Waste Watchers

It may sit in a Quonset hut in North Ferrisburgh, but Bowles Corp. is known around the world for its innovative products that handle ground-water recovery.

by Amy Souza

David Bowles founded Bowles Corp. in North Ferrisburgh in 1983, and his wife, Carol, also an engineer, joined him in the business two years later. Now, they commute to work by walking from their home in Ferrisburgh, which is right across the street.

On a country road in North Ferrisburgh, an unassuming Quonset hut sits tucked into a one-acre plot between cornfields and the railroad tracks. Inside, the Bowles Corp.'s 15 employees design, manufacture and assemble innovative products that it sells around the world.

That corporate configuration wasn't the original assumption for founder Dave Bowles. "I thought our customers would come from Vermont, that we'd do machining and that's it," he says.

In November 2001, Bowles Corp. won the Vermont Small Business Innovator of the Year award for its SpillBuster system, a product designed to clean up fuel that has leaked from underground tanks into the water table.

Dave started Bowles Corp. in 1983 after spending three years working for Simmonds Precision (now Goodrich Corp.) in Vergennes.

"The division I was working for was shrinking, so I kind of jumped ship," he says.

His wife, Carol, who also worked at Simmonds, joined him at Bowles Corp. two years later, and today handles the company's administration.

"I keep everything coordinated and make sure the finances will be there," she says.

The couple met while studying engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. After earning their master's degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering respectively they moved to New Jersey where they had found jobs. But New Jersey didn't fit their desired lifestyle.

"We wanted to find a place where we could live a rural life and still work as engineers," says Dave, who grew up in a rural area outside of Ithaca, N.Y.

They toured New York and Massachusetts and put the word out to headhunters that they were looking for two engineering jobs in the country. They found those jobs at Simmonds and moved to Ferrisburgh in 1981. They still live there with their son and daughter, four horses and a number of dogs and cats.

Bowles Corp.'s first engineering contract job came from the Vermont Stove Co., which built inserts that converted a regular fireplace into a wood stove. Bowles Corp. came up with an original design for a catalytic converter for the inserts, but the market soon decreased, and the stove company filed for bankruptcy.

"We learned a lot from that," says Dave.

Within the year, they won another contract to design and build an ultrasound wattmeter for Bio-Tek Instruments in Winooski.

The wattmeter measures the output of therapeutic ultrasound machines that are used to heal injuries such as deep tissue strains. Therapeutic ultrasound uses sound waves to penetrate the skin and stimulate the healing process.

"The concern is that the device is putting out what it says it's putting out," Dave says.

The latest model uses super-accurate scales calibrated to weights from the National Institute of Standards. The weights sit at the bottom of a well that is filled with pure water. By lowering the ultrasound wand into the water and turning it on, the waves will radiate out and hit the scale like water from a hose hitting skin. That force is monitored and changed into watts.

The product was designed at Bowles and is built and assembled there. A run of 10 takes four or five days, and Dave says they sell about a hundred a year. Some of the parts are purchased and others are created in the machine shop.

Assembly workers Margie Caruso (left) and Julie Curtis put together product. Bowles Corp.'s SpillBuster is "the Cadillac out there," according to Dave Bowles.

"We're a little bit unique because we can do electronics and machining and bring them all together," Dave says. "That's unusual for a small shop."

The shop contains all the equipment necessary to turn metal and plastic into parts for the wattmeter and Bowles' other main product line, the environmental recovery systems marketed under the company's subsidiary, Clean Air Technology (CAT).

A clean opportunity

In the late 1980s, Dave was exposed to the environmental recovery industry and noticed that the quality of products available for cleaning spills was poor. "I saw an opportunity," he says.

The SpillBuster is used by environmental cleanup firms as well as refineries and other fuel providers.

"It's the Cadillac out there," says Dave. "It costs the most, but it works the best."

The initial push for spill cleanup in this country was driven by the clean air and water acts of the 1970s. As 1980s regulation forced underground tank owners to replace current containers with double-walled tanks, people started discovering leaks. The classic example Dave cites is a neighborhood gas station where fuel has seeped out maybe slowly over a number of years until it has built up into a lens-shaped spill of fuel known in the industry as free product.

The SpillBuster probe looks a bit like a vacuum cleaner tube. It is lowered into a well until it reaches the free product. Carbon composite sensors inside the tube radiate out like antennae and can tell the difference between water and product. The tube lowers itself until it hits water, then backs up until it's inside the spill again. When the sensors detect the free product, the pump starts working, pumping only free product and leaving behind the water. "The pumps can stay on 24/7," Dave says.

The software also detects when the pumping is done and will set the machine into a wait mode until more free product invades the well; then it turns the pumps back on. The software also knows how long the pumps have been working. All this information can be downloaded from the SpillBuster microprocessor into a computer for data analysis and monitoring.

"In a big spill, these could be used in the beginning, and then they can move on to another product to clean up the soil," he says.

The first version of the product was built 11 years ago and used analog technology. Today's SpillBuster is the fourth generation and takes advantage of digital technology. The design changes over the years came from need. For instance, the idea to use polyurethane molded on-site using an endothermic process around the pumps stemmed from a need to replace the stainless steel.

Tony Caruso, marketing manager, sells Bowles products under a subsidiary, Clean Air Technologies, a founding member of the Vermont Environmental Consortium.

"Some of the wells are so corrosive," says Dave, "we had to come up with something that wouldn't corrode."

A newly designed portable version, the Spill Buddy, went on the market last year. It's a manual unit housed inside what looks like a garden hose keeper. Dave says the Spill Buddy works well for field use as an analytical tool and to do some recovery functions.

"Sometimes there's not enough product to set up a full recovery system," he says.

Worldwide expansion

Clean Air Technologies first sold the SpillBuster in Vermont, then expanded throughout New England, something Dave calls a natural next step. "The next thing you know, we're in Italy, France, Taiwan," he says. "It's mind-boggling."

One of the company's first customers was Peter Murray, a hydro-geologist and environmental consultant who worked for an environmental recovery firm. In 1996, Murray saw an opportunity to sell environmental equipment in Asia.

"There was a lot of information available that Asia would be a good market," says Murray. "They had advanced economies, environmental regulations and regular enforcement. And they had money."

For five years, Murray traveled back and forth between Vermont and Asian.

"I only had two stamps in my passport before I started going to Asia," he says with a smile.

His efforts paid off, and today CAT sells its SpillBuster technology across Asia. Last February, Dave hired Murray as Bowles Corp.'s business development manager.

"Of course, February of last year was the beginning of the end in the economy," Murray says, "and this recession has focused on manufacturing, which is what we do. But I see this past year as a success. We've been very successful in listing all potential customers in the state of Vermont and nurturing a relationship with them. When things pick up, they'll know who to call."

Because his company designs and manufactures for specialty industries, Dave says his biggest challenge is to broaden into new markets.

"We've gone down the wrong road a couple of times," he says of past business development projects. "Not everything works out. It's a little like going to Las Vegas."

The company has begun implementing a strategic marketing plan.

"We hope what's next are a couple of good solid product lines that will take some of our eggs out of two baskets," says Carol Bowles.

"We definitely have the resources in this company to take advantage of opportunities," Murray says. "We've identified some opportunities, and now it's a combination of waiting for the economy to pick up and narrowing our focus on what opportunity we want to take advantage of."

Murray says the company also plans to take advantage of the resources available here in Vermont. "Graduate students need practical projects to work on," he says. "Part of our strategic plan is to work with the local colleges and universities."

Dave Bowles with Marlene Sorrell, assembly worker; Skip Leach, machinist; Roger Doenges, service tech; and Scott Larmore, machinist.

General manager Elaine Stearns has been with Bowles Corp. for 3 1/2 years, managing people and keeping production rolling. She recently completed an ISO 9001 certification, a quality management standard established by the International Organization for Standardization. Though Bowles Corp. has always valued quality, Stearns says customers like to see that their suppliers have the registration.

"It means you've been examined by a standard," she says.

Over the years, Carol says, the company has increased efficiency while maintaining its quality standards. "All those theories that people wrote books about like Just in Time manufacturing we've been doing that forever. There's an element of practicality to all of them," she says. "Now, we can produce more with fewer people."

"We've gotten good at what we do," Dave agrees.

Every SpillBuster sold around the world has a sticker on it that reads: Made in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. "That helps to draw attention to the state as a quality manufacturer," says Murray. "That can complement other business in the state."

Clean Air Technology is also a founding member of the Vermont Environmental Consortium, of which Murray is president.

"Together we have the critical mass necessary to win large contracts both domestically and overseas that no one company in Vermont can win on their own," Murray says. "CAT is a leader in growing Vermont's environmental industry," he adds, "an industry that provides stable, good-paying jobs."

Everyone at Bowles Corp. agrees that Vermont is a factor in the company's success.

"There's a strong work ethic here," says Murray, "and a relatively well-educated work force."

"And people like to live here, so it makes it a good place to run a business," adds Stearns.

Engineering a life

Dave says engineering ran deep in his family. His father did a lot of engineering work, and an uncle was a research scientist. "I was always fooling with things and building things," he says. "I just sort of got there."

Dave Bowles' wife, Carol, also an engineer, handles the company's administration.

Like any engineer worth his salt, he likes watching The Learning Channel's Junkyard Wars and still enjoys building things. "I have to admit a weakness for junkyards," he says. "It drives my wife crazy because I go down there with a load and come back with more stuff."

Arguably the biggest and most successful thing the Bowleses have built is a life they both enjoy. Both say the trials of running one's own business are outweighed by the benefits, which, not surprisingly, have little to do with material success.

While both maintain that it's the people - "We've met a lot of good people," says Carol; "The employees we have now are the best we've ever had," says Dave - their Vermont life is what keeps them going.

Dave puts it simply: "We like living in the country." •

Originally published in March 2002 Business People-Vermont