Kathleen Harden, owner of Southern Mechanical and Structural, Inc. — SMS — in Dunlap, and her husband, Jeff, are innovators and problem-solvers. While their business caters primarily to the meat processing industry and is best known for its unsurpassed knife and shear sharpeners and its sharpening service, in the words of Jeff Harden, “Our business isn’t just about sharpeners and knives; it is about finding solutions for businesses — solutions to increase their production and profit and reduce ergonomic injuries and the expenses associated with them.”
The Hardens are originally from Alabama. Kathleen’s background is in accounting and computer science; Jeff’s in industrial and mechanical engineering. Kathleen began her career working for an agricultural commodities business that introduced her to the meat processing industry. Jeff started out in his family’s business manufacturing structures and gears.
While working with the meat processing operations, Kathleen identified several key needs that were not being filled. The processing plants, which use thousands of knives, blades and shears a day, needed an efficient way to sharpen knives on-site. Other key needs at the plants were more durable grating that could be cut on-site to fit the current drains; adjustable ergonomic work stands to accommodate workers of different heights; and round bottom cones to help with USDA inspection, cleaning and sanitation.
The couple combined their talents and started their own business in 1999 to provide solutions to fill these needs.
“We developed a knife and shear sharpener for use in processing plants,” Kathleen explains. “We sold our products to distributors like Sysco rather than to end users. One of the big companies we called on was Dexter Knives in Southbridge, Massachusetts. They recruited Jeff to be the processing division manager, and I took over full leadership of SMS.
“Though the business began with industrial blade and knife sharpeners and fiberglass grating, a big part of the business is training the workers to use the sharpeners and the in-house sharpening equipment.
“This is a strenuous industry, one with constant pressure and high demand. Due to these factors, we found opportunities to offer our knowledge and expertise when it came to knife programs. Whether it is knife sharpness, durability, longevity or the proper knife for each cutting task, we are able to offer our insight and training. This allows our customers to focus on the needs of their customers.”
“Finally, one of our customers said, ‘We process meat. We don’t want to be in the sharpening business. Can’t we just hire you to sharpen our knives?’”
“We were reluctant to get into the sharpening business, but we said we would give it a try,” Kathleen explained. “And it worked! We now have UPS bringing in thousands of knives everyday to our Dunlap shop to be sharpened and shipped back to the plants.
“That works well here, but our business in Nebraska and North Carolina near the poultry and pork processing plants became so great that we had to build large sharpening shops in those states. In the coming year, we are planning to expand again and will open three or four more shops in other areas.
“We have our own trucks that pick-up knives and shears to be sharpened and delivered back to the plants at these high-volume facilities near the processors.
“We also have a small machine shop in Georgia that makes parts for our products. We are working toward moving that shop to Dunlap.”
“We build the best sharpeners out there,” said Jeff. “We calculate the best angles to achieve the sharpest edge for each cutting task. Not all steel is the same. We make custom sharpeners to meet the needs of processors across the country and around the world. Our angles, finishing processes and products are patented and proprietary. And all our products are manufactured from food-safe material and are USDA/CDC compliant.
“We listen to our customers’ needs and try to find the best solutions. Sometimes it is something as small as the tension in a carbon steel spring that makes all the difference!
“Here is one example of a problem solved. A customer approached our national sales manager, James Martin, about a safety issue in their facility concerning transportation and distribution of knives and scissors. They wanted to know if we knew of a better way to do this or if we had a product that would be a safer option. We developed a knife/scissor bucket with a grid system to separate tools and a locking lid for safe transportation and distribution.
“We are always looking for ways to improve the process. This year, these innovations have been especially important. COVID-19 has forever changed the way the industry does business. We believe our work with robotics and automation can be the answer to the slowdowns and shortages in the supply chain.
“We already have robots in some of our larger shops and are getting ready to install them in our Dunlap operation. Robotics are also in the plans for our expansions next year. The food industry is one that cannot shut down, cannot fail. We have to eat, and our products are needed to keep the supply moving.
“It is amazing how what we are doing in ‘little ole’ Dunlap is impacting the food supply around the world. We take pride in our innovation and try to have one or two new products or improvements each year.”
This is largely a family business. The Hardens’ daughter, Jennifer Martin, is the director of operations in Dunlap, and their son, Matthew Downing, manages the plant in Dakota City, Nebraska.
“This is a fun business,” said Jeff. “Our employees balance each other out. We all have our own special talent. It makes us feel really good when our customers tell us about their increased productivity and how much money and time they have saved because of our innovations and products and how many fewer ergonomic injuries they have.”
While the Hardens have been very successful with their business ventures, they also believe in giving back to the communities where they do business. They host a big golf tournament each year to support U.S. troops and benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. They give scholarships to students in the food tech/meat science programs at universities with strong programs in those areas — universities such as Auburn and Texas Tech. They also donate knives and blades to equip the schools’ meat processing labs.
How did the Alabama family end up in Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley? The couple made their home here in 2005 after first visiting the Valley in 2003 to fish at Nickajack Lake.
“We fell in love with the Valley — it’s just so beautiful!' said Kathleen. “After our youngest child graduated high school, we moved to South Pittsburg while still running the business out of Dothan, Alabama.”
“We wanted to move the business here and looked at sites up and down the Valley. We finally found the seven acres we now have in Dunlap and built our assembly shop and sharpening service. We are here because we love the Valley. Honestly, we bought the property for the scenery.
“Our Dunlap operation is our smallest, but we have made it our corporate office. Here we are blessed to have good, responsible employees who love their jobs, show up every day and do their jobs well. We are not close to our customer base, but we don’t have to be. UPS goes everywhere.
“We love this small town. With all that is going on in the big cities, I don’t want to be there. I like quiet.”