- February 7, 2014
The frustrations of building a business in America while living in England nudged Martin Robinson to make a bold decision.
The call: simply move to the States, rather than struggle from Chelmsford, a town just north of London.
But the 2007 move, it turns out, was anything but simple. An 18-year British Army veteran, Robinson found that starting a high-tech, infrared window manufacturing and distribution business in the United States, like he did in his homeland, was littered with logistical land mines. He didn't have any credit history in America, so he couldn't get a car loan, or even a cell phone. It took weeks to open a bank account, and that experience was heavy on the paperwork, given post-9/11 foreign citizen banking laws. He did almost everything with cash.
“It was daunting,” says Robinson. “The support mechanisms were very poor.”
Robinson nonetheless navigated the pitfalls. He launched the business out of his garage, just like he did in England 1997. One of his first moves was to secure a U.S. patent for the company's core product, an infrared window and camera used to inspect industrial electrical equipment.
Five years later that company, Manatee County-based IRISS, stands out for stellar growth. Sales surpassed $4 million in 2011, up nearly 70% from 2010. Robinson projects the company will reach at least $8 million in revenues in 2012, maybe even $10 million.
The company's windows are essentially protection shields for people who work with electric power. The windows have infrared cameras that allow someone to detect energy problems on switchgear or transformers in commercial buildings. A technician can use the IRISS window to monitor equipment and react before a dangerous problem. “Our products are unique,” says Robinson. “We can make something that no one else has.”
That product distinction provides opportunities and challenges.
On the former, IRISS Vice President of Global Operations Karen Wells says the potential client list is vast, since it includes any entity with electricity. So while the main customer base now is made up of utilities, Wells says it could quickly grow to schools, hospitals, factories, and mills. The key to the opportunity, says Wells, is a marketing message that resonates with such a variety of clients.
Being unique, though, has brought out imitators, says Robinson. In fact, IRISS recently sued a company in Rochester, N.Y,. for patent infringement. The case is pending.
IRISS, which stands for InfraRed Inspection Support Solutions, has 22 employees in Manatee County, including 15 hired over the past year. It plans to hire at least 20 more over the next year or so, in positions from sales to warehouse personnel.
The company will also grow physically. Robinson hopes to open a fourth office, in Brazil, to go with ones in Australia, England and the United States. The company, further, broke ground earlier this summer on a 32,000-square-foot facility in east Manatee County that will become its global headquarters and training center. The project, including new equipment, will cost about $5.7 million.
Manatee County approved $12,000 in performance-based incentives to aid the new hires and expansion, while state officials approved $48,000. Robinson says the new facility will save the firm at least $1.2 million in the first year alone by doing manufacturing work in-house that third-party vendors do now. It will also advance a civic vision for Robinson, who intends to become an American citizen when he's eligible.
“We want to support local markets and the local economy,” Robinson told the Business Review's sister paper, the East County Observer, in July. “Too many times businesses take their money somewhere else. We need to bring manufacturing back and have pride in what we do here.”
Video: Amanda Heisey