Professor Norman Alpert casts a long shadow over BioTek Instruments, Inc, but his sons, Briar Alpert and Adam Alpert, who now run the company, don’t mind at all. In fact, they’re more than grateful to be riding his vision into explosive growth.
BioTek of Winooski belongs to that unusual category of Vermont companies – family-run, community-involved, privately held, extremely successful, internationally known – yet tucked easily and quietly into the Vermont business landscape. Ben & Jerry’s might get all the big press, but companies like this one are quietly and happily succeeding in the Green Mountains and far beyond.
BioTek is a global leader in life science technology, specifically in the development, manufacture and sale of microplate instrumentation and software. All its manufacturing is done in Vermont. The company sells its products across the U.S. and in 93 other countries – and counting. The company made $91 million last year in sales and is on track for $100 million this year. It employs 340 people in high-quality jobs and has an enviable retention record; 25 percent of the company’s employees have been with it for more than 20 years. It’s a cool company with a great story.
One person who likes it is Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.
“One of my eye-openers as governor has been going to visit companies like BioTek,” said Shumlin. “It’s an amazing story. It’s a prime example of a couple of Vermont boys building a company their father started and turning it into one of the leading manufacturers of high-tech medical equipment in the world. This is the reason why Vermont’s economy is thriving. They’re creating high-paying, good jobs for Vermont families. I’m really proud of them.”
A few months ago, Shumlin was one of a handful of US governors invited out to California by Vice-President Joe Biden to meet Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping – the man who will someday be China’s president – along with a group of Chinese governors. Under discussion were US trade relations with China on a state-to-state basis. BioTek was featured prominently in the conversation, Shumlin said.
“It was one of the most interesting meetings I’ve been in,” Shumlin said. “We had a frank and candid two-and-a-half hour discussion. What came out of it was first, that Xi really understands America better than any Chinese leader in recent history. And second, we discussed what, specifically, we can do to break down barriers to trade and job creation. And all seven Chinese governors, plus the incoming leader of China, want to do business with Vermont. They want to collaborate, to host us and to figure out how we can sell their products here and ours there. China wants to be a partner in innovation and in the exploration of new technologies. Look at a company like BioTek. They want to keep their jobs here in Vermont. There’s a huge opportunity to expand their sales of medical equipment in China, as well as an opportunity for them to use Chinese technology.”
Norman Alpert, who died in November of 2004 at the age of 82, founded BioTek in a Charlotte garage in 1968. At the time he was chairman of the physiology department at the University of Vermont. Working with his close friend George Luhr, also of UVM, and with an initial capitalization of $900, he was determined to turn life science concepts into business opportunities.
“It was the concept of designing equipment to test for the electrical safety and quality assurance of hospital equipment such as defibrillators, infusion pumps, pulse oximeters, etc, that finally allowed the company to grow and build a solid foundation under it,” said Briar, 54, who now serves as the company’s president. “Basically, this line of equipment, which we refer to as bio-medical equipment, ensured that the equipment used on people in hospital was safe and working properly. Over the period from 1968 to 1980, BioTek created a complete line of this type of equipment and started developing our brand in this market.”
BioTek today is run by Briar and his older brother Adam, 56, who serves as vice-president of business development. The two brothers and their younger sister, a medical doctor who has no direct involvement in the company, are the only shareholders. Although the company has had financial downs as well as ups in its past, it currently has no debt and self-finances its own operations. It intends to remain in Vermont.
“Inside our products are printed circuit boards and complex optics, fluidics and cabling,” Briar said. “Because these are such high-value products and we can charge a very good price for them, it allows us to keep 100 percent of our manufacturing and engineering in Vermont, as well as all our core offices. Really, everything is located here with the exception of our direct sales and service, which is located in the areas we want to serve.”
The company has offices in China, France, Germany, India, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and England as well as in the U.S., which is 52.1 percent of its market. (The Vermont market is one-tenth of one percent; the company remains here because the Alpert family loves it.)
“We have 240 people in Vermont and another 40 spread out across the U.S.,” Briar said. “These are sales and service people. We have another 50 people located around the world. The biggest concentrations are in China, Germany, Switzerland and Korea and then Singapore, India, France and the U.K. We have a guy in Costa Rica and a guy in Brazil.”
BioTek is noted in Vermont for being a good place to work. It won a 2012 “Best Places to Work” award and in 2010, took the Deane C. Davis Business of the Year Award. The Davis award honors a Vermont business “that shows an outstanding history of sustained growth while displaying an acute awareness of what makes Vermont unique. Commitment to the environment and dedication to employee relations are key components to receiving this award as well.”
The Vermont Chamber of Commerce, when it presented the Davis award to BioTek, said, “BioTek management offers an open-door policy for the staff, encouraging thoughts on policy adjustments to decrease costs or increase employee satisfaction. Annual reviews are holistically approached, based on the individual in the present, past and with a focus on the future. BioTek also promotes continued education by offering 100 percent tuition reimbursement and a ‘Bonus Pool’ that pays a uniform amount to each person, since every employee is considered an equal contributor to the company.
“BioTek’s commitment to employees is apparent and so is their dedication to the community. The organization encourages all staff to participate in community programs in order to strengthen the bond with the local community. The staff at BioTek is incentivized to support charities either financially or by donating their own time. Employees can deduct donations directly from their paychecks to be paid to the charity of their choice and BioTek will randomly draw a donator’s name to win an additional forty hours of paid vacation time. Volunteering up to eight hours per year will gain them paid time off as well.”
By all accounts, Norman Alpert was an inspiring teacher as well as a naturally gifted entrepreneur. And he could do both at the same time. Even after he turned the reins of the company over to his younger son in 2000, he remained involved at UVM as well as in his company.
“Up to the final months before he passed, my father maintained a full schedule at both UVM and BioTek,” Briar said. “At BioTek he continued to review the performance of the company, providing positive or negative feedback as appropriate and ask questions if something did not make sense. In addition, he served as sounding board for both Adam and I on most of the major decisions or programs we were considering. He was very engaged and loved to talk through the potential different approaches and outcomes, but then ultimately he wanted it to be our decision, so that we would own the outcome, positive or negative. Perhaps Norman’s greatest legacy is that above all, he was a great teacher.”
Norman Alpert recruited John Evans, former head of the UVM Medical School and now a senior advisor to the president of the university, to the UVM faculty back in 1976. Evans has nothing but praise for his former mentor.
“He was a great example to all of us on the faculty,” Evans said. “He was an internationally renowned scholar, a great leader, and all of that was wrapped up in an entrepreneur. Most academics – and I say that with all respect to my colleagues – are not as entrepreneurial as they have the potential to be. Norman was a pioneer of that here at the University. For many of us who have ourselves gone on and done private-factor work, he was a role model. He had an unusual ability to motivate people. He could be supporting and at the same time set a high level of expectation. One of the most important things I learned from him was that you could help other people succeed and just enjoy what they do, because that is what being a leader and an educator is all about. He was just a very special man.”
In 1980, in response to a changing scientific culture, BioTek began to manufacture machines that worked with microplates – little plastic plates of various shapes that have anything from a hundred to a thousand tiny “wells” in them. Microplates take the place of test tubes. Before them, a scientist (think of “CSI” or “NCIS”) would use a pipette to put material in one test tube at a time, then run it through a machine to break down the biology. A researcher would have to repeat this process many, many times. Microplates act as if you’d joined 500 test tubes together for one experiment. BioTek’s automated equipment can fill the wells, agitate them and then analyze the results.
“We don’t make the plates,” Briar said. “We make the instruments that add and subtract the fluids into the plates, that wash away the unbound samples and ultimately do the detection step. I like to think of it in terms of the big Gold Rush. We’d be the guys selling the shovels and picks.”
In this analogy, scientists, like prospectors, are looking for treasure.
“And every one of them defines it differently,” Briar said. “At the universities, they’re doing basic research, trying to understand at a biological level what is happening with Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s. The pharmaceutical industry is wondering how to commercialize basic research to make money. The Red Cross uses our equipment to screen every pint of blood against viruses like AIDS or hepatitis. Perdue Chickens has hen houses with 150,000 hens in them. They’re trying to make sure there’s no bird flu or salmonella. These are very different customers doing very different things, but it all has to do with understanding what’s happening on a cellular or molecular level. We make very sophisticated tools – the shovels and picks – that allow people to answer the questions of interest to them in biology.”
Dr Nicholas H Heintz of UVM’s College of Medicine’s Vermont Cancer Center uses BioTek equipment for his cancer research.
“Science has evolved over the last 20 years,” Heintz said. “In order to accommodate a change in the scientific culture, BioTek came along and Norman Alpert formed a company on the principle that it should be possible to do these things in a format more amenable to getting data faster. The big question was how accurate the measurements would be. BioTek made progressively sophisticated machines – not only machines, but a very responsive and well-manufactured unit – that was very reliable over time.”
Competition is fierce in this marketplace, Heintz said.
“People make fancier machines that are more expensive. but they’re not as reliable as BioTek and neither is the backup support,” Heintz said. “BioTek machines work for years and years without any kind of any difficulty in terms of accuracy or maintenance. They’re basically the standards in the field. We buy stuff from all over the world, but they are the best. Not the most expensive, but the best.”
When microplates were first introduced, Norman Alpert was quick to understand the financial advantages for his company.
“He was instrumental in identifying and pursuing this opportunity,” Briar said. “It would not have happened without his leadership and decision to invest millions in this opportunity.”
One of the abiding legacies of Norman Alpert is that he broke new ground in joining pure academic research with commerce, Evans said.
“BioTek a great example of the impact of research on the private sector,” Evans said. “Norman was here as a world-famous researcher. But he had a good idea and transferred it from the university to commerce. We’re doing a lot more of that now, and he really helped break the path.”
Sons of remarkable fathers sometimes have a tough time following in their footsteps. Briar and Adam, however, work as a close-knit team. Briar is the more dynamic and outgoing of the two; as the public face of the company, he’s fast-talking, personable and full of nervous energy and intelligence. Adam is more dignified, formal, reserved and thoughtful. He talks a little slower and has a dry sense of humor. Both men use the word “passion” often when talking about their company and their father. Passion clearly defines what they do and the way they think.
“The boys clearly didn’t fall very far from the tree,” Evans said. “They’re very much like Norman. The people who work at BioTek feel supported. It’s almost like one big family. People are treated with respect, and I’m sure there is, as there was with Norm, a high bar for performances.”
The brothers clearly adore their father.
“Father was very optimistic and likable and got a lot of help from people throughout his career,” Adam said. “People were enthusiastic to see my dad’s visions come true and to help him do what he wanted to do. That might distinguish him from other entrepreneurs. He enjoyed talking to people and was very engaged and passionate about what he was doing. That was a big part of his success in life.”
Both brothers had successful careers outside the company before they decided to join their father in the business, and both are eagerly planning their next five-year strategy plan now.
Life with Father
Norman Alpert had “an intense, passionate fondness for science,” Adam said, but he was curious about almost everything around him.
“He was interested in theater and saw a lot of theater in New York when he did his Ph.D. at Columbia University,” Adam said. “He spent a lot of time with the artists who were on Broadway. He had an interesting circle of friends.”
Norman Alpert’s wife, Laurel, who died last November, was an English major at the University of Michigan and pursued a career in acting before she got married; she did some commercials for Coca Cola. The couple had three children, first Adam, then Briar, and then a daughter, Jamie, who is now a doctor. “Our mother had a view that it would serve me well to have an unusual name,” Briar said. “Jamie is unusual for a girl. And Adam? At the time, Adam was an unusual name. My mother and Norman were a great team. She was a saver and a bit risk-adverse. Norman had tremendous risk tolerance and optimism. Mixed together, this was a very powerful combination.”
To illustrate family life growing up, Briar talked about the time the St Bernard had to be neutered; his father decided to do it himself.
“It’s a funny story that shows how my father thought,” Briar said. “We were just kids. And of course, normally, you bring the dog to the vet. But my father had a different idea. He said, ‘This is not that hard. We can do it ourselves. And you can help.’ Remember, he had a laboratory.”
“And he did this on rabbits,” Adam added.
“Plus, this is a big dog, so everything will be big,” Briar said. “So we go in and anesthetize the dog. My dad had a book that explained how you do it. And we did it. The scar was a little bigger, maybe, but the operation was absolutely successful. The dog recovered completely. But I tell you, the dog remembered.”
The lesson was that anything is do-able.
“At the time, it wasn’t illegal,” Briar said. “You do it and you learn from it.”
“I learned that I never wanted to do it again,” Adam said.
“It did seem like a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed, but sometimes you have to cross boundaries to be entrepreneurial,” Briar said.
Norman Alpert’s area of interest was heart muscle research, specifically the factors that lead to heart disease. He started his career as the youngest associate professor in the history of the University of Illinois Department of Physiology. The family moved to Vermont in the mid-’60s when a rare opportunity came to head his own department at UVM while he was still quite young.
“At UVM, he was the youngest chairman of a physiology department not just in the history of UVM, but I think in the country,” Adam said. “He was only about 42, I think.”
As a city girl, Laurel Alpert was reluctant to leave Chicago.
“At that time, Burlington was a small town,” Adam said. “There was not much to do. You could go and see the new appliances in Sears. There were no bagels.”
Adam was 11 years old; Briar was just 9.
“We weren’t consulted,” Briar said. “We were just packed up and moved. It proved to be a great decision for our family and for our father. And that’s how we ended up in Vermont.”
From the beginning, Briar and Alpert were happy with the move.
“It was exciting for us, because we were, on occasion, invited to the university to see what science looked like,” Adam said. “And it was fun. There were lots of moving parts, lots of apparatus, interesting kinds of gases like liquid nitrogen – especially when you could put a rubber hose in it and see it break into a lot of little pieces. I would certainly give my father credit for inspiring us to move forward in careers that were largely aligned with his.”
About the same time that the Alperts moved to Vermont, their good friends and neighbors, the Luhrs, moved as well. George Luhr became the head of the model-making facility at UVM.
“Different scientists throughout the university would have ideas, and the model-making facility would turn those ideas into models,” Briar said. “They would build the things the scientists needed to carry forward with their experiments. So George and my father were always talking about, in addition to science, what business ideas they could go forward with. My father had the expertise in the science and application and George in the manufacturing of things. It was a powerful combination.”
There were numerous false starts. Once they tried starting an audio-visual repair shop. Another time they tried a contract/design building company. They even designed equipment for a chiropractor. But it was their device to check medical equipment in hospitals for electrical current leakage that became the foundation of the company, that and other safety testing equipment.
“This was before there was any regulation governing safety in hospitals relative to the equipment that people are hooked up to,” Briar said. “If you can imagine, you’re a patient, you’re already sick and in the hospital, in a vulnerable condition and you have all these wires connected from instruments to you. If there’s a little bit of leakage of current, you could be electrocuted. And that was happening. Or take a defibrillator. The doctor turns the dial to, say, 500. How do you know you’re really getting 500?”
Just as BioTek started, the government helped by announcing new hospital safety requirements.
“We had products and there were regulations that tied in nicely,” Briar said. “That allowed for the start of the company and the production of an entire line of instrumentation that assured both electrical safety and instruments that worked properly.”
From testing hospital equipment to making research-oriented gadgets (one measured blood pressure inside the ears of rodents), BioTek was on its way. Then, in 1980, it opened a second division to take advantage of the microplate market. Now there were two: the original bio-medical company and the automated laboratory one.
“We had these two businesses running in parallel,” Briar said. “Two business, different markets, different customers.”
Along the way, the Alperts bought out George Luhr.
“George is now my neighbor,” Briar said. “We live on the same street. He, at his choosing, decided he was ready to retire. The preference was to keep him in the organization but he was ready to cash out. So about 20 years ago, we as a family purchased his shares. And he continues to tinker in the garage that the company started in.”
In high school, Adam became interested in computers. He was soon proficient enough to earn a summer job working in UVM’s academic computing department.
“I showed up at midnight and sat in front of a computer keyboard which was in a room full of screaming machinery, deafening loud, and with lots of bright lights,” Adam said. “It’s the kind of place where you get trained in how to escape in five seconds if there’s a fire, because the halon fire extinguishers come on, and the halon extinguishes all the oxygen in the room. So I would work from midnight until eight in the morning. I got paid a lot for the time. That was quite an introduction to computer science, which is the degree I ultimately took at UVM.”
At 17, Briar took a different path; he was a tennis instructor at an all-girls camp.
“Then I moved into management and became the leader of all the land sports,” Briar said. “That was a nice way to spend a couple of summers. I worked one summer for IBM in compressed air. IBM uses a lot of compressed air to run its tools. When compressed air stops, the production line stops. It was an interesting job. It was very low-key unless you had a problem, and then it was high-key. You had to resolve problems very quickly.”
Briar took a B.S. in mechanical science from UVM; he went back 10 years later for an MBA. After college, neither brother went directly into the family business. Instead, Adam went into the nuclear power industry.
“Nuclear power, which is controversial today, was controversial then, too,” Adam said. “One of the concerns of running a nuclear plant safely is its response to seismic events, and my first job was working for a company that produced pumping systems that were used in these plants. Specifically, I was doing the computer modeling that demonstrates the dynamic frequency characteristics of these pumping systems. Actually, my employer is still here – Hayward Tyler Pump Co. We worked on Three Mile Island before it had its problems. Actually, our stuff saved that plant. It turned out our systems continued to function and kept the plant cool. We thought that was nice.”
Adam then started his own business building software tools.
“Those products ultimately supported some of the early IBM/Microsoft equipment, the first PCs,” Adam said.
Adam joined BioTek in 1986 because he was interested in state-of-the-art software engineering.
“When I joined the company, we were working on a lot of things that were really novel, and I thought that was fun,” Adam said. “It was a chance to build a department here and transcend maybe even my own abilities. It was kind of a technology draw.”
Briar chose to go into construction and took a job with Pizzagalli Construction Co.
“They had an engineering training program that drove you through the varied aspects of construction,” Briar said. “From engineering to scheduling to budgeting to project management. Over the course of five years, they were trying to make us into project managers who could run whole projects. Once I got hired, they shipped me off to Maine. That was a great experience. We built a big Hannaford’s warehouse expansion and a museum in Portland, among other projects. It was very satisfying.”
Briar joined BioTek in January of 1986, six months before his brother.
“Between the two of us, that is over 50 years of BioTek experience,” Briar said.
Briar thought a family-owned company would offer him more opportunity.
“With greater opportunity comes greater responsibility,” Briar said.
“But I was enthusiastic about working with my father. It looked like a great place to get exposure to a lot of different things and people. And because it was a family business, I was given opportunity at a pace as fast as I could consume it. Over the past 26 years, I’ve had half a dozen jobs here, starting as a manufacturing engineer to manager of assembly, then operations, then president of some companies we’ve owned. I assumed the BioTek presidency in 2000.”
For the next five years, Briar was president while his father was chairman of the board.
“It is a rare entrepreneur who can create something and have the ability to delegate real authority with responsibility,” Briar said. “Above all, my father was a teacher. Also, he was a very humble man for what he accomplished. He was very in control of his ego. He did not need the position of being president. He got tremendous pleasure of having one of his children take over that position.”
Norman Alpert was a very supportive person.
“A lot of the satisfaction he derived was seeing someone reach their full potential, not only here but at the university where he was full-time chairman while he did the BioTek stuff on the side,” Adam said. “It was a big deal when he could bring someone in and mentor them. There are a lot of people working here today who benefitted from my father’s contribution.”
The brothers agree that joining the family business gave them great opportunities.
“I got to travel all over the world,” Adam said. “I spent a lot of time engaged with customers, understanding their requirements. I learned a heck of a lot about life science and its importance and certainly our focus today reflects that route. All the technology is great, but we’re about trying to understand how life really works and helping our customers do that with the tools that we provide. It’s really cool stuff.”
Working with their father, the brothers absorbed his unique management style.
“He recognized just by instinct – and what we came to recognize a little by instinct but more by seeing – is that more often or not, the best decision is being made closest to where the work is being performed,” Briar said. “If you empower that person to be able to implement those changes, and empower those people through the entire organization, you have this much more powerful, continuous improvement organization that is just getting better and better.”
This means that good things happen without management necessarily knowing about them; the whole company benefits.
“But you have to be willing to let go of control,” Briar said. “You have to let other people make decisions. You’ve got to recognize that other people’s decisions will be different than yours. Mistakes will occur because we’re doing very complex stuff here. And there’s nothing wrong with making a mistake. What we want to do, better than anyone else, is to recognize it quicker, learn from it and get on the right track. Compare us to our competitors. I think we make fewer mistakes but that’s not the difference. We make them quickly and we fix them quickly and we don’t look to assign blame. It’s amazing how long you have to do that before people will believe it’s your culture. No one wants to volunteer their mistakes.”
The Big Mistake
The brothers are happy to be open about their own – and the company’s – biggest mistake; in the mid-1990s, BioTek acquired a company based in Italy. It almost broke the bank.
“It was a collective decision to buy that company,” Adam said. “There was a champion, a general manager, but that person isn’t here anymore. But we all got behind it – Briar, our father and I. This is in the category that if you survive your really big errors, you’re a better person.”
BioTek found itself in a new business in an area it did not really know.
“There is great risk in acquisition,” Briar said. “And you really need enough financial room in your plan so if things don’t go according to plans – and things always don’t go according to plan – you can survive”
This acquisition consumed all the profits of the two divisions that were working well – and more. It plunged the company into debt.
“It went terribly,” Briar said. “It went so badly, in fact, that it jeopardized the entire company. At this point we’d been running the business for 35 years, and everything we’d managed to take off the table we had to put back in. We had borrowed so much money. And once that was all used up, we had to remortgage our own homes – which really focuses you.”
Ultimately, the family decided to close the acquisition.
“We killed it,” Briar said. “Defeat with honor. We salvaged what was salvageable, and we let go what we had to let go.”
That still didn’t stop the cash flow from hemorrhaging. Finally, in 2002, they decided to sell their original bio-medical company. It was Norman Alpert’s most difficult decision.
“This was very painful for him,” Briar said. “It was like deciding to sell your own child. Ultimately, we convinced him that situation was too dire and if we did not take this step now, we could lose the entire company.”
It was Adam who forced the sale.
“I give my brother credit – he felt the strongest that this decision needed to be made and made quickly,” Briar said. “He was a leader in convincing Norman and I that this had to be done. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, this clearly was the correct decision. All of Norman’s life, he believed that if you get the right people together and if you work really hard at it together, any problem can be solved. This philosophy served him well and continues to live on in our company culture today. However, sometimes the right decision is to completely change course.”
The decision was tough to make but had a happy ending.
“It frankly set the stage for us to focus on what was the significant growth opportunity in the laboratory instrumentation market,” Adam said. “In hindsight, that was a great decision. But for a while we were financially compromised. To put it in perspective, if this had happened to us in 2008, it would have been game over. We were fortunate that it came at a time when we had more options.”
With the sale of the original division, BioTek became “cash positive.”
“Now our investment is all self-funded,” Adam said. “We fund the business off the cash flow. This is a big advantage. It represents a reduction in costs, because we’re not paying to borrow. Also, it gives us the comfort to do a lot of strategic thinking. We can think a lot longer term. I would argue that one of the reasons we’ve been able to transition from a tactical company to one that is really innovative is because we can afford to do things that are a little closer to the leading edge. Having a lot of money in the bank makes that possible, because we can afford to fail.”
The company has always avoided venture capital, Briar said.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but we made a decision to never take VC money,” Briar said. “As a result, we were always a little capital-restrained. At the start, it was personal home equity loans. Friends and family. From there you build up credibility. Then it was asset-based finance – a line of credit based on accounts receivable and inventory. That was with Chittenden Bank. We worked with them for 20 years. Then we got a little too big and international for Chittenden, which was really a local bank. So we moved over to the Chase Bank and worked with them for the next 10 or 15 years. Then we got too big for them. Then they did a syndicated banking deal, where three banks come together and share that exposure. And that was where we were when we did that big acquisition in Europe. We were maxed up on our debt while things weren’t going well. Then with the sale of the bio-med business, we paid back all our debt. So we no longer had any banks. And we were able to avoid all those VCs, who would really want you to have an exit, which kind of forces you to sell the company or highly leverage it. We recognize that we are in a very unusual position to own 100 percent company and not have any debt.”
The sale also helped in another way – it gave the company focus.
“The management team is now working on just one thing,” Briar said. “It wasn’t divided. And from that point forward, you could really see the trajectory that has propelled us to be one of the leaders in the world in what we do. This is how you get great at something.”
Doing Business in Vermont
Even though the world is your market, there is definitely a Vermont way of doing business, Adam said.
“My sense is that business here is not done between companies; it’s done between individuals,” Adam said. “One of the things that’s great about Vermont is there is an accessibility to elected leaders and to community leaders. Perhaps because it’s small enough here and practical to do that. But I do think it sets a tone. In the final analysis, if you’re selling something, there has to be a level of trust. In the long term, to be successful is to have that trust relationship, and Vermont is an incubator for that philosophy. That’s how we do it here.”
One common complaint CEOs make about running businesses in Vermont is the difficulty in finding and attracting top people. BioTek, which requires highly trained engineers, scientists and technicians, has spent a lot of time thinking about recruitment.
“We recruit from everywhere,” Adam said. “Our goal is to have the best team in the world and be the global leader. We’re in search of excellence.”
That translates into either finding excellence at home or having it move to Vermont.
“People stay with the company on average over 10 years,” Briar said.
“About 25 percent of them have been here more than 20 years. Once we find someone, we keep them. Partially it’s because we treat the employees really, really well here, and partially because there aren’t a lot of opportunities across the street. A lot of people who work here are from this area. And a lot would like to come. It is a challenge to find the kind of talent we need in the state. And when we find someone outside the state, we put a lot of energy into making sure it’s a good match. We ask, ‘Do you know what a Vermont winter is like?’ ‘What’s your spouse do for a living?’ ‘Will they be able to get a job here?’”
Vermont has a reputation for good schools, a relatively clean environment and a low crime rate. People think of it as a good place to raise a family, Briar said.
“It’s a relaxed environment,” Briar said. “My half-hour drive to work is a pleasure. I’m not fighting an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic. That’s a tax that Vermont doesn’t have.”
As BioTek’s star rises in the industry, it is able to attract more good people.
“On a global scale, we have developed a reputation for being a leader,” Briar said. “So there are people in the business who work for our competition whose companies have been acquired and reacquired and then acquired again. They’re a little disgruntled with that corporate mentality. And then they see us – a private company with consistency of ownership and we talk to our people. We have been very successful in hiring away people from our competitors around the world.”
Recruiting is also easy because of the “cool stuff” that BioTek products can do, Adam said.
“We really are focused on building products that help people unlock the mysteries of life,” Adam said. “In a practical sense, it’s about improving the quality of life. And our customers are using our products to do that every day. We have a wonderful relationship with BP, for example. We are maybe helping to solve the energy crisis in a small way, presumably so they can get out of drilling in the Gulf. Another example: We screen agricultural products like peanuts. There’s a toxin that comes from peanuts that will kill you; it’s a carcinogen that is monitored by the government. We make the products that help the peanut industry screen for it. In more philosophical terms, our customers are trying to understand how biology works.”
BioTek has benefitted from its relationship with the state. It has, on occasion, gotten funding to do training from the Vermont Training Program. And it has taken advantage of the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive Grant program.
“Say there’s an expansion and you want to buy all this new equipment,” Briar said. “That means new jobs. In exchange, the state says, ‘If you do that, we’ll give you some money.’ It’s a great program. The state isn’t at risk because if you don’t do what you say,. you won’t get the money. We said some very ambitious things, so we weren’t able to get all the money. But we qualified for some.”
In 2008, the company built a 10,000-square-foot expansion on its Winooski facility, bringing it up to 70,000-square-feet. All its manufacturing, R&D, marketing and back office functions are located there. But since 2008 was the depth of the financial crisis, it was brave to expand.
“Today, we look back and say it was the right thing to do,” Briar said. “But in 2008, this was really scary. The whole world looks like it’s melting down, and we’re putting more money down to hire more people and build a new building. It was scary, and having the state say, ‘If you do this, we’ll be there for you,’ was very helpful in getting us to move. They accelerated our economic development.”
Growth for BioTek means Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
“This is the benefit of being a global company,” Briar said. “If there’s a slowdown in the US, we have more consistent and predictable global growth. Ultimately, we have to hire good people in local countries. We’ve gotten good at setting up business structures, accounting systems and checks and balances in other places. I’ve been in 15 different countries in the last two years. You have to show up and talk and learn and spend time together.”
The laboratory equipment market is fairly small, Adam said.
“It’s not like there are an infinite number of customers,” Adam said. “It’s focused. It is possible to know everyone who’s playing. We have a lot of local knowledge in other countries. And it’s easier if your star is rising, and I think ours is. Increasingly, people come to us. And that’s a very nice place to be.”
The future is bright, Briar said.
“We’re right at the end of one five-year strategic plan and we are working on our next one,” Briar said. “Five years ago, we were a $50 million-a-year company. The plan – and it was aggressive – was to become a $100 million company. And right now, a little bit to our surprise, we’re knocking on the door of that. So today, we are working on the goals and strategy to do that again. How can we become $200 million company five years from today? That’s a growth rate we’ve demonstrated the ability to manage, and if we can do that, it will present a lot of opportunities for our people here and other people in the state of Vermont.”
BioTek grows because of innovation, sales and customer service, Adam said.
“There’s a lot more we can do in Europe,” Adam said. “Latin America is growing so fast it’s a free-for-all. The opportunities are enormous and we’re investing a lot in it right now. China is only second to the U.S. in terms of sales for us. Can we double the business or even grow it 50 percent? It’s pretty challenging. But I’m optimistic because I think we have the right team here in Vermont and around the world. The human capital is perfectly suited to the mission.”
Neither Adam nor Briar would consider retirement right now; it’s too much fun going to work every morning.
“This is interesting and stimulating work,” Adam said. “I enjoy working with my colleagues and my brother. We get along pretty well most of the time. I can’t think of a diversion that would take me away.”
“And I’m also having fun doing what I’m doing,” Briar said. “I’m very excited about putting this next plan together and doubling the company again. I’ve got the energy and enthusiasm to do that. We do not take for granted that what we have here is very special. The culture, the people – it’s unique. It’s something you want to preserve.”
“We’re doing great things,” Adam said. “We’re helping the world. What more can you ask of a career?”
Is a third generation coming up behind them?
“I have two children, in the 7th and 9th grades,” Briar said. “It’s premature to know if they have the interest and capacity. If they do, I’d be delighted to have them in the company. Our sister has two children. One did an internship this summer. He was in the lab running experiments and he seemed to enjoy it. I’d love to have another generation. In fact, we give priority to children of BioTek employees for internships and jobs. It’s a little bit of nepotism, but it’s sort of how I got my job.”
“Me too,” Adam said. “We’re consistent.”
“And we’ve discovered that it’s a pretty good model,” Briar said.
(This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Vermont Business Magazine.)