Volume 46 Number 4
Leveraging a Brand with Myron L`s Robinson
Although she's only worked there for three years, Kathy Robinson has been married to the Myron L Company for as long as she's known her husband, Gary, its president and the son of its namesake founder Myron Lee Robinson.
Robinson and her husband were wed in 1959--just two years after the company was founded--and have three grown sons. She worked in sales and marketing for a variety of industries before joining Myron L, upon retirement of long-time vice president John Berg, in 2001.
"I had traveled with Gary to several trade shows in Europe. I would stand in the booth and talk to people when he and the others were busy with someone else, just to keep the customers occupied until Gary or John Berg, who was our vice president of sales and marketing at the time, were free," she said. "And because he retired, Gary wanted me to help out a little bit more. So, I was in the company trying to learn more about the products and somehow I ended up in the position I'm in."
At that same time, Myron L decided the down economy would be a good time to reposition the company for future growth. While it continued to enjoy double-digit growth, Myron L saw ongoing changes in the market and increasing globalization as an opportunity to leverage its brand name better than ever before.
"Many companies turn turtle and become ultraconservative in their approach to the marketplace," Robinson said. "In other words, they decide they want to survive. In Myron L's case, very deliberately, we made the decision to thrive and to continue to do business as we've done it before to capitalize on the strengths of the company. Again, we're a very well-known, well-respected brand name. And, as such, we've begun to capitalize on our history. It has really borne fruit for us."
The company, she noted, started out as a research and development firm producing irradiation chambers, spectrometers, electron microscopes and a wide range of other products. With so many peaks and valleys in that, though, Myron Robinson turned to inline and handheld fluid instrumentation to level out its income.
"At the time, he was using an instrument called a wheat-stone bridge, an electrical circuit which was very difficult and time-consuming to work with. He went home one night and basically invented this little black box, which was our PDS Series, or DS Series originally, for dissolved solids. And everybody wanted one of those black boxes. That's how we started producing them on a commercial scale in 1963."
Today, Myron L's products are used in much more than water treatment, which accounts for only about 5-10 percent of its sales. It does work in over 150 niche markets, including petrochemicals, nuclear power and defense, as well as laboratory analyses for a variety of industrial processes. Still, water treatment will always be viewed as a mainstay to its business, she added.
Current capabilities involve handheld and inline process control and instrumentation that measures pH, conductivity, resistivity, total dissolved solids (TDS), oxidation reduction potential (ORP) and temperature. This year, it will introduce several new instruments, covering additional parameters. It's also in the process of moving into a new 46,000-square-foot facility in Carlsbad, Calif., nearly doubling available space.
Before we get to the interview, here are a few facts about the company:
Operations: Leading manufacturer of high quality, simple-to-operate, low-cost conductivity and pH instrumentation--inline and handheld--for residential, municipal, commercial and industrial water quality control, chemical concentration testing and process control.
And now for the interview:
WC&P: How long have you been in the business and how did you get started?
Robinson: We have been in business since 1957. Myron L. Companies was named after Myron Lee Robinson, which was Gary's father. Myron Robinson started it as a research and development company in 1957. He worked on things like irradiation chambers, spectrometers, electron microscopes and a wide range of other products.
WC&P: How did you wind up focusing on instrumentation?
Robinson: The way we ended up in instrumentation is there were so many peaks and valleys in the income. He's a chemist--so he was treating water on the side to level out the income. At the time, they were using an instrument called a wheat-stone bridge, an electrical circuit which was very difficult and time-consuming to work with. He went home one night and basically invented this little black box which was our PDS Series, or DS Series originally, for dissolved solids. And everybody wanted one of those black boxes. That's how we started producing them on a commercial scale in 1963.
WC&P: The year I was born.
Robinson: Oh, really. There you go. Wow.
WC&P: Bring me up to date, if you would, on the transition between then and now. Tell me what the company experience from then until now, please.
Robinson: Oh, it's grown tremendously, obviously, since then. We started out as a little company in Gary's and the Robinson's garage in San Gabriel. They were living in Monterey Park, which is just south of there, at the time. We now just moved into a 46,000-square-foot facility. We just purchased the new facility because we outgrew our older building.
WC&P: When was that?
Robinson: Last year. We're partly in the process of moving into the new building right now.
WC&P: I recall us running a photo of the new building, but couldn't remember when that was.
Robinson: And we have around 70 employees approximately now.
WC&P: And the breadth of products for Myron L ranges from what to what today?
Robinson: We have handheld and inline process control and instrumentation that measures pH, conductivity, resistivity, total dissolved solids (TDS), oxidation reduction potential (ORP) and temperature. We have six parameters right now. This year, we will be introducing several new instruments and new parameters.
WC&P: Which ties into my next question, which is tell me what's new at the company?
Robinson: You mean where we're going in the future. We're definitely poised for growth. We expect to grow considerably in the next few years. I really cannot discuss a lot about what we're coming out with. We really prefer to wait until it's ready to go to market.
WC&P: This will be out in the April issue. Does that help?
Robinson: I wish that I could give you some more information, but I cannot tell you right now exactly which new instruments. We expect to offer dissolved oxygen, I know would be one, and turbidity. But I do not know if we want that out just yet.
WC&P: Do you know how many products you're looking at introducing over the next six months or so?
Robinson: I would imagine possibly at least one new complete line and several new products, maybe four new products in the next six months.
WC&P: Now, what drives your company?
Robinson: We do handhelds extremely well, if that's what you're asking.
WC&P: Actually, I was looking for what sort of market factors drive your business? What influences your business? What economic indicators do you look for?
Robinson: Because we're a mid-range product, we offer an extremely high value for the dollar. I think we do well in any economy, but certainly when money is tight, we do very well.
WC&P: What are some of the factors that affect your business? Is there heavy cost competition?
Robinson: There is a lot of competition. But because we have a good name, we've been around for a number of years. We're known for being extremely reliable, accurate and easy to use. We stand behind our products. We offer great customer service...
WC&P: Yes, you are very well known. I've been aware of your company since I started with the magazine in 1996. And I believe you were advertising with us long before that.
WC&P: Tell us an interesting story or anecdote about your experience in water treatment, if you could, please. How did you get involved in the business, for instance?
Robinson: Me, I'm Gary's wife.
WC&P: So, you were involved before or after marrying Gary?
Robinson: No, actually, I've been married to the company for quite some time, you could say. We have three sons in their 30s. But I have only worked with the company for three years. I actually worked in a number of other industries.
WC&P: What would that include?
Robinson: I worked in the medical industry in sales. I worked in the aviation industry. And I worked in just a variety of other industries.
WC&P: What brought you to Myron L?
Robinson: Actually, I was going in a different direction altogether and was helping out for a trade show. I had traveled with Gary to several trade shows in Europe. I would stand in the booth and talk to people when he and the others were busy with someone else, just to keep the customers occupied until Gary or John Berg, who was our vice president of sales and marketing at the time, were free.
WC&P: I remember John.
Robinson: Yes, he was a wonderful man. He retired. And because he retired, Gary wanted me to help out a little bit more. So, I was in the company trying to learn more about the products. And somehow I ended up in the position I'm in.
WC&P: Which is?
Robinson: I'm the director of sales and marketing.
WC&P: That's an interesting story. I assume one of these shows was AquaTech in Amsterdam?
Robinson: You bet. You guessed exactly.
WC&P: That's a big show.
Robinson: I love AquaTech. We have made a lot of friends during the event and I really enjoy that show. It's extremely interesting. It's a fascinating industry. I absolutely love it. I have a tremendous amount to learn.
WC&P: You can certainly see the whole breadth and width of the industry at that particular show. I think there's seven huge halls involved. I was a bit amazed myself. It takes more than a couple of days just to walk the whole thing.
Robinson: Oh, absolutely. That is very true.
WC&P: What's a major challenge that your company faced and how did you overcome it? This is a question we typically like to ask to offer readers a bit of an idea on how to apply lessons learned by others to their own businesses or careers.
Robinson: I'm trying to think about a problem we faced and what lessons we learned other than just the normal day-to-day stuff.
WC&P: Sometimes these may involve the general economy. It could be growing pains, it could be financing issues--any number of things.
Robinson: Well, due to the economy, it did force us to brand the company to sustain growth.
WC&P: When was that?
Robinson: Two years ago.
WC&P: What do you mean by branding?
Robinson: We made the decision to grow to go on the offense. Exploiting our brand better is a key component of that.
WC&P: How significantly has Myron L grown in the past couple of years?
Robinson: Actually, we've been positioning ourselves for growth. We expect to grow a lot in the next few years.
WC&P: Kind of taking the economic downturn as an opportunity to reorganize?
WC&P: How big a company is Myron L in revenue in terms of numbers?
Robinson: We're a privately held company and don't release those publicly.
WC&P: What type of growth have you experienced in recent years?
Robinson: We're definitely large enough to be considered a player in our market. As far as what kind of growth we expect to see, double digits.
WC&P: And in the past couple of years, what's your growth been like?
Robinson: Double digits.
WC&P: Has it been affected by the economy at all?
Robinson: Actually, we have not been affected adversely by the economy. We've had no reason to offer anyone any price concessions in the last two years and we've sustained growth.
WC&P: To what do you credit that?
Robinson: We offer an instrument that is extremely reliable, accurate and simple to use for a very, very reasonable cost.
WC&P: From your perspective in the market, where do you see the overall industry going?
Robinson: Probably emphasizing reliability and functionality over anything else.
WC&P: What different product or client niches do you have strengths in? How do you segment your market, in other words?
Robinson: We're very diversified. We have over 150 niches that we serve.
WC&P: Which ones of those do you see showing the most promise?
Robinson: Domestically, point-of-use and point-of-entry.
WC&P: Why would that be?
Robinson: Homeland security and maintaining the integrity of our infrastructure.
WC&P: If you look at how you segment out your market and take POU/POE, how much is that in terms of a percentage of what you do?
Robinson: Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent.
WC&P: If you look at 90-95 percent of your business being outside of POU/POE, that's quite a big chunk?
Robinson: That's quite true. If you think of Myron L as a company, many modern, large corporations focus typically on a small set of markets. Maybe two to three markets maximum, with just a small set of niches. We don't. We run the gamut from high performance petrochemicals to nuclear power to defense. We, literally, give the troops in the field a water quality testing instrument a soldier can use to test water and make sure he's not going to die if he drinks it. And we offer POU/POE equipment to let a homeowner know that what he's about to drink is acceptable or not. Uses for our products range from hemodialysis to you name it. Part of that is because we offer two broad sets of instruments--handheld water quality instruments that are applicable for anywhere a person can walk to--to inline process, which is anywhere industry is. That's where the difference between ourselves and say a large enterprise differ. We have never been driven to rationalize the markets we serve because our set of products really do cross many market boundaries with complete ease.
WC&P: Between those two different segments--the handheld vs. inline--how does that split percentage-wise in the company?
Robinson: Basically, in half. And I don't see that shifting actually. What we've observed in the last several years as we've shifted to the global economy is the promise for handhelds becoming brighter internationally moreso than it has domestically in some ways--although there's still a need there to be met, of course.
WC&P: Where are your strengths internationally?
Robinson: We serve over 90 countries, so really it's anywhere distribution can sell our product.
WC&P: But if you were to split sales up by region, Europe, Asia or Latin America...?
Robinson: Honestly, it's about equal.
WC&P: If POU/POE makes up only 5-10 percent of the business, what are some of the other big chunks in terms of significant markets you may target more because they're growing faster?
Robinson: We serve the medical device industry, primarily in hemodialysis. We own probably about 80 percent of that market with a couple of specific instruments. And we don't expect that to change. But, of course, that's not necessarily an international activity even though hemodialysis may become more common.
WC&P: Apparently, even Osama bin Laden needs it, so there you go...
Robinson: That's true.
WC&P: What are a couple of other niches you participate in?
Robinson: Surprisingly, the offshore petrochemical needs as far as offshore platforms is big for us.
WC&P: Oh, like Petrobras or the North Atlantic?
Robinson: Yes, the reason is, for many years, these guys have been buying very expensive instrumentation that had a number of different functions imbedded in one instrument. They found though, for those instruments, even though they were enclosed, they're functionality and reliability weren't all that good. And we've begun to see a demand for our instruments that wind up in enclosures built by others. Once again, that shows our flexibility--put it that way. I've seen that as not a huge niche but one that's growing. And our handhelds are finding a home there as well.
WC&P: Do you see any shifts at all in POU/POE as far as what they're requesting?
Robinson: It's a market that is literally in the act of growing explosively--as you at WC&P well know. Where that market will take us and what its needs might be, they change weekly. Our approach is primarily through distribution. And as needs have changed, we've had an opportunity to investigate the classic faster-better-cheaper-smaller outlook and become the marketplace's lowest price point.
WC&P: How does that work as far as a residential dealer?
Robinson: Let's say the Culligan family of dealers came to us and said, "We have a need for X, Y or Z instrument, which is something you're currently doing but your packaging is not correct for our needs." We have the ability to say, "OK, define for us what your needs are and we'll make it for you. And it will be your product." And we do it.
WC&P: OK. For instance, if they want a custom test kit that has a variety of parameters that they want to check for?
Robinson: It can be a handheld test kit. It can be an inline process instrument. You name it.
WC&P: I believe Myron L was involved in an article written some time ago for WC&P by John Beauchamp, an independent dealer in Vermont, on the ideal test kit for a dealer. I believe you helped him write up the article on what would be the best set of capabilities for a test kit for the dealer. Those can vary based on the needs of the dealer and conditions of geography or geology, etc., yes?
Robinson: It does vary--and more often than not. I get involved in those discussions myself. If anything, I see this globally. I'm trying to draft this idea for advertising, so forgive me if I'm wordy or overly concise. We've seen an increasing globalization on what could be considered the global point-of-use/point-of-entry marketplace, both from a supply chain and sales chain perspective. And that's forcing us to change. We also know it's forcing our competition to change how they go to market. I mean the typical request is literally better-faster-cheaper.
WC&P: Faster response times?
Robinson: Yes. Or if there's a new product design cycle, it has to be shorter. You have to be more accurate. You're targeting specific price points.
WC&P: You had test strips coming out a few years back where it seemed, like every six months, the producers were jumping on the latest test strip for lead or arsenic or whatever the contaminant of the month was...
Robinson: The test strips, we've seen them going away and colorimeters coming into play. And the reason is the colorimeters, which were typically benchtop-type instruments have graduated into the handheld world. Suddenly, a dealer can do in a colorimeter what he used to try to do with a test strip and be more accurate.
WC&P: The technology advancement is such, including miniaturization, that it makes higher technology much more accessible in the field?
Robinson: Yes, it's a classic case of being more accurate, reliable and simple. It really is. And if you can't answer those three parts of the equation right now, then it doesn't work. And it has been, more than normally, survival of the fittest.
WC&P: What is the one hot-button issue that you think water treatment dealers are going to be seeing having more influence over the next few years? For instance, what are they going to be looking at as the big thing that's going to be affecting their business?
Robinson: Well, domestically, it's going to be specific ions--or demand for some form of specific ions testing in the field.
WC&P: Such as?
Robinson: It can be arsenic, selenium, cobalt...
WC&P: Perchlorate, MTBE...
Robinson: It could be anything. It probably needs to be handheld, not necessarily for point-of-use... But it needs to be able to demonstrate that the integrity is fine more than anything. And you'll find that, to get there, it's probably not going to be any single company's push. It's probably going to be a multi-government push to go there.
WC&P: When you were speaking earlier, you mentioned homeland security as a driving force as well.
Robinson: It is. It's becoming more obvious. On background, over the past few years, there's been more of a demand. And it's becoming more obvious.
WC&P: I know that NSF has been asked to put together some sort of a bioterrorism protocol whereby they can test POU/POE for potential efficacy in performing under extreme cases or conditions that may involve bioterrorism agents.
Robinson: Exactly. And given our location in Southern California and our relationship with the various water districts, we get asked a lot about related issues.
WC&P: What's a major challenge that Myron L has faced and how did it overcome it?
Robinson: All companies--all companies--face a decision as business cycles become more obvious in terms of boom-to-bust/boom-to-bust and the transition to the global economy from the old economy, whether they should change. Many companies turn turtle and become ultraconservative in their approach to the marketplace. In other words, they decide they want to survive. In Myron L's case, very deliberately, we made the decision to thrive and to continue to do business as we've done it before to capitalize on the strengths of the company. Again, we're a very well-known, well-respected brand name. And, as such, we've begun to capitalize on our history. It has really borne fruit for us, I have to admit.
WC&P: This was a decision made a couple of years ago?
WC&P: And it was done with the idea of putting more emphasis on the brand of Myron L.
Robinson: On the brand of Myron L, but also it was a very deliberate change the perspective to it's not enough to survive--you can only thrive.
WC&P: So let's push the market and see where the envelope goes.
Robinson: Yes, exactly. And let the market tell us where we're going--or markets.
WC&P: Can you give us an example of that?
Robinson: A recent one would be the transition from the U.S. military, all branches, from one of our analog instruments that they traditionally used to a multiparameter digital instrument that we manufacture. It was teaching them literally, what it took--I call it the care and feeding of an instrument--in viewing these as a type of weapon designed to keep them alive. It's very true. Suddenly, we're providing them with something that's similar to a new weapon. And, traditionally, they hadn't thought of it that way. We taught them that it is a weapon; it's just another type.
WC&P: Give this weapon the proper respect and it will keep you alive, in other words.
Robinson: And if you don't, you never know--you may suffer the consequences. It changed the military's perspective on the importance of the product. It's worked out very well. Surprisingly, I think all of us in the company had more fun doing that than a lot of us would really admit. It was fun.
WC&P: It gets you involved in a completely new way of looking at your product as well.
Robinson: Absolutely. And again, when you think of branding, there's a great branding message.
WC&P: Of new products you've introduced recently, what's the emphasis behind them?
Robinson: We are answering more mass market needs with some of our newer products.
WC&P: By that you mean?
Robinson: Packaged controllers to answer a set industry's needs, for instance, our cooling tower controller. That's something we've typically done. We've usually integrated one of our more normal process controllers. But that market demands product packaging that's specific to it. So, that's what we did. An interesting thing about the cooling tower market is that, over 20 years ago, we were doing the same thing. We approached it then. We found 20 years ago, though, that demand wasn't that strong--so we left it. But we're back. Why? Because the market wasn't ready and people weren't having to conserve water to the degree they are now.
WC&P: Population growth has made it a need.
Robinson: Yes, water is expensive and the equipment is as expensive. So, suddenly, it's required to control it better.
WC&P: Being in California gives you a perfect venue for that, too.
Robinson: It absolutely does. And being adjacent to Arizona doesn't hurt either.
WC&P: I'd like to get a little more detail on a few things we've touched on already. For instance, how big was your old building?
Robinson: We went from approximately 25,000 square feet to over 46,000 square feet.
WC&P: Wow. And you're in the process of moving into that now?
Robinson: Yes, we're about halfway into the new building. And the only reason we haven't completely moved is just the process of getting all the approvals from the state and city.
WC&P: Is all your production done there? Or do you contract out and have some done outside and assemble things there?
Robinson: The majority of our manufacturing is done there in Carlsbad. However, yes, we do have some assembly that's done outside.
WC&P: Even overseas?
Robinson: No. Currently, we do not have any overseas.
WC&P: What's required as far as the expertise of your workforce? What breadth of expertise do you have to have in-house?
Robinson: Pretty wide. I mean everything from, obviously, very technical engineers to janitors.
WC&P: In closing, what would be the message you would like to give out to the POU/POE industry which is the primary readership of our magazine?
Robinson: To answer your question, Myron L is just a small company that genuinely cares about the quality of water in the world and to providing for the needs and tools that are necessary to make a difference. Maybe a better way of putting it would be that we are and will remain committed to the water quality industry and to providing accurate, reliable instruments to meet its changing needs.