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April 02. 2013 8:54PM

Sen. Ayotte provides sequester insight to EPE Corp. executives in Manchester


U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., gets a tour of the EPE Corp. from President and CEO James D. Bell in Manchester on Tuesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - James D. Bell, CEO and president of EPE Corp., feared that across-the-board, federal budget cuts known as the sequester would take a bite out of his defense-related business. When one of the company's major customers, a manufacturer of thermal visioning systems, cut orders by 30 percent compared to last year, those fears proved well-founded.

In a meeting with U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, on Tuesday at his company's manufacturing plant on Harvey Road, Bell and other executives from EPE were looking for answers about what to expect next.

Ayotte couldn't tell them exactly what defense programs are going to be cut and which ones will be spared, but she did provide some insight that will help EPE decide what opportunities to pursue.

Bell is the third-generation owner of a company that was launched in the 1960s by his grandfather. EPE, which stands for electronic production equipment, makes components and in some cases finished products for a variety of industries, including medical technology, defense, telecommunications and imaging.

Some of the company's clients include Atrium Medical, Cellular Specialties and ITT Exelis.

EPE occupied space in the Millyard for more than 25 years before moving to Harvey Road, next to BAE Systems, four years ago. At its peak, the company employed about 190, but now has slightly more than 100 workers.

Bell is proud of the fact that the company, which he co-owns with his father, is entirely veteran owned, as both father and son served in the military.

More than 50 percent of the company's business comes from Department of Defense contractors.

"We are a subcontractor to a lot of defense suppliers," said Bell, "and we are seeing our business slowed due to sequestration."

Bell said the company has seen a decline in orders and a lot of indecision among his longtime customers. "We're seeing an overall hesitation, nervousness, posturing to minimize cost and minimize risk," he said. "Sequestration is a large unknown, so people are being as conservative as they can. Contracts get signed, but the purchase orders are slow to come."

Ayotte serves on three committees that are critical to Bell's business - Armed Services, Budget, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. From that vantage point, Bell was hoping Ayotte could provide some insight on where to put his marketing efforts.

"The situation is very dynamic, and it's not clear at this point what is going to be funded," she told Bell and his team. "We'll be watching first for program authorizations, and the appropriations to follow."

She gave Bell a contact in her office to help him monitor which programs have been authorized, "and from there we can get an idea what will be funded," she said.

While unable to provide specifics, Ayotte predicted that appropriations directly related to troop operations and safety would not likely be cut, including communications and unmanned technologies that keep soldiers off the front line.

"Anything needed to keep our troops protected, to stay safe, will be a priority," she said. "Our special operations units and equipment that supports those will continue to be a priority. I would expect the Pentagon to put the troops first."

Bell said the information will help his company as it continues to research defense contractors, looking for the next big customer. "If there is an electronics market, we'd like to compete to be chosen for a subcontracting assignment," he said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com



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