After a pell-mell race to form a company, choose a site, and secure financing, Liberty Electronics started the new year of 1986 enthusiastically readying its Franklin building and marketing its products. The founders envisioned an innovative company working in state-of-the-art facilities to produce much-needed cable and wiring assemblies for military and commercial industries. They had materials and a sophisticated cleanroom environment in which to work. The next piece of the puzzle was the investment that continues to pay dividends to the current day—a well-trained, dedicated, local workforce.
When one of the founders visited family in neighboring Oil City during the spring of 1985, he was shocked at the region’s economic hardships and the toll they had taken on the community. Looking at his boyhood home, he told the local press, “There was a sadness I felt because of the depressed area and the belief I had that it didn’t have to be that way.”[i]
Once prosperous thanks to the oil and gas, steel, and lumber industries, Northwest Pennsylvania was feeling the vice-like grip of the 1980s’ Rust Belt economy. As the nation trended away from those sectors, areas along the Rust Belt were left behind, triggering high unemployment and poverty rates, declining populations, and economic malaise. From 1976 to 1986, over half of Venango County’s manufacturing jobs were lost.[ii] Area companies had either shut their doors or downsized their workforces, and the view from inside was grim. Liberty’s Human Relations Manager Linda Shouey vividly recalls standing in the unemployment line, pregnant with twins, hoping and praying for an opportunity to help support her family. “There was no work, there were no jobs. Anywhere.”[iii]
Optimistic about Liberty’s future, management put out the call for employees before financing and building were complete. Area newspapers excitedly reported that 600 applications would be handed out, of which less than 60 would be considered. Of that 60, only 30 to 35 would be hired. Mark Jacoby, Liberty’s marketing manager, had recently returned from a job-hunting trip when he heard about Franklin’s latest business venture. He arrived to line up at the Job Service office the night before, and he wasn’t the first one there.[iv] The local press estimated over 600 people showed up to claim an application, though Jacoby argues the final tally could well have reached over 1,000.[v]
The determination to find and maintain a steady, fair wage showed in the dedication of Liberty’s newly hired workforce. Before even finalizing their first contract, Liberty’s 39 employees went to work, putting in a full day at the office and then headed to the Venango County Area Vocational-Technical School to train in electronics and soldering. For weeks, Jacoby remembers working until 10 p.m. each day to finish the required 200 hours of training.[vi] They completed their training in December 1985, hoping to put their skills to use in the new year. The company’s directors had not taken a pay check for months. The new production team waited as bids were considered and negotiated. Liberty was poised on a knife’s edge. Then, the work arrived. Liberty’s team put their training into action, significantly working with the United States military on the Navy’s ADCAP Torpedo and sonar systems, as well as communications assemblies on the Army’s Chinook helicopter.
The company focused on creating an innovative work environment as well, using a four-day work week schedule, profit-sharing incentives and the privately funded LEEF (Liberty Employee Emergency Fund) program to help workers during personal emergencies. The Employee Stock Ownership Plan was implemented during the company’s earliest days, and today Liberty is 34 percent employee-owned. Liberty’s investment in its employees and vice versa is a direct reflection of its founders’ Christian faith and their hope to focus on people, not just products. They desired “a highly motivated employee population with the highest standards of integrity, professionalism, and competence.”[vii] From its very first year of business, Liberty delivered just that and set a standard of quality for its more than three decades of service.
[i] Judith Etzel, “Native Son Finds Challenge Here,” The Derrick (Oil City, Pa.), 30 September 1985.
[ii] Venango County Planning Commission, “Venango County Three Year Development Plan,” 45.
[iii] Linda Shouey (Human Relations Manager, Liberty Electronics), interview with author, 21 May 2018.
[iv] Mark Jacoby (Marketing Manager, Liberty Electronics), interview with author, 21 May 2018.
[v] Ibid. See also: “600 Line Up for a Job,” The Derrick, 8 October 1985; Peter Scierka, “Hundreds wait in line for shot at high-tech job,” The News-Herald (Franklin, Pa.), 7 October 1985.
[vi] Jacoby, interview with author.
[vii] Advertisement, Liberty Electronics archives.