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Ben Trout says his little company that makes temperature control systems in Fulton has found a way to compete with large manufacturers by innovating, providing better service and applying models from the past.
For Trout, EPM’s success stems from lessons he learned as a drill instructor and rifle squad leader in the United States Marine Corps: Do your job well, and treat people with respect—especially when something goes wrong.
“It’s easy to do a good job when you’re in Camp Pendleton, but it gets more difficult in the jungle,” EPM’s founder and president said. “The true test of a business is not how the business treats you up front. It’s how it conducts itself when there are problems. We think we pass that test.”
EPM sells computerized temperature control systems, usually at a cost of about $1 to $1.50 per square foot of space, which cut a business’s utility costs by 25 percent.
The system cuts utility costs for consumers and lessens the carbon footprint of the participating companies. Trout said EPM’s customers pay about 80 cents per square foot per year in utility costs, while typical office buildings pay about $1 or $1.20 per square foot.
The company has grown steadily since moving to Columbia in 1979, with 8-10 percent annual growth in revenues, and it now has 28 employees.
EPM systems use patented technology that limits demand based on temperature need. With satellite offices in St. Louis, Kansas City and Wichita, the company has installed about 1,000 of its computerized temperature control systems in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky and is starting to move into Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado.
Central Bank has purchased nine EPM systems for all of its buildings in mid-Missouri.
“It’s amazing that such a little company sitting there in Fulton, Missouri, can be so far advanced compared to the other temperature control companies, which are the other ‘name brands,’ in building automation,” said Keith Ziegelbein, maintenance supervisor for Central Bank. “I’ve worked with all of them, and this EPM system seems to be one of the most logical, direct and easiest to work with. It’s so easy to click, click, click the pointer and make it work.”
After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1969, Trout started EPM in Atlanta as an energy management company and manufactured its first energy management system in 1975. The company then moved to Columbia four years later to position itself to take advantage of the predicted building boom of nuclear plants across the Midwest. Energy management systems were just coming into use, and they weren’t working as well as promised. In 1981, EPM began making modifications to fix the bugs in the systems.
Energy management systems restrict use to save businesses money, but the question was how far to go before people became uncomfortable.
“The bottom line is: How uncomfortable am I willing to be to get a reduction in utility costs?” Trout said. “Everybody thought that was a good idea until they owned one of the systems. Typically, the energy management system would fall into disuse within two to three years.”
Trout said EPM would fix the problems with the energy management systems (EMS), but comfort issues still would arise. In 1984, the company first began offering a computerized temperature control (CTC) system, and demand soon rose so that the company was forced to move in 1992 from its offices in the Outdoors Building on Old 63.
Trout said a city inspector told him the company’s operation had outgrown the building’s regular commercial zoning and would have to move to a site zoned for manufacturing. He didn’t want to relocate to an expensive industrial park on the outskirts of town, so he chose a site in a small industrial park in Fulton near the Backer’s potato chip factory.
The CTC system more than doubles the energy savings of the old EMS systems, and it provides greater comfort, Trout said. EPM is also the only company that offers a CTC system that is software-based; other companies use hardware-based systems, which are more difficult to use and are not as easy to control, he added. EPM replaces original circuit boards in AC-heating units with others that allow for direct control of the existing units.
Fulton Public Schools installed a new EPM system in 2000 when the school system renovated and added air conditioning to all its buildings. Formerly, the public school system employed technology from Honeywell, a much larger company, said Jim Deskin, senior electrician for Fulton Public Schools.
The former system was difficult to use.
“If you had to go in and override it for a nightly event like our senior all-night party, I would have to go in and program what areas I wanted to run manually,” Deskin said. “Then, the only way I could determine if the unit was running was take a flashlight, go up through a roof access and walk the roof of the high school up to the unit and see if it was running. Now, I can do every bit of that from my house with a laptop computer.”
The CTC technology was another in a long tradition of innovation for the company. “We were the first people to be Internet-based in the early 1990s,” Trout said. “We were the first to do the computerized temperature control. We were five years ahead of Honeywell. And we are the first people, now, to do true electrical aggregation.”
In EPM’s patented system of electrical aggregation, a company provides power to a group of companies that have agreed to allow EPM to control their power supplies according to which company has the most need at a given time. At a time of peak energy use, EPM’s sensors tell the controlling computer who needs power the most and, for short periods of time, can take power away from one business whose need is not as great and supply it to one with greater need.
The situation occurs in real time and is verifiable. For example, at 2 p.m., a school in Columbia might not need as much power as a manufacturer in Peoria. So, for 20 minutes, the school’s unneeded power would be sent to Peoria. Unless they’re really watching closely, the affected employees don’t even know the exchange of power has occurred.
Why? It turns out that temperature is not the overriding factor in employee comfort, Trout said; it’s humidity. The “dew point” is the most important factor. EPM’s system of strategically placed humidity sensors feeding data into a decision-making computer server allows temperature to rise a few degrees within a building without anybody noticing.
The full potential of electrical aggregation will occur when electrical utilities deregulate in the future. For example, EPM could broker a common contract for any member school districts across the state, resulting in savings. “When deregulation happens, [EPM’s electrical aggregation system] is going to be worth its weight in gold,” Deskin said.
Above all, Trout says, EPM competes with its larger rivals by providing better customer service. Deskin likes the EPM system because the company is not stingy with its knowledge. “Honeywell will sell you a system, but they won’t sell you the knowledge to keep it up yourself,” he said. “They expect you to buy a service contract from them to keep your system up and running. EPM does not do that. EPM sells you a system and then trains you to take care of the system yourself.”
The school system had allowed its service contract with Honeywell to lapse. When Deskin started on the job, one-fifth of the sensors at Fulton High School didn’t work. Deskin said EPM gave him a “care package” in 2000 with extra sensors, relays, transformers and circuit boards that he can replace himself. “I can take a direct lightning strike and within just a few hours I can have my system up and running.”
Trout plans to retire in several years, and he has set up an employee stock option plan so that his employees will own the company and can’t sell it. That way, his customers won’t have to worry about product support decades after he’s no longer with EPM.
“Their software is guaranteed for life,” Ziegelbein of Central Bank said. “You buy it, and [if] something goes goofy, they just dial it up and fix it.”
Ziegelbein said salespeople from some of the big corporations have told him that such a small company might be gone tomorrow. “I’ve already had Honeywell say, ‘Well, we’re not supporting that program anymore,’ and it’s only two years old,” he said.
Ziegelbein said his company had installed a Honeywell system with a one-year warranty in a Jefferson City building, but many of the parts were not supported after two years. “Just because they’re big doesn’t mean that they won’t support a program and say ‘O.K., we don’t have that anymore; do something different,’” he said. “Or if you don’t like that, call the headquarters and see what you get. If I call the headquarters here for EPM, I’ll talk to Ben Trout, and he’ll say, ‘What? That ain’t going to happen.’ And I’ll believe him.”
Trout said he hopes that even after he leaves that personal connection to the owner will remain. “We get a lot of business calls from vendors trying to sell us this or sell us that,” said Mark Enderle, superintendent of the Fulton Public Schools. “Ben is pretty direct. You know if he says something, it’s going to get done.”