The Roanoker - January/February 2017 - 42
and Spain had the basement. Pretty soon the basement gave way to a 600-square-foot building, then
multiple expansions in the 1960s and ultimately to
the 45,000-square foot space that MCDI occupies in
The idea was to start a custom machine shop that
led to a spin-off-Medeco Locks, which was sold in
the 1980s. More recently, MDCI spun off a small
sister shop next door, which has one customer. The
company is now run by a second generation of Powells with a third generation (John Powell and JP Jr.)
waiting in the wings. The eccentric genius (JP Jr.'s
description) sold out long ago.
Today, MDCI is a buzzing factory with millions of
dollars worth of machinery-making machinery inside
and 25 highly-skilled employees running them (some
as many as three machines). That number is significantly down from the 120 workers of the 1970s, but
not for the reasons you might expect: automation
has cost employee numbers, but promoted intense efficiency. Mechanical Development sells its expertise to
a wide range of customers, most of whom do not have
machine shops because it would not be cost effective
to do that in-house.
Some of the operators, says John Jr., are in their
60s in a profession that has been called "dying" for
years. John Jr. notes the recent retirement of legendary machinist Bob Cole at 80. MDCI trains its operators because the work is specialized, but occasionally
a local trade school (Danville Tech, for example) will
send a dandy over, as it did recently. He still had to
be trained specifically, but his foundation was solid,
says the junior Powell.
MDCI has "35 to 50 regular customers," says Powell Jr., few of them with a lot of work to do, but
there is enough work consistently for the company
to have seen considerable growth in recent years, says
The younger Powell was asked a few years ago to
join the company (he'd "grown up in the back shop,"
when his uncle Walter Daniel was in the management
mix, but had earned a law degree and had just started
practice). He replaced Walter's son, Lin, who died at
47. Powell Sr., 61, took over the company in 2007,
having worked there since 1982. The law degree, says
John Jr., who is 36, "helps any business. It requires a
strong basis in critical thinking."
MDCI has had to evolve over the years and John
Sr. notes a time when "there was an auction about
every week of a machine shop going down the tubes."
But the company found a niche, bought machines,
produced with great efficiency and thrived. John Sr.
says the intention is and always has been "to remain
a small, family business," and yes, both Powells can
run the machines.
The challenge is still finding good employees when
they are needed. John Sr. insists "we pay better than
the average lawyer" earns, but students tend to avoid
trade schools because of the image. "Until recently,
training in this area [of Virginia] was not good." That
seems to be changing and that's good for MDCI.
OPTICAL CABLE CORPORATION
OCC has been such a pillar of strength and corporate
virtue in this region for the past 15 years, so it is easy to
forget what a hot mess it was in 2001 when the board
finally had enough and fired founder and CEO Bob
Kopstein, an eccentric genius if ever there was one.
The company came through that near-fatal stock
problem pretty severely bruised, but with enough
MDCI's John Powell Jr.
"The company found
a niche, bought
with great efficiency
42 | JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2017