Steve Thompson & Jim Oakes, Super Systems Inc. Interview
We are excited to have this interview with Mr. Steve Thompson, President of controls company Super Systems Inc., in Cincinnati, Ohio and Mr. Jim Oakes, Vice President Business Development and future President of Metal Treating Institute (MTI).
Steve you got into this business for the same reason as I in that both of our fathers were in the industry. Could you please share with us your background and that of SSI? By the way I am sure many of our readers would like to hear how your Dad, Bill is doing these days-he was certainly a pioneer in this industry and many will remember him quite fondly.
Thank you for this opportunity. I started my career just after high school working at Marathon Monitors (MMI) while earning my associate degree in electronics. Soon after, I completed my bachelor’s in electronic engineering technology. My father sold MMI around the time I graduated and I found a job as a sales engineer in the Midwest selling to various industries including heat-treating. After seven years, I had the opportunity to join my father at Super Systems which was founded in 1995. At that time we sold only the Gold Probe. As time passed, we introduced many other technologies such as dew point analyzers, gas analyzers, process controllers, software, and flow technology. Almost all of our products are the result of customers requesting more heat-treat-specific solutions and the introduction of new technology. What I have enjoyed most are the relationships that I have developed with my co-workers and customers. Advice once given to me as a young man by my father was to surround myself with people that are smarter than I am and listen to them.
My dad is doing great. He is now 81 years young and enjoying playing golf and tennis in Jupiter, Florida. He stops up a few times a year and now has the title of CIO (Chief Interference Officer). All kidding aside, he is my advisor on all matters and I am grateful for that. Often it is hard for father and son to work together in business but in our case it has always been a pleasure.
How about you Jim-how did you come to find yourself in this industry?
Well, I was first introduced to the heat treating industry by none other than Bill Thompson. Bill invited me to Cincinnati after I graduated from high school and worked as an intern with Marathon Monitors. I am quite certain that I did not even know what heat treating was for some time but I had an opportunity to work with software and electronics that allowed me to apply what I was learning in school to the real world. I was able to work with some great people – some of whom I still work with today, and others who I still cross paths with in the industry. Following graduation from college I used my skills outside the heat treating industry but when Steve was ready for me in 2005, I was eager to join SSI and it’s been a great ride. The technology, the people, the industry, have been a great ground for growth, learning and fun for me personally and professionally.
Before we move on Jim perhaps you could tell us more about your role at MTI and what the organization stands for.
MTI is the acronym for the Metal Treating Institute. Since 1933 MTI has provided an outlet for businesses that focus on heat treating. Today MTI represents the largest network of commercial heat treaters in the world and under the MTI Board of Directors and all the members, MTI strives to fulfill its mission of enhancing the image and value of the heat treating industry. MTI provides many services to its members such as leadership development, technical training for member employees, sales forecasting focused on the heat treating industry, annual meetings with great programming for professional development and networking, a technical standards committee giving heat treaters a voice in the specification review and design process, and a membership committee that is focused on specific topics that are important to the members. MTI’s bylaws were changed in early 1995 to include Associate Members. Associate Members are companies that supply equipment or services to the heat treat industry and share many of the same benefits as members of MTI that commercial heat treaters get. I have served on a number of committees over the years with MTI and joined the MTI Board of Trustees in 2011. In 2015 I joined the executive committee as the Treasurer and served for 3 years. Most recently I was nominated for President-Elect which leads me to the MTI President role this fall. It is quite an honor and I am very excited about the opportunity. I follow in the footsteps of some incredible people and I don’t take that lightly.
Lets talk about SSi, please tell us about company, the size, the industries you focus on and some of your products.
Our global headquarters is in Cincinnati, OH and we have offices in Birmingham, England; Shanghai, China; New Delhi, India; and Queretaro, Mexico. Our combined offices give us a footprint to address heat treaters’ needs around the world.
Our specialty is providing technology for the thermal processing industry. We do this with a mixture of products and services covering a wide variety of applications. We have a great group of R&D engineers that help enhance and deliver products to the industry. Our engineers cover electrical, mechanical, software, and metallurgy, giving us a vast knowledge base for coming up with products that benefit the heat treating industry.
We mentioned our roots earlier with the oxygen/carbon probe, and of course we still manufacture and ship that product around the globe today. In addition, we have other tools that the industry benefits from like gas analyzers (for carburizing, endo gas, nitriding, FNC,etc), electronic flow meters, data logging devices, controllers, and software.
In addition to our products, we also have some of the best field service engineers in the industry. Our field team provides onsite services commissioning controls and software to give captive and commercial heat treaters the latest in technology for their equipment.
Care to give us an idea about your annual sales? Even a hint?
I am proud to say we are privately owned and don’t disclose our financials. We have approximately 100 employees and I think most can estimate what that equates to in annual sales.
Correct me if I am wrong but I have always considered that the company was built on oxygen (carbon probes) with everything stemming from this-would that be a fair statement? Taking it one step further do you feel that probes will continue to be the #1 way of monitoring and controlling furnace atmospheres?
You are correct. We founded the company on the Gold Probe and probes still represent a significant part of our revenue. We are very proud of the product and continue to see growth each year domestically along with our international markets expanding. The oxygen probe is an in–situ device that is fast in response with very little maintenance required. For that reason along with being cost–effective, it will continue to be the number one choice for controlling atmosphere furnaces.
This question is a continuation of the question above. First came the oxygen probe, next came three gas analyzers (I realize that 3 gas is not a new technology but it is now useable as opposed to the first versions), next came probe plus 3 gas-where do you go from here?
If you look back prior to the use of oxygen probes you will find that CO2 gas analysis has been used for decades as the standard. As you know, gas analysis is an extractive reading and requires regular maintenance for calibration, filtering, and maintaining sample lines. Probes were introduced in the 1970s, and although not as reliable back then as they are today, they were much more cost–effective and reliable than CO2 gas analysis. Over the last twenty years CO2, along with CO and CH4, have provided more accurate analysis of carbon with much more reliable technology. Today the optimum carbon control utilizes the Gold Probe along with a permanent three-gas analyzer. In this case you benefit from direct reading of the probe but the precision of the CO, CO2 and CH4 measurement. This is what we refer to as “probe plus IR.” In the future I expect to see combinations of the probe with three gas and the addition of online process simulation utilizing the software tools available. Although this technology is available today and used by some it has not been adopted by many as of yet.
Over the years you have developed a number of innovative new products-out of them all which new product are you most proud of? To put it another way is there one where you can say it was a brilliant idea and succeeded beyond all of your expectations?
This is a great question. I have to admit the products I love the most are the ones that are the simplest to use: the Gold Probe, DP2000 dew pointer, and PGA portable three-gas analyzer. These three products are used everywhere in the world. Each one has an immediate payback and requires very little training to use. We do have many other much more technical products that frankly are more impressive but when I walk into a heat treat and need to solve a problem it is usually one of those three that provides the solution. Another product that is a workhorse and continues to deliver great value to customers is our data acquisition product, SuperDATA. The amount of data being collected on a daily basis by captive and commercial heat treaters is pretty incredible. One heat treat facility alone can have a million data points captured in one day and if I think about all the heat treat shops running SuperDATA day in and day out, it’s truly impressive. I cannot point to any one product as “brilliant” but I do look at all of them as tools utilized by all heat treaters providing value and giving them the ability to deliver quality parts efficiently.
Jim recently SSi has been making some very impressive investments-what can you tell us about them?
Gord, we are always looking for opportunities to invest conservatively which allows us to grow and effectively deliver new products and services to the industry. Infrastructure is needed to make that happen and for us that means people and space. Our facility has expanded in Cincinnati to accommodate a leaner manufacturing space , which was timely for the manufacturing of our electronic flow meters. During this expansion, we also focused on enhancing our laboratory to support our ISO/IEC17025 accreditation with environmentally-controlled production areas. We also have the equipment to perform nitriding and FNC process development along with lab equipment for metallugical evaluation of test parts. In Mexico, we moved into a new facility, which has also provided us a laboratory environment, provided more space for our employees, and storage for our products, allowing us to more efficiently meet customer demand. Most recently, we finished renovating our main office to accommodate a friendlier modern workspace with a state of the art conference and training center. This really gives us great space to present our technology to customers and it gets put to good use during our quarterly training where customers and business partners come to Cincinnati to take a deeper dive into learning our products.
Steve you have done a tremendous job of building up the company over the years-when you look back what are you most proud of? I have to ask you this also-did you ever expect the company would be as large as it is today?
I am most proud of the people I work with. I have surrounded myself with very smart and professional individuals. The company is a result of a great team internally complimented by excellent representatives and partners around the world. We have never reorganized or changed our direction. The foundation for our success is getting everyone on the same page when it comes to taking care of the customer and staying current with technology. I love the technical competency of our team at SSI and the excitement triggered when we put a plan in place to enhance or develop products. The company is larger than what I thought it would be back in 1995. Having said that I believe we will double the size in the next 10 to 15 years based on the solutions and global market we have available today.
Jim or Steve what is your number one worry about running the company?
Gord, the thing that keeps me up the most at night is taking care of the customer and making sure we are providing a good experience for our employees. The ideal experience for the employee is providing the best benefits possible, challenging them in their day-to-day operations to keep things interesting, and keeping them safe. Customer service is the backbone of what we do at Super Systems and we instill that in all areas of our business. With so many products and so many customers in the market it is quite an effort to make sure that you’re constantly listening to the all the concerns, needs, and issues and are able to address them efficiently. I feel we have a great team to make this happen, but it is always a concern. Staying current with technology and competition is not far behind that. Again, having a team in place that pushes us to make sure that we are current and make sure that we take care of the customer makes this less worrisome.
Steve and Jim many times over the years I have done interviews with furnace builders and I always like to ask them what type of furnaces they see as experiencing the most growth in the future. With all due respect to the furnace builders I sometime feel it is not fair to ask a vacuum guy as an example if he thinks there will be more growth in atmosphere furnaces rather than vacuum furnaces and visa/versa. You deal with all types of furnaces-what type or style of furnace do you expect to grow the most in the next few years?
I believe we will continue to see both atmosphere and vacuum grow along with FNC and Nitriding. Today more than ever, there is a demand to meet industry specifications, keep equipment up to date, and most of all keep it safe. As a result, we will continue to see opportunities to update and replace outdated and older equipment with today’s current technology. The technology aspect is a significant driver for our growth. Looking at today’s marketplace, automation is a goal for many based on the labor market. Other technology benefits include harnessing the data from sensors and controls for better decision making. I do believe the vacuum market will have a higher growth rate than atmosphere partly because there is a large amount of atmosphere capacity in the global market today, there are manufacturing processes and materials that lend themselves to vacuum heat treatment, and vacuum has a potentially cleaner footprint. Although the nitriding and FNC market is smaller than traditional atmosphere, we are seeing these applications growing at the fastest pace which we think is driven from the lower distortion rates during heat treating, increase in wear and corrosion resistance, and in some cases aesthetics of the finished part.
Our previous question mentioned furnace builders. Do you work with most of the OEM’s or do you find they like to offer their own control systems?
We do work with many OEMs. We are fortunate to have such a wide variety of products so even when an OEM has their own system, they may incorporate some of our products in the overall control solution. Good examples of this would be probes, gas analyzers, flow meters and discrete controllers. What makes our control packages unique is our ability to create a standard solution providing unique benefits to the users. We build this directly into our controls and when an OEM does incorporate our controls, these features are built in.
Times have been good, as a matter of fact extremely good in the heat treating industry for the past few years. Do you expect the rest of 2019 and 2020 to be as good? Better? Worse?
This is the most asked question. If you asked me in 2017 what 2018 would look like I would have been wrong. If you asked me in 2018 what 2019 would look like I would have been wrong. Do you sense the trend? I think we are due for a pullback. I hope I am wrong.
What does the future hold for you personally and for the company? Any plans you can share with us?
I often think about the growth over the last 24 years. I think about the company when we only had a handful of products and a small staff. Today we have multiple offices with many products, which are all complimented by software and end-to-end systems. The desire of heat treaters and manufacturers is to stay current with technology combined with a global market; I believe we will double the size of the company in the next ten to fifteen years. To get there, we will continue to do what I believe we do best, listening to customers and using technology to develop products and solutions that help our customers stay competitive and deliver quality parts efficiently.
I very much appreciate the time. Thanks, Gord
Steve Thompson & Jim Oakes In Front Of SSi