A Refugee's Self Transformation
Defense contractor Susan Wu’s journey to Huntsville began with the Japanese invasion of China and a determination to engineer a more secure future.
Susan Wu and her husband, Jimmy, built Engineering Research and Consulting — ERC Inc. — in small-business-friendly Huntsville.
Photo by Dennis Keim
With the vision of Japanese soldiers occupying her native China in the early days of World War II, a young Susan Wu resolved to equip herself for an independent claim on the future.
“We (the Chinese) didn’t have rifles. They did,” she says.
“We were not industrial. We were an agricultural nation. I decided that I wanted to study mechanical engineering to help change that.”
Pretty remarkable thinking for a pre-teen girl in the early 1940s. But it was that remarkable thinking that led to Wu becoming the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in aeronautics from Caltech.
A quarter of a century later, Wu left a solid professorship at the University of Tennessee Space Institute in Tullahoma, Tenn., to start ERC Inc., the Huntsville-based aerospace-defense firm.
ERC — now with more than 800 employees in five states and annual revenues of $100 million — is an engineering and scientific services company specializing in independent assessment support, IT support, and operations and maintenance support to the Department of Defense, NASA and commercial clients. Among their capabilities is expertise in propulsion systems, advanced sensor systems, and guidance and control systems.
Last year, ERC was awarded one of the nine systems engineering contracts for the Army’s Space and Missile Command. The same year it was a primary subcontractor on the team that won the test and operations support contract for Kennedy Space Center. It is also a primary subcontractor with a team that won the engineering and science services contract with Marshall Space Flight Center.
“I was looking to do something different,” Wu says of her turn from academia to enterprise.
In 1977, she and her husband, Dr. Jimmy Wu, and another professor formed Engineering Research and Consulting, and in 1988 she took over the company and left the university.
Most of the customers were based in Huntsville, about an hour or so south of Tullahoma. So, the family moved to Huntsville, and she set up ERC’s first office — in the basement of her home, with a part-time secretary.
It had been a long journey to this “something different,” and a break from academia was leaving behind her main refuge since World War II and her family’s flight from mainland China to Taiwan, where she finished high school and graduated from college with an engineering degree.
“I was the only woman in a class with 80 men,” she says.
Though she had her engineering degree, Wu didn’t see much of a career future in Taiwan, let alone in the People’s Republic of China.
She left for the United States in 1957 and enrolled at Ohio State. Jimmy also left – they were not yet married – for the University of Minnesota. She received her master’s in engineering in 1959 and the couple married. They both attended California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and she earned her Ph.D. in 1963.
A year before, Wu learned she had a congenital hole in the lining of her heart that would require risky surgery — this was 1962 and open-heart surgery was relatively new and extremely dangerous. Another problem developed because few companies carried insurance for this pre-existing condition. However a Pasadena, Calif. company offered her a propulsion research position with a welcome proposition.
“They offered to pay for my surgery, so I took the job,” Wu says in a story for Caltech Connect magazine. “It ended up defining my career.”
From there, two years later, the family — they had two children — moved to Tullahoma to take professorships at UTSI.
She says her work as a professor would later help in relating to her ERC employees. “My teaching background has played a part,” Wu says. “You want your students to succeed as you would your children. At ERC, we want everyone to succeed.”
It took a while to win contracts, because the customer base in Tullahoma was limited, Wu says. She saw more customers down the road in Huntsville for her newly founded company.
“Huntsville is extremely friendly to small companies,” she says. And the “friendliness” paid off for ERC. By adding the Army, Air Force, NASA and the Department of Energy to its customer list, ERC’s revenue surpassed the $10 million mark in the mid-1990s and it employed nearly 300 people.
Today, it has yearly revenue in excess of $100 million, with 800 employees in five states. The company’s move to Huntsville in 1996 would be the last the family would need to make.
“Our customers were here and it made sense to have our headquarters here,” Wu says.
Her sense of family has influenced the way the company is run. Employees refer to her as “Dr. Susan.”
“We treat the employees like family members,” she says. “The people make this place what it is. My purpose is to let everybody make a contribution.”
In 2000, Wu stepped down as president and CEO after a stroke and other health concerns. She persuaded her son, Ernie, to leave a research position at Harvard University and take her place as at the helm of ERC.
“His research is in biology, and he very strongly urged me to step down,” she says. “So I urged him to come to Huntsville.”
Susan hasn’t left the company completely; she is its chairman and her son is CEO. Kenny Frame is now ERC’s president.
This year, Wu received a Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award recognizing her “pioneering research and business entrepreneurship.”
Though her defense customers are facing cutbacks due to the shrinking federal budget, Wu is optimistic about the future of ERC and the country.
“I’m optimistic, the future is pretty good,” she says. “We’re in the aerospace industry and doing OK.”
For the country, she is steadfast that the U.S. must remain vigilant regarding her native China.
“We can’t be No. 2,” Wu says.
Budd McLaughlin is a freelancer writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.