Free enterprise and determination forge successful operation

You don’t forget a man like Ilia Petkov.

One look at the enormous American flag on his office wall – or the company’s sign, inscribed with “Where Ideas Become Reality,” speaks volumes. Photos of Albert Einstein and quotations promoting human achievement and free enterprise fill his office walls.

Founder and owner of IP Automation, the Bulgarian native immigrated to the United States in 1984 and escaped communist rule. Twenty years later, he has become one of the Pikes Peak region’s most successful entrepreneurs, earning recognition as an SBA 2003 Wall of Fame inductee.

IP Automation specializes in custom machining, engineering, design and manufacturing. The 15-year-old firm serves clients like B.F. Goodrich Aerospace, Boeing, Ashland Chemical Company, Schlage Lock Company, Trane Corporation and Sinton Dairy.

Bottom-line, his business is all about innovation and ideas. And those ideas have generated impressive success. In 2004 company revenues are projected to hit almost $9 million – near record 2002 levels.

These results have been accomplished both by providing design, manufacturing and assembly of equipment for the rail, automotive, aerospace, and food industries and through invention of consumer products such as a patented stowaway erector bench.

Projects include automated and robotic systems, the integration of existing equipment with new technology components as well as construction of new machines and systems.

“In some cases,” says general manager Tony Knopp, “we may add new components to an in-place conveyor or mechanical system. Our technologies include pressing, metal-removal, chip cutting, assembly and other unique process-building.”

Knopp is just one of 50 employees currently working at the company’s facility in Harrison Business Park. The company’s first employee, a machinist hired in 1992, is still with the company.

So how did this all start? Petkov spoke almost no English when he arrived on February 24, 1984, at John Wayne Airport in southern California with his family.

“The journey was complicated,” he explains. “In the early 1980s, we escaped to Paris upon our return from a U.N. project I was working on in Mozambique. We had no papers, but thanks to a French family sympathetic to our situation, we found housing and obtained French passports.”

Later the Petkovs moved to Rome, got Italian-stamped visas and a letter of introduction from the Vatican. The family was allowed entry into the U.S. Within weeks, Petkov started taking English classes as he found jobs in machining and drafting and became an American citizen.

One day he applied for a job with Schlage Lock Company as a design engineer. “My resume was very rough,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t communicate well, so the man who interviewed me gave me a project to design. I was so excited I rushed home and began drawing on my kitchen table.” He got the job.

From there, he went on to design a $3.5 million automated machine at the request of the president of Schlage Lock in San Jose. “I worked 12, maybe 14 hours a day to create this new machine. I was so excited to have the opportunity.”

When he transferred to Colorado Springs in 1988, he was assigned projects for a number of clients, including B.F. Goodrich Aerospace in Pueblo.

“One day I got a call directly from Goodrich’s R&D department, asking if I would help solve a manufacturing problem and design a special automation machine for them. It was not the type of work Schlage did, so I said yes and set up shop in my home.”

The firm’s first aerospace equipment designs were manufactured in Petkov’s garage. Projects continued to come, and he opened his first office in 1992. Since then the company has undergone several phases of growth, moving into its current 31,200-square-foot facility in 1998.

Today, the entrepreneur is preparing to move into a second 25,000-foot building, The Design House. “This is my dream,” he admits, “to have a facility we can dedicate to engineering and development of new products and systems.”

The company has invested almost $4 million in state-of-the-art assets. “We must provide excellent service to our customers,” he adds, “and that means investing in the future.”

Dan Rundgren of Wachovia has financed Petkov’s original building and expansion. He sees his client as a star businessman.

“I saw an automated machine he built for Sinton Dairy that packaged and distributed cottage cheese and yogurt,” the lender recalls. “Because he does design/build, he captures jobs that might otherwise move offshore. He’s full of ideas – and one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known.”