Totally Tubular

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

This company creates fuel measurement systems for commercial and military aircraft

george_lamphere_lms George Lamphere, the president of Liquid Measurement Systems in Georgia, bought the company from his father in 2004. The company, founded in 1989, grew out of an invention by the elder Lamphere.

A lot can happen in 22 years. A lot certainly has for George Lamphere, president of Liquid Measurement Systems in Georgia, who, when we wrote about him in March 1992, was the owner of the Choo Choo Express restaurant in Essex Junction. But as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).

The constant, in this case, is family.

George grew up in Westford with his parents — David, a design engineer and eventual founder of Liquid Measurement Systems, and Cereta — and two sisters and a brother. They had come to Vermont from Los Angeles in the mid 1960s when his father was hired by Simmonds Precision in Vergennes.

“I was the first design engineer on the Apollo program,” says his father, reminiscing, “so I got to go down for all the Apollo launches.” One of his first projects was developing a gauging system for cryogenic fuels.

When Business People wrote about George in 1992, he was not yet 25 years old. A1986 graduate of Essex Junction High School, he had left the restaurant management program at New Hampshire College after one semester and gone to work for City Drug, his employer during high school. Three years later he opened the Choo Choo, financed by his college fund.

Says David, “I’ve often told people, ‘You’ve got a kid who wants to learn business, get him a small restaurant and let him do it until he’s successful, because nothing teaches that like experience.’”

David and Cereta were officers in the corporation, and she worked there two nights a week so George could have occasional time off.

“The restaurant holds a special place in my heart,” says George, “because I made so many good friends there and learned so much. Probably the most significant to me is that’s where I met Beth, my wife.”

In the mid 1980s, his dad left Simmonds to launch, with some partners, Clean Earth Technology. “Clean Earth was an environmental remediation company that developed a method of measuring the interface between the water table and any contaminants on top of that, especially contaminants that had leaked from underground storage tanks,” says George.

David had noticed, while working at Simmonds, that fuel probes made of aluminum were subject to corrosion, causing the need for replacement every five to seven years. Spare fuel probes, at a 400 percent markup, were a considerable profit center.

At Clean Earth Technology, he says, “one of the things we found right away was that even stainless steel down in the ground was getting corroded. About that time, carbon [graphite] composite began to make the news, and we solved it with the carbon composite.”

With a couple of partners, David formed Liquid Measurement Systems in 1989 to manufacture the graphite composite probes. “The first place we went was Sikorsky, which makes military aircraft and was having that problem with metal probes,” he says. “Sikorsky had just that day received a statement for spares, and it stuck in their craw.” LMS got a contract to make probes for the Comanche, a composite helicopter Sikorsky was going to build.

“They only built two as it turned out,” David says, “but we made the most accurate system they ever had, and lighter in weight, which is important in a helicopter. The carbon composite fuel probe got us in the door.”

The partners struggled along with both businesses for a few years until, in 1996, a split occurred. David sold his share of Clean Earth and bought all the shares of LMS.

George began to help his dad “from a moral support standpoint,” he says. They were running the business out of his parents’ garage and a couple of office trailers in the front yard. “They” included Cereta, who became a master solderer.

“I was running the restaurant and helping him a little bit where I could,” says George, “and in 1997, I was successful in winning our first major contract. They built over 2,500 fuel probes in just under three years in the office trailer and the garage.”

By 2000, with the Choo Choo’s lease ending and no likelihood of renewal, George decided to take his father’s offer to go to work for LMS full time. “My dad said, ‘I think you’ve got what it takes to build this business,’ so that’s what I did: left the restaurant business and went into the aerospace business.”

In 2004, George and Beth bought the company from David, who continues to come in and help with projects where he has legacy knowledge or to guide the occasional new effort. “I turned it over 100 percent,” David says. “I had had bad experience with partnerships,” he adds with a chuckle, “and I decided that I didn’t want to be a partner with my son. And he has grown it from six people then to 30 now.”

In 2006, the company moved into an 18,000-square-foot facility in Georgia, which features a modern electronics assembly area, a graphite composite manufacturing facility, and an area where equipment can be tested in real-world situations.

Again and again, George returns to mention of his employees. “We hired our first employee, Brian Noyes, in 1998,” he says. “He’s still with us — leads our lean and continuous improvement efforts. ... We’ve got a great guy here, Jack Behlendorf, who came over from General Dynamics a little over 18 months ago. He’s leading up our engineering group and our development projects. ... Anita Prouty, our HR manager, has been a leader in helping us recruit and retain employees. She has led us the last three years to a Best Places to Work in Vermont award.”

“If I could work there, I would,” says Brett Macy with a laugh. “He is super generous and very good to his employees.” Macy is president of Exit 18 Equipment in Georgia, a neighbor in the industrial park, and has known George since school years — Macy, in high school and George, in grade school. “Way back then we would go into his father’s garage, which was kind of like the laboratory at Herman Munster’s house with all these dials and gauges and lights, and his father was inventing the products he’s making now.

This respect is echoed by Christopher McBride, an entertainer and maple farmer in Westford who performs magic tricks at the company’s Vermont Expo booth. George buys McBride’s maple syrup for his employees. Their children play on the same sports teams. “My biggest impression about George,” says McBride, “why I like him, is he’s pretty straightforward, smart, totally honest and fair, and has a good sense of humor.”

Sikorsky is still a customer, as are the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and Boeing. “We work with BAE Systems to provide fuel measurement systems to Bell Helicopter,” says George, “and we have a collection of international customers we provide products and services for — design, development, testing services.

“We do a lot of work for military contractors and more and more work for commercial — an important part of our business.” Systems in fixed-wing aircraft can present more complex challenges, such as controlling the movement of fuel to make sure the aircraft maintains a certain center of gravity (CG). “So we get into controlling operating pumps and valves to maintain CG,” he says.

When it designs a system, LMS combines the fuel probes with a signal conditioner that drives the probe, measures the fuel height inside the tank, and computes that to a volume, then transmits volume to a cockpit or dedicated gauge. Accuracy, says George, is within 2 percent, compared with the fuel gauge on a car, “which, depending on where you are in the tank, is 20 percent maybe. We have a lot of FAA standards to follow and a lot of customer requirements to be met. We have to be accurate over varying altitudes and temperature and humidity ranges that are pretty far-ranging. Some of our equipment has to operate at minus 70 degrees centigrade.

“We can also adjust our systems to accommodate for aircraft attitude,” he says, “and there are other unique features like measurements we can do inside the fuel tank that report potentially volatile conditions to the cockpit and crew.”

George recently gave up his spot on the Westford Recreation Committee, which he served for 12 years, and is on a committee trying to identify what’s important for Westford schools. He also serves on the corporate advisory panel to the National Guard Association of the United States.

“Whenever we’ve asked George and his company for help, they’ve been one of the first there, says Phillip Murdock, owner, with his wife, of Chapin Orchard in Essex Junction, and vice president of the Vermont National Guard Charitable Foundation, which supports all Vermont military members and their families.

The foundation was formalized around 2004 to handle the money that poured in, unsolicited, from members of the public concerned about the effects of the increased activation of the Guard overseas. “We built a memorial to our Vermont fallen heroes on the grounds at Camp Johnson,” says Murdock. “George and his company jumped on board and were a big part of getting that built and maintained.”

Although much of his time has been dedicated to the business in recent years, George, with Beth and their sons, Avery, 16, and Cameron, 14, find time to get away to Lake Bomoseen, where his family has had a camp for four generations.

“I’ve got four kids,” says David, “and the other three are in California. I am so happy he stayed here and built his house. I’m looking at it, in the upper field right on the farm here in Westford.

“I’m an engineer and not a businessman, and he’s a businessman and has become an engineer — maybe not certificated, but he knows all the aircraft. I’m extremely proud of him. •