Martin Jue, president of MFJ Enterprises in Starkville, pulls a ham radio off the production line. Jue built the company from the ground up into what is now the largest ham radio manufacturing operation in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Photo by: Tim Pratt
February 23, 2009
STARKVILLE — Martin Jue can trace the entire course of his life back to one day.
He was an 8-year-old Cub Scout, living in the Mississippi Delta town of Hollandale, and took part in a group activity where he learned how to build a radio. Little did Jue know this one activity would change his life.
Jue was enamored with the way the device functioned and went on to become a ham radio operator in high school, talking with other “hams” around the world and perfecting his knowledge of Morse code. He went off to college and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, from Mississippi State University and Georgia Tech, respectively, and eventually began his own ham radio manufacturing operation.
These days, Jue says his business is the largest ham radio manufacturing operation in the U.S., and it’s located right here in Starkville. Yet, he traces all of his success back to that one day as a member of the Cub Scouts.
“I knew what I wanted to do since that day,” Jue said. “That’s what got it all started. I’ve been interested in this ever since.”
So how did you get this business started in the first place?
After I got my degrees I went back home and ran the family grocery store for about six months or so. Then I left and worked on the design of military electronics during the Vietnam War up in Champaign-Urbana (Ill.) and Fort Wayne, Ind., and then I got a call one day from one of the professors at Mississippi State, wanting to know if I wanted to come back and work on my Ph.D., and I said “Yeah.” So I came back here in about 1969 and finished all the coursework in three semesters, but I didn’t do my dissertation because I started this company.
First it was an engineering and design company. I designed electronic circuits for the various research departments here. It didn’t take me long to learn all I could do. I had to do everything myself, so I decided that if I was going to get much bigger I was going to need other people to make it. So that’s what I did. I was a ham operator and always had been interested in it, so I decided to do a ham radio product first. I started running ads in magazines and we started selling them. I used to teach a course at Mississippi State and I would take these bags of parts into class and ask if there were any students who wanted to put these things together for 25 cents a piece. That was my first production line.
That’s not a bad idea. It’s actually kind of funny.
Yeah. So I just kept building products and now we make more ham radio products than any other company. We’re the largest manufacturer of ham radio equipment.
In the country?
In the country and in the world, except for the Japanese companies that make the radios. We make accessory products, products to be used in the station. We have about 2,000 products. The original company is MFJ, which is my initials, but we bought four other companies and brought them here to Starkville. We brought one from Cleveland, Ohio, one from Lincoln, Neb., one from San Jose, Calif., and one from another place in Ohio.
Were they all building the same kind of stuff you were doing? Is that why you bought them?
Well they made different products, but it was still for ham radios. Now we have four different buildings here in town.
I know you said you put a radio together when you were little, but what was it about the thought of broadcasting on ham radio that appealed to you?
Well, I don’t know. You build this little simple radio and put some earphones on and you can hear stuff, you can hear people talking, you can hear music. It was almost like magic. And, actually, not long after I learned (how to build a radio), I was listening to my radio late at night and I heard this guy breaking in, and it turns out it was a ham radio operator. I was probably 9 or 10.
So these were just regular radio airwaves and you heard a ham radio break in?
Yeah. You know, late night you can pick up all these different stations, from St. Louis and other places, but this was a local ham. His signal was so strong it just broke right through. Somehow I looked him up and went to see him and he was a local TV repairman.
Was there ever a ham radio boom, where it got a lot more popular, or has it always been pretty steady?
Yeah there was. Back in the in the heyday of citizen band, or CB radios. They were little short-range radios with limited power and a lot of people had gotten into it. That spurred a lot of people into ham radio. But when I first started this company (in 1972) there were about 200,000 hams in the U.S. Now there are over 700,000 hams in the U.S., and there’s about 3 million in the world. So it doesn’t grow fast, but it’s a steady growth. People ask me if the cell phone and Internet are going to wipe out ham radio. Well it doesn’t. You can go to any Kroger store or Piggly Wiggly or some grocery store like that and buy all the fish you want to eat, but people still fish. It’s bigger than ever. One hundred years ago people picked up the telephone and talked to anybody they wanted to. Ham radio is not just about talking to somebody. It’s about fishing. It’s a hobby. It’s a sport. So it will be around for a long time. People will do it because they want to do it. Like playing golf, you know, I can’t figure out why someone would want to try to hit that little ball into a hole, and a lot of people can’t figure out why someone would want to play with a radio. It’s a hobby. With ham radio, I can put a little box in my car and be driving down the road talking to somebody in Australia or somebody in England. A lot of these guys talk to each other for 20 years. They’ve never even met each other.
How much has the technology improved over the years?
I have all these old radios from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, and back then you had a separate receiver that you would use to pick up the stations with. That’s what you used to hear, to listen to. Then you had another box that could be much bigger, which was the transmitter, what you would use to transmit with. You could transmit in Morse code or you could transmit using voice. If you had separate boxes, you had to connect the antenna to it and switch it between the two, or use separate antennas. Now we have radios with everything, the transmitter and the receiver. Now you have portable radios and can put them in your car and transmit all over the world. If you have some emergency like (Hurricane) Katrina, you take one of those down there and provide communication when all the cell phones are down. It really has improved.
Is there still room for improvement?
Oh yeah. Technology is always changing.
Do you still do any engineering work or design work, or are you busy with your administrative duties?
I still do some. I still do what I like. I do administrative stuff because I have to, but I still like designing stuff.
How many employees do you have?
I think I have about 140.
Do they all have engineering backgrounds?
A lot of them have technical backgrounds, but the production people are just regular people that we train. We have a metal shop and we build all the parts that go in the radio.
Some people in town might not even know you’re out here doing all this.
Nobody knows we’re here.
Do you like it that way?
Well, we don’t sell anything here.
So I guess you do want to get the word out.
Yeah, that would be nice.
When you first started out, did you ever imagine your company would get this big?
Well, when you first start and you’re young, you’re pretty dumb. You can’t imagine that much. I like to tell people you never get smart, but as you get older you get less and less dumb.
What would you say you enjoy most about the job?
Just the variety of everything, seeing how we can produce a product that people all over the world will use. About 25 percent of our p
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