A Clean Act

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Making high-tech processes easier and faster

Adam TarrAdam Tarr, the founder and CEO of NEHP in Williston, brought his entrepreneurial spirit and inventive genius to Vermont 15 years ago. In 2000, he launched NEHP, which offers process piping solutions and modularization for the semiconductor, solar, and life science industries.

Like any inventive personality, Adam Tarr loves solving things. Fifteen years ago, when he and his wife, Julie Spaniel, wanted to move east from Oregon to be closer to Spaniel’s family, they chose five states near the East Coast and threw a dart. 

“The dart landed on Burlington, Vermont,” says Tarr. “We came out on a Thanksgiving weekend — snow was on the ground — we walked down Church Street and said, ‘Gee, this is it.’ We’ve been here ever since.”

Tarr is the founder and CEO of NEHP (formerly called New England High Purity), a Williston company that creates customized systems for modular construction of microelectronics, pharmaceutical, and biotech facilities.

Until the move here, Oregon had been home to Tarr, a native of Milwaukie, Ore., south of Portland. After high school, which he finished in three years, Tarr went to work at Elf Atochem, a company that dealt in specialty chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, and nitrogen, as a technician/operator. He was encouraged to do so by his grandfather and two uncles, who worked there. 

“I was always fiddling around with mechanical systems,” he says, “constantly trying to fix things or systems. I had worked at one of the largest automobile garages in the area from age 13; how things work had always come to me easily. They said, ‘There’s a need for that talent,’ and sure enough, Elf Atochem hired me.”

Almost four years later, having decided he wanted to go into the mechanical industry, he entered a five-year apprenticeship program that involved attending school three times a week and working during the day as a project manager for Harder Mechanical in Portland, which provides process systems for the petroleum, food and beverage, electronics, life sciences, and pulp and paper industries. His apprenticeship included a summer program at Washtenaw Community College in league with Michigan State University in Plymouth, offered by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprenticees of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry.

Tarr moved up quickly at Harder, but his life was about to take a turn. In 1992, three years into his apprenticeship, he had a dental problem. After four visits for treatment, each time being told it was fixed, Tarr became frustrated and asked to see another dentist in the office. The other dentist was Julie Spaniel.

Ryan Maskell and John AdamsOne of NEHP’s products is a kit to reduce the time for supplying process utilities — such as gases and fluids — to the tools used for semiconductor manufacturing. Ryan Maskell (left) is an apprentice process technician, and John Adams is a process technician.

“I really wasn’t trying to pick up anybody,” claims Tarr with a chuckle. “The problem was really bugging me for a long time. I said, ‘If you can fix this problem, I’ll buy you the biggest bouquet you can think of.’ She fixed the problem, and things just went from there.”

A year or so later, the dart had been thrown; he transferred his union membership to Vermont Local 693 of the United Association — a membership he continues to this day — and he and Spaniel made the move. 

His first year in Vermont, Tarr finished up his apprenticeship working for Ouellette Heating & Plumbing, which had a lot of work at IBM.

In 1994, Tarr  and his former employer, Steve Harder, decided to start a satellite East Coast operation. “Harder is probably a $200 million company, and he agreed, because of my past experience in Oregon, to support the idea.”

Tarr ran the Harder satellite office, doing most of its work at the IBM facility, until 1997, when he was offered a position by Fluor Corp., “one of the biggest construction management firms in the world, and doing a sizeable amount of work at IBM,” says Tarr.

He closed the Harder satellite and ran projects in Vermont and California for Fluor until, he says, “I decided if I was ever going to do it, I wanted to try something on my own.” He started NEHP  in November of 2000. 

NEHP’s initial focus was the electronics industry, for which it provides two things: modular utility-hookup kits for semiconductor tools used by the likes of Intel or IBM to manufacture chips; and turnkey installation of the product.

These tools for which NEHP provides the kits can cost anywhere from $1 million to $20 million. “IBM here at Essex has probably two or three thousand of these tools,” says Tarr. 

For chip manufacturing, each tool requires a number of utilities such as a specialty gas/inert gas, deionized water, chemicals, process waters, and other very clean utilities. Any tool might take up to 27 of these utilities, says Tarr, which must be without impurities. It’s a very time- and labor-consuming process to hook up these utilities, and must be done in a clean-room, so NEHP has created a kit, which is manufactured off-site and brought into the clean-room ready to hook up. “All of the products are pre-manufactured in our Williston facility,”  says Tarr.

David ValleyFounded as New England High Purity, the company has officially changed its name to NEHP to reflect its global reach. Cleanliness is key, as shown in this photo of David Valley, a senior process technician for manufacturing.

“We’ve actually reduced the on-site construction activity, using our modular kit, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent,” he continues. “Our products is developed for specific tools, and we have many types of products for many types of semiconductor tools. We can provide a modular kit for almost any type of semiconductor tool out there. That’s the goal, to reduce construction and coordination on-site.”

The company picks and chooses its turnkey installations, Tarr adds, because of the potential risk factor and challenges of various locations.

It’s a bit hard to get one’s head around how this all works. Tim Davis, a managing director at FreshTracks Capital in Middlebury, which has invested in NEHP, describes it as “the interface between very sophisticated electronic and life sciences manufacturing equipment and the plant: He’s where everything plugs in, all of the gases and so forth.”

Three years ago, NEHP instituted a life sciences division to diversify its market and offset the cyclical nature of the semiconductor business. “In electronics, the products we sell are for construction and operation of the tools; for life sciences, a few of our products are specialty hygienic cleaning skids, clean-in-place (CIP) applications, bio/buffer prep skids, and chemical distribution skids.” A skid might be a square platform, 10 or 15 feet on a side, on which all the needed equipment is included. It caters to biology and pharmaceutical facilities.

“It could be a product or a skid that helps support a company’s fermentation process,” says Tarr, “or a skid that would clean a facility’s equipment so the client can start a new process. The end result, for a Merck or Amgen or Wyeth, is a skid that allows a customer to operate its equipment, all designed and manufactured at NEHP.”

NEHP has about 70 employees, some of whom are located at the company’s remote sites in Massachusetts, New York, and California. The addition of the life sciences division has spurred growth. “Growth has been exceptional this year,” says Tarr. “We’ve probably doubled in size, and it’s really due to having two divisions. Each one has a director: Peter Sbrollini, the director of sales for life sciences, and Dan Williams, the director of sales for electronics. Both live in Georgia and travel throughout the U.S.”

NEHP has become a global business, with clients in Israel, China, and Mexico, for example. To reflect that, the company dropped the “New England” reference and officially changed its name to NEHP in June.

Tarr spends about half his days, when he’s in the office, working on custom applications and coming up with solutions. He meets often with Robin Morris, the chief financial officer, on the budgeting, financing, and scheduling of projects.

Although his love for Vermont is great, being here is a challenge. “Vermont has minimal high-tech industries, so NEHP has to focus outside of Vermont to increase revenues.” On the other side of that issue is a difficulty persuading his team members to travel outside the state to various locations for projects. “They don’t like to leave,” Tarr says.

On the business side of things, finding capital resources was challenging. “FreshTracks Capital is part owner in NEHP,” he says. “Their experience and expertise has given NEHP some of the resources to expand and gain larger contracts. NEHP continues to grow while needing more capital and resources to meet our future customer needs.”

“We started working with Adam probably five years ago, when he came to the Vermont Investors Forum” says Davis of FreshTracks. “Part of what we do is work with companies even if we don’t invest in them. In this case, we became very impressed with Adam; he is a very bright, high-energy guy who knows his business and his markets; a good leader; and has rallied some very good people around him.”

FreshTracks also helped Tarr find Morris, his CFO, about two years ago, when it invested in NEHP.

Growth can be difficult, says Tarr, as can the management and administrative responsibilities that come with it. “I like the applications — finding solutions, building ideas.”

To say Tarr stays busy away from work would be putting it mildly. He rebuilds and remodels old cars and enjoys outdoor activities such as biking, skiing, fishing, and hunting — “mostly in Oregon for elk, with my family,” he says. “My wife and I rebuilt a barn — relocated it from Essex to our Colchester property.”

The barn is for horses, and, yes, he rides — back country; Spaniel and their 13-year-old daughter, Emily, are dressage riders. Emily is one of four children. The others are Nicholas, 15; Adam, 11; and Christian, 7.

“The biggest one of my hobbies is I love being with my children!” Tarr exclaims. “Vermont does that for you.”•