Tucked in a small shopping center in St. Charles, near pizza shops, a tire store and a grocery store, Masterclock hardly looks like a manufacturer with a worldwide reach.
Some people think it’s a repair shop or a retail store. Some are just puzzled.
“We have people walking by who live nearby poke their heads in, wondering what we do,” said Masterclock President and CEO John Clark. “We’ve had people email us with questions about getting their grandfather clock repaired — and that’s not what we do.”
The business doesn’t provide that service but instead manufactures clocks and timing equipment for some of the most recognizable organizations in the world, including NASA and CBS Sports.
At that nondescript shopping center location, Masterclock makes both digital and analog clocks and synchronization devices. To keep the clocks synchronized, some systems rely on satellites in the Global Positioning System (GPS) and others are linked to the internet to constantly stay updated.
The clocks, which cost several hundred dollars each, are built for commercial customers. The metal boxes housing the clocks, supplied by Chesterfield-based metal fabricator CR Metal, help limit shocks and vibrations and prevent electromagnetic interference.
Some of Masterclock’s high-profile installations include multiple NASA facilities, the Vatican and the Estadio Do Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Locally, Masterclock equipment is installed at KMOX Radio, St. Louis Lambert International Airport and the St. Louis Science Center.
One of Masterclock’s display clocks is on loan to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of an exhibit on time’s role in navigation.
It’s impossible not to know what time it is at Masterclock. Dozens of rectangular digital clocks of all sizes, with bright red LED numbers displaying the hour, minute and seconds, are hung on every office wall. Some rooms have multiple clocks, all synchronized within a thousandth of a second. Some of its clocks are designed for accuracy up to a millionth of a second.
With so many clocks around, Clark, the son of the company’s founders, doesn’t bother wearing a watch.
“I look at clocks all day,” he says.
Masterclock got its start in 1994 in Bill and Mary Clark’s Macomb, Ill., garage, where they started by making timing cards for broadcasters to synchronize their automation systems. The company moved its operations to St. Charles in 1997.
A contract to add a GPS-linked timing system to synchronize clocks inside tollbooths in Bangkok was the first big international deal for the small company.
That tollbooth deal a little more than a decade ago was the beginning of the company’s global growth spurt. It had about six employees then; today, it has 19 — and customers in more than 100 countries.
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla., Masterclock worked with engineers in 2014 to modernize the facility’s countdown system.
“We realized we were already doing it for broadcasters, and we thought, ‘Why can’t we do it for NASA?’” said Mary Clark, who remains majority owner of the business.
John Clark, who started working at the factory as a teenager and joined the company after receiving a degree in marketing from the University of Missouri, was named CEO in 2015.
The company is on track to reach $3.2 million in revenue this year, and Masterclock recently formed an advisory board to use as a resource for growth.
This fall, Masterclock took first place, and a $25,000 prize, in the World Trade Center St. Louis’ 2017 St. Louis Export Challenge that will help the company grow its international sales by creating a secured dealer portal online.
“We’ve had double-digit growth this year, and we’ll look to expand next year,” John Clark said.
The World Trade Center, the international division of St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, had more than 80 applicants for the export competition, which was limited to businesses with less than $10 million in annual revenue.
“There are a lot of small- and mid-sized companies with export ambitions,” said Tim Nowak, World Trade Center St. Louis’ executive director.
The difference between many other small businesses and Masterclock is that Masterclock set out to capture more international sales instead of waiting for the business to come to them, Nowak said.
“They’ve been very intentional and strategic and less reactive,” Nowak said, adding that the company serves as a role model for other small businesses with global growth ambitions. “We’d like to see more of that."