Who knew light could do so much?
by Rosie Wolf Williams
John Thrailkill and his father, Bill, founded Advanced Illumination in 1993 to make one of Bill’s inventions for producing a vision component of a manufacturing machine. The company has grown from a $10,000 business to seeing $6.5 million in sales.
Many manufacturers invent products and hope they see the light of day. John Thrailkill creates the light that sees the product. His company, Advanced Illumination, sits just outside the tiny town of Rochester near the White River — a misty vision of a business that lingered at the back of his mind from childhood.
Born in Hammond, Ind., Thrailkill spent much of that childhood moving from place to place. His father, Bill, was a visionary and a bit of a gypsy, and he brought the family to Vermont from Massachusetts in the early 1970s to open a restaurant. It was a time when Vermont’s population began to change from a conservative majority to a liberal one, with an influx of out-of-state hippies and other progressive thinkers.
“The restaurant lasted a while, then we started up a construction company — or my father did, to sort of bail the restaurant out. But that was a time of hyperinflation, and that business died as well.” During that time, Thrailkill did a lot of construction, which he enjoyed.
“And then there was the divorce,” he says, and his father moved back to Massachusetts. After graduating from Harwood Union High School in 1976, he joined his brother-in-law in Colorado to work in construction.
He spent 13 months in Colorado, but realized that “there’s more to life than construction.” He returned to Massachusetts.
“I had one drafting course at Harwood from a teacher named Mr. Zach, and soon found a job as a draftsman, but I wasn’t drawn to engineering. I had done some drafting for construction and helped design houses for people. They wanted to add an addition or something and I’d draw it up. And that just led to a facilities position where I just did more drafting.”
He worked for Honeywell in Brighton, Mass., and then moved to a Honeywell division in Waltham and, briefly, joined his father at Honeywell Electro-optics in Lexington, doing mechanical design on a holographic scanner project.
He enjoyed the work, and decided to begin attending Northeastern University to study mechanical engineering. When he ran out of money to fund his education, the self-reliant Thrailkill didn’t think about borrowing money. He turned to full-time work, getting a job at Bleck Design Group and continuing his education at night school at the University of Lowell in Boston.
He stayed at the company for 13 years, working his way up to the role of director of engineering. “That was the dream job,” he says, “because I was working with industrial designers.” He worked on product design with all types of companies, from tiny startups to large corporations. “I just became very interested in business.”
During the early 1990s, many manufacturing companies were experiencing “re-engineering,” a restructuring of a company or its operational system. “If you were 55 and older they were cutting you and bringing in younger people,” explains Thrailkill. “My father couldn’t get a job to save his life. He talked himself into an opportunity where he was working for nothing just to try to get his foot in the door. It was reverse-engineering a strobe lamp. He took the idea to a local machine vision company, and they said, ‘Well, what we really would like is an LED light.’ And so my father came to me and he said, ‘I’ve got this need, and we’re either going to start a company, or else I’m going to have to move in with you.’ I said, ‘Sounds good. Let’s start a company.’”
Thrailkill was ready for something else, and the idea of starting a company of his own seemed to be the right fit —he had often fantasized as a child about having his own manufacturing business. He put up approximately $100,000 of his own savings as seed money to start Advanced Illumination in an apartment in Revere, Mass.
In 1994, Bill moved the operation to Vermont, in a space above a garage in Stockbridge. His dad worked full time at the fledgling company, and Thrailkill, still living in Massachusetts, worked nights and weekends until he left his day job in 1994 to join Advanced Illumination full time.
They both wanted to create jobs that paid a living wage while providing themselves with income and financial security, but they often disagreed with other aspects of the business. Thrailkill understood the complexities of running a manufacturing business, and the importance of putting guidelines and systems in place; his father was focused on helping others, sometimes implementing unconventional methods that clashed with those of his son.
“There are two kinds of inventors. There are guys who are very calculating, which I’m certainly more like that. And then there are guys like my father, who just dive in … sometimes it takes that, but it only takes you so far. I mean, things go to hell pretty quickly if you don’t start putting the systems in place pretty fast.”
Erik Thompson, president and executive coach of Thompson Leadership Development Inc. in Georgia, connected with the Thrailkill men through the Vermont Business Initiative at The University of Vermont.
“They had this dream, and with incredible passion built this high-tech global company tucked into the hills of Vermont. You see a high level of professionalism and skill operating in a global marketplace.
“Leadership transitions in any organization or family are stressful,” explains Thompson. “I think John had the right balance of respect for his father and the tradition his father started, and also the courage to stand behind his own emerging vision of what the company needed in the next chapter of its life. His father was able to pivot and hand the reins over to John.”
Advanced Illumination focuses on lighting and electronics for the machine vision industry — the vision component of a manufacturing machine or tool. It could be a manufacturing cell that employs vision as part of a process, and quite often is a part of quality control.
“There are still people doing manual inspections, but now, machine vision inspects cranberries, for example,” says Thrailkill. “Cranberries come flying by, and the machine will capture an image of the cranberry and then use a puff of air to move it into one of a number of bins depending on how ripe it is, or whether it’s bad, whether there’s some visible defect. And that can happen thousands and thousands of times a minute. You’d never be able to see it, but a light can flash and grab an image or allow the camera to grab an image. And then in real time the computer — the software — can inspect whatever it is you’re inspecting.”
By 1995, the company had outgrown the tiny space over the garage. The Thrailkills bought a building in Rochester that they refer to as “the white building.” They continued to grow, and by 2011 Thrailkill knew he had to move the company to another location. He prepared to sign a lease on the current building, located on State Garage Road, just outside the town.
“We had expanded into a rented building next door as well as a trailer, which was sitting behind the factory,” he says. “We were about a week away from signing the final lease on this building when Irene hit. We had half a million dollars’ worth of inventory in the trailer. The water came through, picked it up, swung it around, and it got wedged between two buildings and sort of held up in the air until the water receded. We didn’t lose any inventory.” They were at 60 to 70 percent of full production in a few weeks.
In its 22-year existence, the company has grown from a $10,000 business to seeing approximately $6.5 million in sales. Bill retired from the company in 2014.
Thrailkill married in 1997. He and Diane have two sons: David, 13, and John, 18. He is a vegetarian, meditates daily, and cycles regularly.
Greg Bourgea of Gallagher, Flynn and Co. in South Burlington facilitates a group of CEOs, including Thrailkill, who meet once a month. “The company provides custom lighting solutions for manufacturers around the world, yet they can do that on a fast turnaround,” says Bourgea.
“Their small size makes them very nimble. The uniqueness of the company is its location,” he continues. “It amazes me how John can attract and keep good people — they have high-end engineers in the middle of nowhere. John is dedicated to his business, but also to his family. He balances it out quite well.”
Advanced Illumination secures supplemental contract manufacturing in India, to satisfy demands from companies for providing higher volume products that are simple and lower in cost, but to retain the high-mix, low-volume products manufactured in Rochester.
“I have a hard time finding the people I need here. We’re meeting a German company in India next week. Without Indian manufacturing already in place, we wouldn’t even have been considered,” says Thrailkill.
“Machine vision lighting is very specialized. It’s tailored for all these different things, from pizzas to transmissions to chickens to cranberries to wind turbines. We design these products in such a way that if these high-volume products don’t do the job, then all these specialized lights that we build here will be built to be compatible with this German company’s system. It’s allowing us to compete with companies all over the world.
“When I hire people, I look for people who are really good at teaching themselves,” says Thrailkill. “If we were in Germany you wouldn’t consider doing that. You’d have to have a certain level of education, you’d have your slot, and that would be that. I think that’s the greatest strength of the United States: People can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make whatever they want of themselves. And Vermont is even more so.”•