the same market as the Archangel.

But IOMAX prides itself on not only providing the aircraft but the training and maintenance to help make foreign allied defense programs a success, even if that means immersing employees in dangerous parts of Afghanistan or tense regions in Libya. IOMAX employees were in the country the same week U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed.

"We're not afraid of challenges; we're not afraid to take risks," Howard said. "The Middle East is a tough place to do business. We have guys here who have never been in the Army and have been engaged in combat in Afghanistan. It's kind of a contradiction."

At Lake Norman Airport, less than a mile from the office, IOMAX uses several hangars and the runway. March marked a "major milestone," Howard said, when two Archangel aircraft flew into Mooresville for the first time. Neighbors lined the airfield to watch the landing.

All told, 100 people work at IOMAX. About 20 percent of its employees are combat veterans, and 70 percent carry secret security clearances.

They include four U.S. Military Academy graduates, former military brigade and battalion commanders, an Army Silver Star recipient and former members of SEAL Team 6, Army Special Forces, Air Force special tactics squadrons, Marine Force Recon and Task Force 160.

"We normally keep things to ourselves, and it's just the nature of the business," Howard said.

For more information about IOMAX, visit www.iomax.net or call 704-662-1840.

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