Gift of Flight: Chattanooga INCubator hatches its 500th business


by Andrew Blevins

When electronics and motors fail in a plant, the loss of time and money can cause panic for any manufacturer that has to meet tight shipping deadlines and fill large orders.

For the team at Manufacturing Repair and Overstock, Inc. (MRO), however, it's just another day at the office. This young Chattanooga-based manufacturing and industrial repair company regularly works late nights, odd hours and holidays to keep its customers happy around the clock.

All that hard work has paid off in the form of steady growth. MRO is the 500th business to graduate from the Chattanooga Chamber's INCubator program - a milestone for both organizations.

MRO team members at work: Justin Wilson (top left), Russell Looper (top right), Derrick Johnson (bottom left) and Kyle Kuffrey (bottom right).

MRO team members at work: Justin Wilson (top left), Russell Looper (top right), Derrick Johnson (bottom left) and Kyle Kuffrey (bottom right).

The Hamilton County INCubator at the BDC is a 125,000-square-foot facility on Cherokee Boulevard, owned by Hamilton County and managed by the Chattanooga Chamber. It offers start-up businesses office or manufacturing space at highly competitive lease rates, as well as access to in-house clerical support and office resources. The facility celebrated its 25th anniversary in November, having graduated an average of 20 businesses a year. The Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC) also has its offices in the INCubator, and provides entrepreneurs with a business library, computer and video centers, and business counseling services—all free of charge.

Humble Beginnings

Russell Looper and Justin Wilson co-founded MRO in February 2012. After scouting many different cities and locations, they decided Chattanooga was perfect, in part for its central positioning at the hub of several industry-heavy states that might benefit from the company's services. Looper was searching for commercial space online when he came across information about the INCubator.

The two set up a meeting to view available spaces with Kathryn Foster, the Director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the Chamber.

"She showed us around, and we looked at every suite available in this place," Looper said. "We just loved the location, the fact that it was in town. We loved the fact you didn't have to hook up water and power. The pricing was very attractive, and the TSBDC is in the same building. We liked the thought of being in the same place with other early-stage businesses."

How to Grow a Network

The INCubator is currently home to 73 businesses and has more on the waiting list. With so many different people and projects in one place, the facility is fertile ground for conversations and collaborations. Foster said she believes this connectivity has been a major force behind the success of graduates like MRO.

"There's a synergy in the building, for everybody, whether or not they're in the same business or in the same developmental phase of business," Foster said. "They're all startups here, and if there's a challenge or a success they all share it together. In fact, some of the tenants were joking about how you can go to the restroom and end up in deep conversation. That's because everybody's going through the same thing. They also do business with each other's companies. Being one of the largest business incubators in the United States really is a tremendous advantage for the people going through this program."

MRO’s Russell Looper (left) and Justin Wilson (right) flank Kathryn Foster (center), who directs the INCubator. MRO recently became the 500th company to graduate from the program.

MRO’s Russell Looper (left) and Justin Wilson (right) flank Kathryn Foster (center), who directs the INCubator. MRO recently became the 500th company to graduate from the program.

Shortly after setting up at the INCubator, MRO sought the services of another tenant, That Murphy Boy Graphic Design Co., for graphics and web design. Their accountant volunteers time at the INCubator once a week, and Looper said they met their original lawyer, payroll company and some of their insurance providers through the INCubator network. At the same time, the company has used its equipment and skills to help other tenants in need. Wilson said he considers this collaborative culture to be the INCubator's most useful feature. "It's like having neighbors and borrowing some sugar," he said. "You borrow somebody's forklift truck or dolly, or you get advice. You always have somebody to lean on, whether it's a fellow business or a TSBDC advisor."

Leaving the Nest

The INCubator program is designed to last about three years, depending on the business's needs. MRO moved in just twenty months ago, but the company has quickly outgrown two 2,500-square-foot spaces. Foster said that she misses having MRO in the INCubator, but she also stressed that the program is meant to be temporary. "I couldn't be more proud of these guys," she said. "They achieved exactly what the program is supposed to help them accomplish- they got in, learned how to operate, figured out how to run their business with intelligence and cost-consciousness, and moved out into the community."

MRO recently purchased a 7,500-square-foot building on Amnicola Highway. Looper said they now have sixteen employees, and plan to double that number, along with their revenue, in the next year. "We have a little bit of a different culture here," he said. "It's very laid-back. We have dartboards and arcade games and things like that. We believe you should take care of your employees and your customers and everything will fall into place, and so far it's worked for us. We tell the truth and kind of roll with it. The INCubator and the TSBDC have given us the foundation we needed to get going."

More information about the INCubator can be found at

Michael Garrison