Enterprise Automation’s Luke Stephenson and Josh Riley joined host Lisa Richter on the CSIA’s monthly podcast “Talking Industrial Automation.” The duo discussed the roots and evolution of Enterprise Automation and shared their insights on everything from their philosophies on best business practices, advice about how to select a systems integrator, and reflections on what they would advise a younger version of themselves.
EA Beginnings & Evolution
Enterprise Automation was started in 1998 by Dave Panish. In the beginning, EA’s primary client was Hydrogen Burner Technology Inc.. Their objective was creating a reformer that converted natural gas into hydrogen and paired it with a fuel cell to make electricity in a compac housing that was about the size of an air conditioner. Three-quarters of Enterprise Automation’s business was through HBT and at the time they were heavily investor-driven. During the tragedy of 9/11, 7 out of the top 15 investors passed away causing a massive drop in funding that resulted in Hydrogen Burner Technology going out of business. This left EA with a large unpaid bill. Dave Panish was able to make some crucial decisions that kept Enterprise Automation afloat amidst the tough circumstances, but that was the beginning of some major changes for the company.
In 2005, Scott Pickford joined Enterprise Automation bringing his sales expertise to the team, and in 2006 with a combined 2+ decades in controls and automation, Josh Riley and Scott Pickford purchased the company. Since late 2006, the company has grown from three people to over thirty-five, growing their revenue 18% per year on average.
Enterprise Automation serves multiple industries, and within that, they have public clients and private clients with vast differences between the two groups. Over the past decade, EA has evolved to serve both, into what they describe as almost 2 sub-organizations.
Enterprise Automation works with all major automation suppliers for software and hardware, most notably, AVEVA, Schneider Electric, Rockwell, and Siemens. They have worked hard to become an Endorsed Systems Integrator with AVEVA, which is the highest tier of recognized partnership AVEVA has with integrators. This recognition is by invitation only, and to achieve it, EA had to demonstrate their capabilities extensively, as well as maintain a number of certified people within the staff. This partnership sets Enterprise Automation up to be strongly aligned with the AVEVA product portfolio and the client base that they seek to serve.
EA is also close partners with Schneider Electric, having come up through their certification and partnership program. Enterprise Automation is the only Alliance Master Partner with Schneider in the United States, and out of the 16 total across the globe. EA is currently the only integrator in the world that holds those 2 top-tier invitation-only partnership statuses.
Challenges for Customers
Common challenges for customers include source control issues, problems with PLCs, or SCADA system stability, but Luke and Josh explained that the real challenge for clients is establishing long-term planning. They relate it to retirement planning, joking that although no one wants to do it, it’s necessary for producing the outcome that most businesses want. EA spends a lot of time learning what their clients want from a long-term goals perspective so that they can take the steps needed along the way to achieve those ultimate goals. One of the most difficult parts of this is typically procurement, but part of the benefit of long-term planning is helping to establish budgets so that they can predict what will be needed and secure buy-in from management. Overall, Enterprise Automation describes long-term planning as one of the most challenging things to get clients to do.
Approaching a Project
Enterprise Automation has a unique approach when it comes to winning business. When it comes to the project work within the Water and Wastewater industry, it’s typically selecting a vendor based on the lowest responsive bid. Most integrators that are vying for that work are finding it by working with electrical subcontractors or general contractors who win projects based also on being the lowest price provider. Josh and Luke feel that in this type of situation, the disconnect from the end-user is not ideal. In addition to the fact that the system integrator is being brought in after the design of the system has already been created, they are competing on winning that work based on a low price. Whenever the cost is the only factor in the decision-making process, it usually leads to what EA calls “lost value.” “Lost value” is when an integrator leaves things out that would be beneficial for the end customer so that they can remain competitive in cost, and don’t lose the opportunity.
Since the Water and Wastewater industry makes up about 75% of Enterprise Automation’s work, they have a different approach than most integrators in that they don’t pursue any low bid-based work. They seek to engage directly with end-users. Enterprise Automation goes straight to the City, County, District, or Authority and speaks with them to plan for their automation needs long term. Procurement can sometimes be difficult, but EA helps clients understand what resources are available, and helps educate and work together with the end-users to make it happen.
One of the first things they discuss is “true goals.” In addition to operations and engineering, they speak to General or Assistant General Management on the public works side (on the private side this would be a CFO or a CEO) and they interview the client to find out what their preferences are. They talk about forming the team that will execute and create Instrumentation Control and Electrical Standards. They talk to them about the specifics of each part, taking the information and teaching it to the design consultant. Not only does Enterprise Automation ask for standards, but they educate the appropriate parties and make sure that the standards are kept. In this way, they are able to achieve true consistency and everything becomes more cost-effective. By getting this “base level” of standardization, EA can graduate to tools like advanced reporting, AI, and machine learning, and it all comes together because it is built the right way.
Part of EA’s standard implementation is to build maintenance screens into SCADA. EA illustrates an I/O rack right on the screen, which allows the maintenance team to see raw signal values so that they don’t have to get ameter out. At EA they think through “lock out-tag out” and calibration at the SCADA level. In addition, because they are engaged with their clients for the long term rather than just one project, the staff is incentivized to think that way, because they are the ones who will inherit some of those issues and complaints if they don’t do it right the first time.
More than 80% of EA’s business is from repeat customers. Some clients have been with EA for 10-15 years. That is a big compliment because it shows that they see value in working with EA. In some relationships with municipalities, that means that they have “gone to bat” for EA multiple times. It is indicative of the health of the relationships. Often, that might mean that clients spend less with us over the long run – and that is what we want. We want our clients to receive the value of our expertise.
How has EA grown
No surprise, COVID-19 made the biggest impact in 2020. A big part of Enterprise Automation’s culture is collaboration, and being on lockdown left everyone wondering how the culture would be affected in the medium to long term. Ultimately, the EA culture has endured well, with EA even onboarding 5 new hires in the midst of the pandemic in 2020.
Under the circumstances, onboarding was a big challenge and with growth as the focus over the next 12-24 months, it will continue to be a part of the big picture. Despite the challenges of lockdown, they were still able to bring new hires up to speed through EA University, a unique and thorough onboarding program. They were fortunate to continue to hold the 5-week program in person, albeit socially distant, going over systems, methods, company culture, as well as teaching the in-depth PLC and SCADA programming required to deliver EA projects. Each EAU class identifies themselves with a name of their choosing, and given the new team members had to wear masks and be socially distanced, they dubbed themselves the “Masked Men”.
Enterprise Automation is a company that is owned and run by engineers, so the art of selling is relatively new for them. Enterprise Automation is growing consistently and looking to add talented team members in this area, who understand what EA is ultimately all about.
When asked what advice they would give to a prospective customer researching a controls engineer or systems integrator, they had some sage advice.
- Products are great, but make sure to emphasize implementation. If possible, choose your integrator before you choose your product. Great products implemented poorly ruins the whole project.
Make sure there is an understanding of who will be doing the implementation and ensure that there is a high level of trust in their capability.
“Products are great, they solve a myriad of issues, and can present the right tool for the job, but we feel that most products are pretty capable, and what introduces more undesirable outcomes is integration.”
- Use a show-and-tell evaluation method. See that the work they say they do is what they actually do.
It can be a difficult task to assess if someone is going to provide the level of service we want. As one example, spend some time to look over the test documentation for the last project they did. If they can produce that fairly quickly, and it can be read clearly, that is a good sign.
- Look into their hiring process and make sure they are hiring great people that can be counted on.
Their hiring practices are your hiring practices. Whoever they staff a project or company with will end up being an extension of your staff to get the project done. Do some digging into how they find and replace talent. Enterprise Automation gets a lot of feedback from clients who get frustrated because with other companies, when someone leaves, the client is stuck with a different employee who may not have the experience the previous employee had or it is an inconsistent experience. One of the things Enterprise Automation prides itself on is finding really great talent. While there will always be differences in people’s abilities or experiences, creating that team-based level playing field is important so that their customers can say “As long as EA shows up, I’m taken care of.” EA deploys the right resources for the right projects and makes sure they are supported.
Putting too much of an emphasis on prices can be a detriment. It may seem like a short-term win or the right thing to do for the budget, but in the long run, it can be costly if you don’t get the quality or features you are after. EA’s advice is to talk with client references and pay a visit to their building. Observe firsthand how they conduct themselves, and how things are organized.
Certification is part of Enterprise Automation’s standard sales deck. They talk about it every single time. They are after qualifications-based work whether it’s public or private. This is very simple, being CSIA certified proves that not only can you put a project together, but the business is run well from Project Management, to HR and accounting. With the clients’ Enterprise Automation works with, they see the value in that and it’s a piece of the differentiator that they use.
If Not a Systems Integrator Then What?
When asked what Josh and Luke would be doing if they weren’t systems integrators, Josh reflected on a memory of himself in his backyard playing with PVC pipes and fittings, confirming that he has always loved engineering. He states that it was later in life that he realized how much he enjoyed the leadership aspect of the role. His personal motivation in life is to enable himself and others to succeed. If Josh wasn’t a systems integrator, he could see himself doing any job where he could see good work by good people, and help enable them.
You can listen to the full episode, episode 57, here or anywhere you get your podcasts.