Meter Leader

by Rosalyn Graham

Byron Corcoran’s product can tell what kind of ride he’s had

As general manager of Centrodyne Corp. of America in South Burlington, Corcoran exercises that talent for what he describes as “melting into the atmosphere,” whether he is talking technology and high finance to the owner of a big city taxi fleet of thousands of cabs, or shooting the breeze with a cabbie at the airport taxi stand.

Byron Corcoran’s brother calls him a chameleon. He says it as a compliment. Corcoran has a knack for fitting comfortably into any surroundings.

Like Corcoran, Centrodyne has characteristics of a chameleon. The company produces a product that is used all around the world, essential for the smooth running of an important industry, but is almost invisible in its quiet efficiency. Who has ever commented on the smooth running and up-to-the-minute technology of a taxi meter? And who would ever dream that more than half of the taxi meters in the United States come from a sales and distribution center on Ethan Allen Drive behind Burlington International Airport?

Centrodyne was founded in Montreal in 1968 by Jack Steiner, a process engineer with a background in avionics who, with a succession of engineer partners, designed and manufactured various special process controls from fuel meters to devices that timed the lights above pool tables.

When an engineer who had written his master’s thesis on electronic taxi meters joined the company, Centrodyne designed and produced the first electronic taxi meter, a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that was a big improvement over the mechanical meters that had been standard in taxis for years. Electronic taxi meters became one of the company’s leading product lines.

In 1974 Centrodyne bought a small electronics manufacturer in Concord, N.H., and moved it to Burlington, primarily because the international outreach of the business meant the company needed to be close to an international airport. Centrodyne Corp. of America was born.

Corcoran began his Centrodyne career at the company’s Montreal headquarters in 1985. Born in Toronto, Ontario, he studied business at John Abbott College near Montreal, after which he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he studied avionics at the Canadian Forces School of Aeronautics and Ordnance Engineering in Kingston and Barrie.

For five years he served as an avionics technician, responsible for the electronics in airplanes of RCAF Search and Rescue, at stations all over Canada. Those postings included time in Alberta, where he met his future wife, Lori Perkins, a neonatal nurse at the University of Alberta Children’s Hospital who had grown up in Cowansville, Quebec.

After leaving the Air Force he moved back to Quebec, enjoyed what he described as “a six-month sabbatical” and then encountered one of Centrodyne partners, also an ex-RCAF person, who said, “Why don’t you try this?” He laughs as he says, “I didn’t even know there was such an industry. I jumped from airplanes to taxis.”

Corcoran’s first job with Centrodyne was as international representative. Every new country around the world where Centrodyne products were being marketed had to give its bureaucratic blessing to the products before it could be used there. “They were weights-and-measures kinds of products, so I talked to the department of agriculture, which traditionally had authority over weights and measures.”

Ray Smith, production repair technician, works on all the company’s products, from its first-generation meters developed in the 1970s to today’s electronic models that incorporate wireless communications, GPS technology and credit card transactions.

His travels took him all over the world to exotic destinations such as Kuala Lampur, Jakarta, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The only places he didn’t visit were the Iron Curtain countries and South America, because another in the company spoke perfect Spanish and Portuguese.

After 21/2 years of world travel, Corcoran was named general manager of Centrodyne in the USA and moved to Vermont with Lori, arriving at the beginning of December 1987. They settled in Essex Junction, where they have lived ever since, raising two daughters. Caila, 19, is now in her second year of college, and Dana, 15, is a sophomore at Essex High School. Lori works at Burlington Health and Rehabilitation.

The Centrodyne business has had several locations in its 20 years, first in an office on Williston Road, then in Winooski, then Essex Junction, and now in three big rooms tucked into the side of a light industrial building on Ethan Allen Drive.

From this office, with two staff members plus a salesman who works out of Tampa, Fla., Centrodyne provides sales and service for all the Centrodyne taxi meters in North America as well as the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas. Engineering and manufacturing are done at the Montreal headquarters where about half of the 25 staff people are engineers. Before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, manufacturing took place on both sides of the border. NAFTA made it more efficient to divide the duties: engineering and manufacturing in Canada, sales and service in the United States.

Like Corcoran, office manager Laurie Valley is a master of multi-tasking, answering technical questions from taxi companies all over the country, testing and programming new units before they are shipped, and keeping the office running smoothly. On an early October morning she was busy on the telephone telling a taxi company how to program new, higher rates into their meters.

Ray Smith is the repair guru, working on everything from the first-generation machines, developed in the late ’70s - still in use with surprisingly few breakdowns, says Corcoran - to the most sophisticated current model. Sales, or “harvesting” as Corcoran calls it are handled by Lee Marcellus in Tampa.

Corcoran still gets involved with sales, but what he does most is new product development, working on sophisticated improvements in the meters that incorporate wireless communication with the dispatchers, swiping of credit cards, printers for receipts, and even global positioning systems that record a taxi’s location at the beginning and end of each fare.

With the taxi industry tightly regulated and the number of new licenses or medallions issued each year kept to a minimum, growth in the taxi meter business depends on a creative evolution of the meter into an electronic interface that provides valuable information to the business. That is the area where Corcoran is focusing his energy and 20 years of expertise.

Centrodyne meters were the first ones to interface with wireless dispatch for credit card payment, a more secure and faster method of handling fares in an increasingly cashless society. “That’s what I do most of,” Corcoran says, “develop new products and grow those into more things we can sell to the industry.”

In his early days as a world traveler, Corcoran circled the globe in a couple of weeks with two changes of clothes in his luggage, and appointments to discuss Centrodyne with businesses like the taxi industry of Singapore where there are 12,000 taxis.

These days, his travel is usually driven by a client’s need, such as that of the Miami Department of Consumer Services. He was invited to talk to staff members about information they could glean from the meter units and how they might customize the equipment to tell them how many trips were made, how many miles were traveled, and where and when the trips began and ended - information they want to have electronically.

Corcoran also recently developed a product that could be used in San Francisco, where the municipal government subsidizes taxi rides for mobility- challenged individuals. In the old system, the passenger gave a paper chit to the driver. It was awkward and open to fraud. Now Centrodyne will supply a taxi meter that will operate with the passenger’s special card, giving the discounted rate to the client and feeding the necessary information back to the municipality.

George Butts, president of Taxi Equipment Co. of Gardena, Calif., the largest taxi and livery electronics provider in southern California, has worked with Corcoran on many new product ideas in the 16 years he has known him.

“Byron was influential in getting me into the product portion of the taxicab business 15 years ago,” says Butts. “I’m his largest customer, and a good portion of my products are from Centrodyne. Byron is Centrodyne USA. I go to him if I need something developed. I’ve come up with ideas and he’s come up with ideas, and then he takes them back to the factory. They have the engineers.”

More than half of the taxi meters in the United States come from Centrodyne. Besides her administrative duties, office manager Laurie Valley fields technical questions from taxi companies, and tests and programs new units before shipping.

When Philip Steiner, vice president of Centrodyne in Montreal and the son of its founder, was a teenager, he worked with Corcoran before going to Harvard for his Ph.D. in electronic engineering and entering the high-tech industry where he designed chips. Five years ago, Steiner returned to work with his father.

“Customer service in a technical business has to include a thorough understanding of the technical aspects,” Steiner says. “The thing that Byron adds to that is his friendly personality, his 20 years of knowing the people in the industry, from having gone out and shaken people’s hands. In addition to providing outstanding customer service, he enjoys doing it, and the people have become his friends.”

For Corcoran, part of the fun is evolving the new technology and hearing the surprise in the voices of clients who tell him, “You wouldn’t think something like that would be coming from Vermont.”

He enjoys being asked if he’s still “up in Vermont” and what he does up here. His favorite response: He gives them little bottles of maple syrup. •

Originally published in November 2005 Business People-Vermont