For a company stuck down an obscure side street in Lebanon -- have you ever driven along Spencer Street? -- Geokon reaches awfully far. If you could get to them, you'd find its products embedded in dams in China; in the new runway being built in Hong Kong; in mines from Australia and New Guinea to Canada; in bridges throughout the US; in the Chunnel; in subway tunnels in Seoul and Istanbul and Guangzhou and London and Singapore.... You get the idea.
This is what happens when you've got a good share of the market in what began as a European technology that, over time, gained worldwide demand. The technology? A wire whose vibrations allow for the precise measurement of stresses and strains on, within, and around structures of all sorts.
The basic concept -- known, strangely enough, as "vibrating wire" technology -- had been around since the late 1800s. But beginning in the 1970s, Barrie Sellers and a handful of colleagues -- first at a Creare spinoff known as Irad Gauge, then at Geokon, which Sellers founded -- adapted the idea. "We just made it elegant and easy to make," Sellers says. "That revolutionized it."
When Irad Gauge and then Geokon started, the field -- known as geotechnical instrumentation -- was dominated a tiny handful of firms in Europe, the US and Canada, and was bumping along at a staid pace. Geokon's innovations made the devices smaller, easier to install, easier to monitor, and adaptable to all sorts of uses, from sitting underwater to being encased in concrete to getting planted in rock. They also came along at a time when the people behind construction projects all over the world were beginning to see the need to make sure their structures weren't cracking or slipping or sinking or rising or bending in ways they shouldn't.
Here's how Geokon explains itself:
"There's a lot of construction in difficult environments where you're surrounded by other structures that might get damaged if you fail to provide adequate support, so there's more need for instrumentation," says Sellers. "And also, you're trying to avoid running into lawsuits for failing to take due diligence."
The other advantage to vibrating wire gauges is that they're stable over long periods. In some cases, Geokon's instruments have been in the ground for three decades, and are still going strong. "The environments they're in are aggressive environments, and they need to withstand that," says Chuck Chamley, who manages the company's sales teams and is one of four directors who took over after Sellers stepped down from day-to-day management. "We're in 75 countries, in cold environments and hot climates, in nuclear waste repositories and in the Arctic."
Chuck Chamley. Geokon employees have been growing the vine above his head for years -- it's now headed down a hallway off to the left toward Barrie Sellers' office.
For a firm with employees in Singapore and sister companies in Canada and China, Geokon still has the home-grown feel of an Upper Valley company. Most of its 120-plus employees are from around here, and there are several families with multiple members working there. "When I first started here, everyone was like 'Hi, who are you related to?'" jokes Joelle Lang, a young sales rep. "The culture here," says manufacturing process engineer Tommy Bauch, "is familial. Everyone helps you out, and is willing to give you time out of their day."
The hire-local focus that's produced this tight-knit feel is both an advantage and, in a high-employment economy, a challenge. Geokon has a variety of positions open, and is having trouble filling them. "We've flown people in from all over the country to discuss positions, and occasionally it works out," says Chuck Chamley. "We’re growing and there are things we want to do, and to some extent we're being held back a little bit because it's hard to find the right types of employees to fit the skill sets they need coming into the job."
Last year, Geokon sold enough cable to reach from Lebanon to Houston, says Barrie Sellers. It transmits vibration frequencies from the vibrating wire's location to a readout gauge.
Or as Sellers puts it, "It's a problem for everyone around here. The unemployment ratio is under 3 percent so we all have to compete to attract and retain new employees from a very limited labor pool. One way to lose people is to have them stolen by someone else." But he points out that the company's local roots and close-knit culture--plus decent wages and benefits--have produced very low turnover. "The Geokon philosophy is: customer first, then the employees, and then, if there's something left over, the stockholders can have it. And the stockholder is mainly me."
His big fear for the future, he adds, is loss of this culture. "We're about the only company doing what we do that hasn't been bought out by some big conglomerate." He worries that after he's gone, the company will have to be sold, and then sold again, and will lose its current character. "Someone always has to own it," he says, "and as it gets bigger and bigger the amount of money gets bigger, and the only people who can afford to buy it are big outfits, and then it loses its soul, you might say."
This was written by Rob Gurwitt for Story Kitchen Creative, which created the Tech Valley blog. It is published under the auspices of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and paid for by the City of Lebanon.