June 2004: Volume 46, Number 6
Carbon Link`s Brumfield Breaks Away
by Carlos David Mogollon, WC&P Executive Editor
A 2002 report from the Freedonia Group points out: 'Demand for virgin activated carbon in the U.S. will reach 450 million pounds in 2006, with market value expected to rise 3.5 percent per year to $332 million... Gains will be partially attributable to water and air pollution laws, as well as the ongoing development of new applications.'
Overall, Freedonia estimates demand in the $25 billion world water treatment market will grow 6.6 percent per year through 2007, driven in developed areas by stricter environmental standards, according to another report released this year.
All of this is good news for Bill Brumfield, president of Carbon Link Corp., of Columbus, Ohio. And it couldn't come at a better time. In May, he was in the middle of completing the buyout of his company from UK-based CPL Carbon Link, which should be a fait accompli by the time you read this.
Brumfield, a Columbus native, was lured from Barnebey & Sutcliffe about 10 years ago to start the U.S. branch by a former owner of Sutcliffe Speakman UK who'd spun off Carbon Link in 1990. He'd spent eight years at Barnebey as a sales engineer and was there in 1987 when Sutcliffe acquired Barnebey-Cheney, whose history stretches back to making gas masks for the military in World War I. It's that history Brumfield points to in explaining the high concentration of activated carbon industry players in Columbus, citing several area firms started by graduates of 'Barnebey & Sutcliffe University.'
At Carbon Link, there was always a loose affiliation between the U.S. and UK outfits, Brumfield said. Initially, he was one of the biggest customers for his UK partners. About five years ago, he saw greater efficiencies in sourcing his own carbon and those ties got thinner. Three years ago, Coal Products Ltd. (UK) bought out his UK partners Carbon Link and its interest in the highly competitive U.S. market waned even more. So, Brumfield decided he needed to go it alone to better pursue opportunities he sees here.
'It's been a huge opportunity for me, and they pretty much saw it as a parting of ways on very good terms... I already own the copyrights and trademark and everything like that here... We still have a very good working relationship. We continue to work together,' he said.
It's also been a challenge. He's had to streamline operations in preparation for the buyout. He's revamped his business plan, and he's looking toward the future.
'I've got a couple products that I really want to throw at the market hard, because I know how competitive they are and what they can do compared to some of the other people out there who are supplying similar products,' Brumfield said, pointing to his H2Sorb, SE1 and coconut-shell carbons as examples.
In addition, he's planning on expanding equipment offerings as well as supplying activated carbons. He's also looking at targeting specific applications such as decolorization. And he's looking at a move of the business from the 30,000-square-foot building it occupies now, possibly into space he would own instead of lease.
For more of Brumfield's thoughts on commoditization of the carbon market, offshore carbon quality and positioning of smaller players in a consolidating market, read on. But first, here's some background on the company:
Carbon Link Corp.
800 Distribution Dr.
Columbus, OH 43228
Tel: (800) 858-6889 or (614) 275-3955
Fax: (800) 858-7189 or (614) 275-3959
Owner: William Brumfield, President
Revenue: $3-4 million annually
Operation: NSF-certified seller of activated carbon sourced largely in Sri Lanka (coconut shell) and China (coal-based). Also focuses on some equipment sales, particularly a 55-gallon tank designed for flue gas treatment and others applications involving pressure tanks. Seventy percent of sales are water related.
And now for the interview:
WC&P: How long have you been in the business and how did you get started?
Brumfield: Personally, I’ve been in the business about 18 years. I started at Barnebey-Sutcliffe. I was a sales engineer. And it was about two or three years after Barneby-Cheney was purchased by Sutcliffe Speakman out of the United Kingdom.
WC&P: Wow, that was before my time. So, that’s Cheney as in Vice President Cheney?
Brumfield: Yes, same spelling, but I don’t know if there’s any relation. Barneby-Cheney was like Sutcliffe Speakman out of the UK. But here in the United States, they were one of the pioneers in the carbon industry, making gas masks and things like that in World War I and World War II—not that I'm trying to plug their company or anything like that. My other background was with a company called Liebert Corp. in engineering and sales.
WC&P: This was after you left Barnebey-Sutcliffe?
Brumfield: No, that was before. I had a background in air filtration and things like that; then, sales from Liebert, and then went to Barnebey-Sutcliffe and really started my sales career. I was in their Pure Air Products Division and sold indoor air quality (IAQ) products and emission control equipment. I got into corrosive gas control equipment, selling a lot to the pulp and paper mill market. I was also involved in some of the NASA control rooms. From there, I also started selling the high efficiency containment filters, which are bag-in, bag-out filters for nuclear applications, and pharmaceuticals.
WC&P: When did you get into water?
Brumfield: Water? I really wasn’t in the water end of it at Barnebey-Sutcliffe. What happened was I was there for almost eight years. Then ironically, one of the guys who was the president of Sutcliffe Speakman, who bought Barnebey, spun off his own company called Carbon Link in the UK—Carbon Link Ltd. He kind of knew me; and that, in the market, I'd kind of developed a reputation. They searched me out, having known who I was and my name being out there. This was about 10 years ago, probably 11 years ago when they started pursuing me. They said to me: 'Hey, why don't you start the Carbon Link arm in the USA?' So, we negotiated some contracts. Once I got started in running Carbon Link Corporation as a partial owner, we started doing everything. I started getting more into the carbon sales. I was selling a lot of equipment then, too, through Carbon Link, as well as design and development of our own stuff very similar to other things on the market that already existed. We came up with some of our own burning ideas, some new types of equipment...
WC&P: What, like catalytic carbons, etc.?
Brumfield: Yes, impregnated carbons, that sort of thing. As such, we started getting more and more into the water filtration market, and just because of some of the world events and the environment and pricing, shifted more to the side of selling activated carbons more for water and water filtration. And that’s primarily where our market is right now.
WC&P: How much does it make up of your market?
Brumfield: I would say it's probably 70 percent. It depends on the time of year, but it's probably around that right now.
WC&P: Why does it depend on the time of year?
Brumfield: Well, the time between late February and September 'the warmer months' a lot more carbon is used, especially on the East Coast, where 'winter' occurs. A lot of the water plants use more water due to farming, because of the runoff of pesticides, fertilizers and things like that. There's a growing need for carbon because of taste in the water, atrazine in the water--there's a lot more control on it.
WC&P: Now, tell me a little bit more about your company in terms of what's new? What's happened more recently? How has the company evolved?
Brumfield: This is kind of an interesting part of it, too. I don't know how you want to approach it. About four years ago, the majority shareholders in Carbon Link were sold to a company called CPL; which is Coal Products Ltd. out in the UK. And some of their focus changed. Over the last couple of years, they've decided that they really don't want to be in the U.S. market. So, I've negotiated a buyout, which I'm going through right now. It's supposed to be final by the end of this month.
WC&P: Wow! That would be good, since this isn't coming out until June.
Brumfield: It's been a huge opportunity for me, and they pretty much saw it as a parting of ways on very good terms.
WC&P: Amicably, in other words.
Brumfield: Yes. They just thought it was best, and I thought it was best and it's been mutually acceptable and everything.
WC&P: Good time for my call, huh?
Brumfield: Yes, you know, everything is happening all at once.
WC&P: So will you no longer be CPL Carbon Link, but rather Carbon Link USA?
Brumfield: Well, I have the right to retain the CPL name if I like. I mean I own it here in the United States. I own the copyrights and trademark. But, I guess, for recognition purposes, CPL Carbon Link UK still exists and they do quite a bit of work around the world. We still have a very good working relationship. We continue to work together.
WC&P: You continue to work with each other; it's just that you’re separate companies.
Brumfield: Yes, I'm privately owned. They're owned by the CPL people there. But CPL is a large company made up of a bunch of smaller companies and Carbon Link UK is just one of those companies. The ownership, my original partners from Carbon Link, still run that operation and we are on excellent terms. We pretty much work together in all aspects.
WC&P: Tell me how this will change your focus or how will this change how you do business? What does it mean to you?
Brumfield: Well, to me it's not necessarily a change in the way that I do business. We've been in business for 10 years. And, in 10 years, I've learned quite a bit about the different markets and working with different people. I've got an opportunity to maybe implement some of my ideas as opposed to a sort of corporate idea. You know, when you're part of a corporation or corporate entity, you have to do things pretty much exactly according to policy.
WC&P: This kind of ties into one of our questions we typically ask, which is what's a major challenge that you or your company faced and how did you overcome it? Sounds like you're kind of in the middle of that.
Brumfield: That's true. But I can make some equipment acquisitions now, expand the plant a little bit, do a little bit more focusing on specific markets. I've wanted to develop certain markets that I haven't been able to up 'til now.
WC&P: Such as?
Brumfield: Getting a little more into the water market, for one. It seems filter cartridges, specialty carbons, more of the manufactured equipment, and carrying complementary lines with the carbons are all good ideas.
WC&P: Other medias?
Brumfield: Yes. Right now, we carry coconut-shell carbon and coal-based carbons. We have a huge market and a big interest in some of the specialty carbons. Like our H2Sorb, which is used for removing hydrogen sulfide in the water and is a very economical and very competitive product. It's proven very well. I could expand that market. I'm putting even more of my own money into it. And, so when you're able to do that, it's more of a business gamble, but it's going to pay off. That's the thing. I'm able to make those kinds of investments and those kinds of decisions myself.
WC&P: In the last five years, there have been a number of different contaminants of concern pop up that some carbon manufacturers and other media makers jumped to the fore on in trying to address them. For instance, suddenly every carbon maker said theirs dealt with MTBE or perchlorate. We've got all these new medias for arsenic. Are those some of the things you're talking about?
Brumfield: Yes. On something like the MTBE issue, our carbon has been tested for MTBE and found to be excellent. It's a coconut-shell carbon that has some special attributes. The other thing is we don't try to snow anybody 'not saying anyone else does' in trying to make it seem like this golden wonder-all type solution. There are a lot of people out there on the market saying one carbon will do everything. That's not the most responsible and economical way to do things. There are people who approach the market simply as a way to make money: I'm going to sell this product and that's it. This is as opposed to another view that says: Wait, you've got a very complex issue that may require more than one product.
WC&P: By that you mean that different carbons may have different properties and may be more efficient on one contaminant vs. another?
Brumfield: Exactly. Like MTBE, that's one thing. But then, you may have benzene or something else in the background in the water—or atrazine—such that, if you want to be effective, you’ve got to treat it in a multiple of different ways. Although most people shy away from that because of cost. what we’re trying to bring to the forefront is cost vs. performance. Some of the markets are down and dirty, such as powdered: “Just black, it’s just black and that’s what I want to sell.” No, we’re more interested in R&D, the testing, the proper way to predict dosage, different mixtures of carbon, too. It might not be just a coal-based carbon; it might be coal-based with a wood-based carbon, a slight mix to give it a little kick for something else or something new.
WC&P: Do you do anything different in the powdered activated carbon (PAC) market or carbon block areas?
Brumfield: I haven’t done anything in the carbon block area, because basically it’s a pretty dominated market. There are a couple of big companies here in the States. And if I wanted to sell them carbon or the carbon to make their product, I could do that. But it’s not worth it in what I want to do. It’s so competitive that I would rather not. If you’ve got $3 million or $4 million in the bank and cash is not of essence, then that’s not a problem. I’m not cash rich. I don’t have that kind of money to just throw out there and then just sit, because a lot of it has to do with moving product.
WC&P: Part of the issue with the carbon market is that it’s become very much a commodities market, otherwise carbon company stocks would be going through the roof. In another sense, there’s been discussion at least over the last five years that the market has suffered from being overstocked or oversaturation.
Brumfield: There’s quite a bit. There are a number of brokers out there, resellers, etc. I would rather be a specialist. That’s where we want to remain and that’s where we’re going to focus—on the specialty products, the specialty applications. We want to stay true to that. So many times we’ve found that when we compete on price and price alone, we’ll just back off. But, then, somebody will come back and say, “Wait, we need something that works.” And that’s happened quite a bit. It happens even in those down and dirty markets, like some of the municipal water markets. It’s becoming more competitive, but it is directly related to cost vs. performance.
WC&P: You mean, you get what you pay for?
Brumfield: Yes. In specific applications, you’ve got to know your business. You’ve got to know what the carbon is made of, what the pore size is, what works best in what activity...
WC&P: What’s the iodine number?
Brumfield: Yes, it’s very technical. Some people may say it’s going to be a super, high activity carbon. Well, maybe not.
WC&P: Maybe under this condition, but not under that.
Brumfield: Yes, just because it says specialty carbon does not mean high activity carbon. It might have to be low ash. It takes on a lot of different parameters.
WC&P: Well, tell me where your strengths are? What does Carbon Link consider its bread-and-butter?
Brumfield: We actually put it in two different areas. Those areas are, No. 1, the coconut shell. Our coconut plant is Bieco Link out of Sri Lanka. Bieco has been with us—we’ve been with them—since the inception of Carbon Link. They have been and have remained a very high quality producer. They produce only for us and they have a good reputation. They’re not the cheapest guy on the block. We know that, so we don’t necessarily “take” orders with their carbon. We sell it and it’s a value-added product. We remain focused.
WC&P: What makes it so much better?
Brumfield: Well, it’s in the manufacturing process...
WC&P: Are they acid-washing, water-washing...?
Brumfield: Yes, we have a lot of water-washed carbons, which are very aesthetic. It looks good. It feels clean. It doesn’t dust. You don’t have to use so many bed volumes to get the small carbon particles out, so it runs crystal clear. It’s very, very hard. That comes from our source of raw material. And everybody has a story about that kind of stuff—but it is very true. As you know, the Internet gives everybody unlimited access. If you’ve got “carbon” in your name, you’re darn well sure to be contacted by every carbon supplier or manufacturer in the entire world. There are a lot of people out there that continue to contact us that say, “Cheaper carbon!” That’s it, though. It’s cheaper. It’s not necessarily better. And when you’re looking at things like hardness—and hardness is a big, big factor since it relates to attrition, dusting...
WC&P: How much it breaks down over time?
Brumfield: Yes. And the whole thing is that in a filtration process, it is physical. It’s physical adsorption. And there’s action. Wherever there’s action, there’s a reaction. The carbon could break up. If it breaks up, you’ve got problems there. So, the hardness of the carbon has been one of our greatest attributes. The fact that we also supply the military with our carbon is significant, too.
WC&P: They have more than one source, do they not?
Brumfield: They do. But I will say our carbon is accepted by the military over others. Some of it has to do with, believe it or not, the radioactive nature of carbon. There are different parts of the world where there still is some radioactivity in carbon due to nuclear testing years and years ago.
Brumfield: Yes. For example, underwater testing or what’s in the soil; it affects the plants even today. If they’re storing these fuel rods in salt mines because the material has a half-life of 10,000 years, you can imagine. The quality really comes to the front. Back to strengths—No. 2, is our coal-based carbons. They’re a higher quality and, quite frankly, they’re not the cheapest carbon on the block. But we pay attention to the aesthetics and exactly what quality you need for a specific application, whether it be general, dialysis, groundwater remediation or a decolorization job. We always pay attention to specific carbons for specific applications. The other thing we don’t do is, again, try to create that black box or mystery cure-all carbon. We let our carbon speak for itself and give the information straight up. We educate our customers so that they can make the decisions. I would say that 90 percent of the buyers out there do not know about what they’re buying. That’s across the board for everyone. If we can get them educated and teach them to make decisions, very knowledgeable decisions about what they’re buying and why, then we’ve found that our carbons sell themselves.
WC&P: I mentioned earlier challenges. Are there any other challenges you’ve faced through the past 10 years that’s stood out in your mind and how did you deal with it?
Brumfield: One of the biggest challenges is being a “me, too” out there.
WC&P: Kind of what we’ve been talking about?
Brumfield: Yes. Today, there are just so many suppliers. Everything from the factory-direct contact to some guy who just bought a boatload, doesn’t really know what it is, but knows it’s black and wants to make a little money and may not care about the market. One of the things about this market that stands out is there are responsible manufacturers and people who recognize that the market doesn’t have to be dominated by just a few. Anybody can go in and low-ball the carbon market. The major players, the people in it to stay, they’re trying to do what I’m also doing and that’s supply a good product for a good price and provide good support. Personality works into that. When you do get the people low-balling the market to just knock the prices out , it gets just super dirty. It’s not about the quality anymore; it’s about how much you can get out of it. The biggest challenge, I think, is just not succumbing to that—to back away and hold your ground. If it’s going to be that down and dirty a deal, I’m just going to walk away from it. I don’t want to go out of business because I can take an order based on price but can’t survive because there’s no profit. You can make a little bit.
WC&P: How big is your company?
Brumfield: It’s not huge—$3 million to $4 million right now annually.
WC&P: This is just the U.S. portion of Carbon Link?
WC&P: How many employees do you have?
Brumfield: Seven. I’ve been bigger. I’ve been smaller. In order for me to go through the buyout, I’ve had to downsize. It’s been part of the profile of things I had to do.
WC&P: What were you at your peak?
Brumfield: I had about 10 people.
WC&P: And have the revenues fluctuated up or down?
Brumfield: It has a little bit over the course of the years. The year after 9/11, after that, I think everybody took a hit.
WC&P: Oh, yeah.
Brumfield: And I’m not just speaking internationally. People here took a hit.
WC&P: We’ve talked to a lot of companies about that.
Brumfield: We were able to stay focused and adapt based on what kind of products we offered. The one thing that’s kind of weird about carbon is there are things that can affect the carbon so much. Right now, freight is affecting it more than anything.
WC&P: You mean higher fuel prices?
Brumfield: Yes. International ocean freight is the most volatile part of pricing the carbon market. That’s where sometimes the margins are made or lost, in that regard. Adaptation. Adapting to changes in the market is how you survive. Some people may sell just a coal-based product or just a wood-based product or just a coconut-shell product and focus just on that. You have to have the ability to fluctuate based on what your factory might be doing.
WC&P: Where’s your coal-based product coming from? Is that from England?
Brumfield: That’s from China. I have two specific factories that I order from and they are both very high quality.
WC&P: I assume there’s a lot of relationship building that goes on here, particularly if the sourcing and transport are such key issues where margins are crucial. It would seem that who you know to get this stuff done is very important.
Brumfield: Yes, that’s true. For the last five years, I’ve really been more involved in the management and the sourcing part of it, building my relationships with the manufacturers to get a consistent product. International communication and understanding different cultures, that’s been very important. I also have somebody in China right now who works with me specifically and the factories as a liaison. That goes a long, long way.
WC&P: Explain to me two things, if you could. After you complete the buyout, how does that affect sourcing and relationships, because I imagine some of this is handled through CPL?
Brumfield: No, it’s all done through me. That’s been the other thing, too. I operate alone. I stand alone, too. They don’t do anything. That’s been another reason why they asked themselves: “Why do we need to be there?” It’s always been a U.S. operation and will remain and continue as such.
WC&P: What does Carbon Link UK do then? Are they just a mirror operation there?
Brumfield: Yes, they do it throughout Europe—UK, France, Italy, Spain... They’re a large operation. They’ve got some good clout.
WC&P: How much bigger than you?
Brumfield: They’re bigger. They’ve got a stronger base.
WC&P: By 30, 40 or 50 percent?
Brumfield: Yes, although I couldn’t be specific about the figure.
WC&P: So, it’s been somewhat a loose affiliation all along?
Brumfield: Yes. In the beginning, though, it wasn’t so much because they were selling me carbon. I was really one of their biggest customers, as opposed to a compatriot or partner.
WC&P: When did you start sourcing your own?
Brumfield: About four or five years ago.
WC&P: What prompted that?
Brumfield: I just brought it to the table. I was noticing the pricing out there was more competitive and I wanted to have more control over the operation. I wanted to be sure I was doing the best that I could for this company all the way around. I saw an opportunity to advance.
WC&P: In all of this, I imagine there are a number of crazy stories that come about. We had to do this to do that, etc. Tell us an interesting story or anecdote about your experience in water treatment, if you could.
Brumfield: I’ve got a good friend with one of the associations, the National Ground Water Association. His name is Bob Masters. They put on trade shows, seminars, etc. He actually did quite a lot of work with me on MTBE carbon—testing our carbon and showing how well it performs for that solution. Along the way, we started getting into pharmaceuticals.
WC&P: In what sense?
Brumfield: Talking about activated carbons, pharmaceuticals and testing. It used to be, say 20 or 30 years ago, carbon users would say, “I have 10 percent of some contaminant that I want to get rid of in my water.” And then 10 years ago, it became: “Oh, I’ve got 10 parts per million.” Then it was 10 parts per billion, then 10 parts per trillion. So, the ability of testing has gotten so sophisticated that we’re down to the point where we know exactly how effective the carbon is. That was one of the things with MTBE and knowing that parts per billion concentrations and carcinogen levels kick off cancer. In that regard, Bob and I were talking and he brought up the issue of pharmaceuticals and how critical that’s becoming. They did a study...
WC&P: In terms of removing pharmaceuticals?
Brumfield: Yes, from the water.
WC&P: OK, we’ve done articles on the subject. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t talking about use of carbon in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
Brumfield: No, but what was interesting was when they did the study they found that there was a fish that was changing. The sex of the fish was physically changing in its lifetime because of the amount of estrogen or birth control residue in the water down to the level of parts per trillion. We’re talking one or two parts per trillion was changing the sex of a fish in its lifetime.
WC&P: Or frogs...
Brumfield: Yes, it really brings to light the complex issue of water purification and water quality and how it should never be taken lightly. It is real. Our bodies are subjected to one heck of a lot more than we’d ever imagine. It kind of hit home with me. I’ve got five kids, three of whom are older daughters. At some point, birth control will be an issue. You see that kind of stuff and think, “Wow!” I don’t know if that’s an anecdote, but it’s interesting.
WC&P: Tell me, one of the things we’ve noticed in the carbon industry is that at the same time as there’s been a commoditization, there’s also been a rapid growth in the level of contaminants that can be removed using carbon based on how it’s being structured or processes used on it. One company that’s not likely a competitor of yours since they process it into carbon block is KX Industries. It just announced that it had passed a microbial reduction protocol for carbon block. And with the prices dropping all of these latest technologies are becoming more affordable to the general public. Talk to me about those advances and what you see in them.
Brumfield: Those technological advances are fantastic. We’ve seen it for a while, going back five years or longer. The recognition that carbon block is a very strong player in the market. We also recognize that what it can or can’t do and how that’s advanced. We were at one time involved in a project on a fiber that was being made into a block and started to understand and recognize why carbon block was becoming such a good filter for even microbial concerns. But as far as the carbon block segment goes, it’s a pretty saturated market. You’ve got KX and they’re pretty strong in it. There’s Chinese product out there and they’re trying to sell to everybody too. I kind of look at that and think KX does a great job and I’m not really going to compete in what they’re doing.
WC&P: Well, that’s not your market?
Brumfield: No, it’s not.
WC&P: Well, one of the interesting things brought up at this year’s WQA convention by KX’s Evan Koslow—and he brought it up initially about five years ago—was the issue of different levels of contaminants that are actually inherent in some carbons. Previously, he was bringing it up as a concern related to proposals for the new arsenic in drinking water standard from the USEPA that went from 50 down to 10 ppm, with debate over whether to go down further to 5 or 3 ppm. He was saying at the lower levels you’d run into problems because of naturally occurring arsenic leaching from some carbons not meeting the standard. More recently, he noted that his company has seen even higher levels of arsenic and antimony in some offshore carbons coming into the country. He’s brought this to the USEPA’s attention, pointing out that most U.S. carbon manufacturers are aware of this issue and taking steps to deal with it—but that the industry needs to be aware in a broader sense in terms of who they’re buying from and checking, I guess.
Brumfield: That’s true. I agree with that. And also, I’ve been to China. I’ve seen exactly where a lot of these people get their carbon. If you ever heard the phrase “hole in the wall,” that’s exactly where some of these people are getting their material. My factories are NSF-qualified, they’re ISO-qualified and their top-line. They are very pedantic about the levels of ash, for instance. This leads to the next point, which is your carbon is not necessarily going to spit out this stuff. You can have the arsenic or antimony in the carbon, but it’s inside. It’s what makes up the carbon. It’s not going to wash out. It is when the ash washes out that it may be consumed. So, acid-washed carbons or de-dusted and water-washed carbons are becoming more and more important. It’s stressed under the qualifications for NSF. We’re NSF-listed. Every year, we follow the guidelines religiously—all the record-keeping, all the samples. We’re audited. And NSF has come a long way. It’s really getting a lot stickier about different things like that.
WC&P: More sophisticated?
Brumfield: Not necessarily more sophisticated. It’s just paying more attention to suppliers, who wants that certification, why, where are they coming from, what are they calling their plant...? Are they calling their plant a factory in China or are they calling it a plant in the USA? Do they have quality control in their plant? We’ve got a laboratory here and test all the product that comes in. We’ve got certification testing in our factories in China. They’re not substandard. I sat in a meeting once with, then, Barnebey-Sutcliffe, NORIT, Calgon Carbon and Carbon Activated. The people there were saying the quality of carbon coming out of China was horrible and you couldn’t have any control over a dog walking by and taking a dump on a pile of carbon. I thought, yes, it is a different way of life, but it’s not so out of control. In order to be competitive everybody has had to go international to source materials from different places around the world. And it does come back to paying attention to the quality and nurturing the relationships with the plants that you have. It’s not just about buying product that’s black and the cheapest stuff out there.
WC&P: Now, what geographical markets are you serving? Is it just North America?
Brumfield: North America, Canada, we do get into the Caribbean, Central America and we also do some work down in South America.
WC&P: If 70 percent of what you do is in water treatment, where’s the balance allocated?
Brumfield: It fluctuates. Like I was telling you before, it depends on the season. During this time of the year, I would say 70-80 percent of my sales are in water treatment. During other times in the year, when water treatment isn’t as high, I’m switching the markets around and serving some other things. That includes air filtration. We’re getting more involved in flue gas. We’re getting more involved in decolorization. The market has changed a bit.
WC&P: Define decolorization.
Brumfield: There’s sugar decolorization, textile decolorization, etc. They want to be sure that the chlorine in the water has been removed so that they can get true colors in textiles. In sugar decolorization, it’s turning brown sugar into white sugar.
WC&P: The same with syrups as well, yes?
Brumfield: Yes. And pharmaceuticals, there’s oil and glycol decolorization and purification. It’s far-reaching.
WC&P: Are you selling to end-users?
Brumfield: A little big of both. It depends on the location. We don’t sell a lot to end-users. We are selling more to the middle market.
WC&P: The equipment manufacturers?
Brumfield: Yes, them and the resellers.
WC&P: When you sell to an end-user, it’s generally what kind of situation?
Brumfield: Somebody might come to us and say, “Hey, I’m building a water filter and I need this and this.” We’d say, “OK, here’s what you need to do. Here are your design parameters for the filter.” We also do equipment. We design and build equipment here for water and air.
WC&P: What kind?
Brumfield: All different types. We do mostly static standalone type systems. We have a Clean Flo system, which is a 55-gallon drum. We do pressure tanks. We do just a little of whatever comes along and is applicable. I don’t necessarily have an equipment product line right now. Like I said before, I do want to get into maybe doing more packaging of different types of systems and adding to our product mix. But there are people out there who do the particulate filters and bag houses and things like that.
WC&P: So, you’d have to see something where you had a clear market for yourself?
Brumfield: Right. I’ve got some ideas along the way in developing some new equipment but, right now, I don’t have enough resources to pursue that fully. That’s for the future.
WC&P: From your perspective in the water treatment industry, where do you see the industry going?
Brumfield: I see it increasing.
WC&P: Describe what factors you see affecting that?
Brumfield: Everything’s changing so much and so fast and a lot of it kind of depends on government. I think that for years, you were looking at UST sites and groundwater cleanup was such a big thing, but regulations have come down quite a bit. And, although those kinds of projects are still going on, it’s not nearly at the pace before.
WC&P: What are UST sites?
Brumfield: Such as gas stations, etc.
WC&P: Oh, leaking underground storage tanks.
Brumfield: Yes, where they have to pull them up and decontaminate the soil and water. Those contracts were huge a few years ago and going back five or 10 years before that. But they’re not as big anymore. I see the market going more towards people having a personal interest in the cleanliness of the water as opposed to a government sanction. I see the water filtration market getting more personal, because I think people are taking initiative. As information continues to become more available, people become more educated. And as we educate people more and more, their personal well being is affected 10 times over. That’s the market where I think the biggest strides should be made. And I think people in the smaller companies and middle-size companies can get a little more prosperous, where they’re not dealing to the big OEMs. It’ll be more of a hands-on service with individuals.
WC&P: By that, you mean individuals in their homes, individuals in their businesses being good environmental stewards?
Brumfield: Yes, if you think about a couple years back and the concern over terrorists and whether somebody was going to dump a bunch of anthrax in the water and contaminate it, suddenly you had all these contractors calling up and saying, “Hey, I’ve got to have a system for this school.” Or they’d say, “ I’m building a community of 600 houses and I need something to install in the water system so that it’s going to be safe for everybody or each individual in every house.” It’s things like that. I see it becoming more personalized.
WC&P: Now, what’s the one hot-button issue facing water treatment dealers or the industry that will have the most impact in the next few years, do you think?
Brumfield: I would say it’s the little guys vs. the big guys. It just seems to me that the bigger companies are just swallowing up everybody, buying everything. It becomes just price vs. service, one-on-one communications, things like that. I think that the biggest challenge for people like myself—owners of small, private companies—is just staying the course and remaining true to what you believe and trying to survive. Bigger companies, although Wall Street may dominate them, they do have the ability, a lot of times, to knock you out as far as pricing is concerned.
WC&P: They leverage they’re economies of scale?
Brumfield: Exactly. It can become impossible. It’s all about understanding the market, understanding where you want to be in the market, making sure you remain focused on those kinds of things and not trying to get too big too fast.
WC&P: Or be a “Jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none.”
Brumfield: Yes. Concentrate on what you do best. Remain true to the course. And grow that way.
WC&P: Tell me about your personal background. Where are you from initially?
Brumfield: Well, I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I was an Air Force brat. I lived in Germany for a while. I came back here. I went to school in Worthington, Ohio.
WC&P: Where’s Worthington?
Brumfield: It’s a suburb of Columbus. I pretty much grew up here. I got my two-year tech degree from Columbus Technical Institute. I got my associate’s degree in HVAC technologies.
WC&P: I’ve got a brother with one in electronics from ITT in Indianapolis.
Brumfield: There you go. I got a good job from Liebert Corp. They’re one of the world leaders in environmental conditioning and power conditioning. I worked in engineering there for a while. I went back to school at night and earned my bachelor’s degree in marketing and business.
Brumfield: Franklin University. I worked in the sales department of Liebert for a while, then joined Barnebey-Sutcliffe group as a sales engineer, where I worked for eight years, then came here.
WC&P: So, you pretty much spent your entire career at home.
Brumfield: Yes. Liebert is a world class operation. In that industry, people know that name. I was offered a job but, in that arena, you work inside the factory and then you’re pretty much groomed to work with one of the representative firms anywhere in the United States. And it just so happened, I was applying for jobs and got the position at Barnebey. I’ve been everywhere for about 10 years wherever I’ve gone. But I think this is a lifer here.
WC&P: Sounds good. I noticed in updating my contact information for you, since you wrote an article for WC&P a few years back, that your address changed. When did you move from Fisher Road?
Brumfield: About three years ago.
WC&P: Did you move into a new building?
Brumfield: We started out in a little 2,000-square-foot place with just a couple offices. Then, we took over the place next door to that for about the first six years. And, after that, we moved into our current place, which is about 30,000 square feet. I don’t know if we’re going to stay here or move. Right now, things are so competitive, you can buy someplace as big as this for less than what I’m paying to lease space.
WC&P: At your first location, when you took over the neighboring space, what did that put you at?
Brumfield: We acquired another 3,000, so we were only at about 5,000 square feet. Then, we found out—because we were leasing outside warehouse space—that it didn’t make sense. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be close to the product and have more control over it.
WC&P: Why is all this carbon stuff located in Columbus, Ohio, is a question I’ve always wanted to ask?
Brumfield: I think it’s called Barnebey & Sutcliffe University. I’ll give you an example. When I was with them, I worked for two or three guys who were pretty dynamic. It seemed like right about that time, they hired a bunch of people. They were just starting to grow. All of us together, we were really kicking it. But the management had its own ideas and it just seemed it couldn’t hold on to people. All of a sudden, you had a bunch of new companies. The guy who was the president of PICA was there with me then, David Wycherley. He’s a friend of mine. Then, there’s Nucon, another big carbon outfit—they’re guy was originally from Barnebey. I guess some of the news in the business is that Bill Eubanks, who was with Barnebey prior to Calgon buying them, is now the president of NORIT.
WC&P: I hadn’t heard that.
Brumfield: That’s hot off the presses.
WC&P: Any other hot news?
Brumfield: I’ve got a couple products that I really want to throw at the market hard, because I know how competitive they are and what they can do compared to some of the other people out there who are supplying similar products.
WC&P: Are you letting us know what kind of products those are?
Brumfield: Well, not yet. One I can mention is H2Sorb, which is a great, great product. We’re having a lot of success with some of our products. Our standard 12×30 coconut shell for the water industry performs super. We’ve got a product called SE1 that performs really fantastically for decolorization and I want to throw that at a specific market I’ve been thinking about. We’re just starting to really position some of these things and are really going to be going to bat for them. We have a few customers who have really stuck with us through all these years. We’ve introduced some products through them first—before anybody else—and they’re finding fantastic success with it. So, if we stick with a couple of people and promote it that way, it gives them the market opportunity to really dominate and grow. And, at the same time, we succeed. It’s win-win. We don’t believe in switching partners at the dance. We haven’t tried to say to our best customer in the world, “Here’s a great product!” and then go across the street to their competitor with the same deal. We’re kind of loyal that way.
WC&P: That sounds like a good place to wrap up the interview. Thank you for your time.