086. Idea – Systems Integrator Evolution Transcript
It’s changing. You know, if you and your team in its entirety are not customer centric, my opinion is you’re going to fail or you’re going to have a tough road and not if but when and so, you that culture must be part of the development and cadence and communication to everybody that works here and in companies lock what we’re doing.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why, the podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And all this podcast we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market. Instead, we focused on advice and insight from the top of minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world.
Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have an idea episode and we’re going to be talking about system integrator evolution. And to help us walk through this topic, we have Mr. Bobby Cole, who’s the founder and president of THINK-PLC. So welcome Bobby.
Yeah, thanks, Chris. Good to be here.
I’m excited to have you, man. This is a topic we haven’t explored on EECO Asks Why. I’m very excited to walk through it with you. You got a lot of cool things going and think PLC, and we’ll make sure that we put all the contact information for you in our show notes, because if you’re not following THINK-PLC, Bobby does some really cool things out there that is pushing the limits.
And we talked about digital marketing and things like that. Just getting ready for this. So man, I’m excited, Bobby and we have some listeners who may not be familiar with what a system integrator does. So can you maybe just get us up to speed on what that is that, that you do?
Sure. And it does come up ever every often.
It’s so close to what we do. We don’t think about it that much, but a systems integrator is a company that specializes in bringing together components and or subsystems into one cohesive project machine, or some kind of operation. In my world, which is industrial automation, we purchase commercially available products, from folks like you. Thank you so much. And we take those products to create new or replace existing systems that otherwise are not off the shelf.
Okay, I got you. I got you. So, you’re using, like you said, all sorts of different manufacturers and components to build a solution for end user.
We do, we combine multiple manufacturers into that cohesive system because not always do all fit for everything.
Right, right. That’s right. And sometimes I’ve heard some in the past, I’ve heard like system integrators panel builders. How would you differentiate that? Is that right? Are they the same in your mind? Are they different?
Some systems integrators are panel builders and there’s panel builders that can do some integration. So there’s a blended line there and, you know, it’s and we have kept our panel shop. We are a panel builder systems integrator, just like you mentioned, that’s a great question. And we’ve kept it busy supporting other integrators being a partner in building panels and we often sell ourselves as, not one in all. We try to be flexible and easy to do business with. And with that means that we will do the CAD design when you have your own programmers, we’ll build the panels and you can do everything else. We don’t care. We don’t have to own the whole project.
Gotcha. Okay. Well, thanks for clarifying that. And how about when you look at the way that the game is changing for system integrators. Are there any really prevalent changes that are that are taking place that you’re seeing?
Yeah. Relationships, is a big one for me, which is kind of just close to heart here. How engagement is getting done? This business is very much through word of mouth and handoff through partner based supportive businesses. Like I mentioned or example we do a lot with mechanical companies and we will partner, which we introduce each other. Either they need mechanical help my customers or mechanical companies or electrical contractor, we’ll call them ,needing integration services or programming, panel build, whatever. So it’s, it’s a lot of. A lot of relationship based business these days.
Okay. Gotcha. Gotcha. That’s been sounds like a significant shift in the way the business is done.
Yeah. It is, it’s just the way it’s managed through the, Internet’s changed things, starting with the internet. And now with COVID, it’s changed this past year, probably the most it has in the last 10 to 15 years.
I mean, in speaking of COVID, I mean, how has that impacted the way you guys interact and work with clients?
Oh, yeah, absolutely remote connectivity. I mean, we have to be apart from each other. We’ve had to beef up how we remote connect the systems so we can respond number one and that the ultimately we can engage with our customers at some level. Right? So with that, it’s been very difficult. Face-to-face is a, is traditional, what is comfortable for me? I often feel like the remote means explanations of what is being communicated can be misconstrued.
It’s not easy to just pull the drawings up you know, you had kids yelling and dogs barking in the background and lots happening now with these virtual calls, which is good. And I often like to use a career-long example, library, you know, pieces, parts and demonstrate through communication how we’re going to win this business and give the customer.
That comfort and confidence, right? That not only we’re going to succeed technically, but we’re the company that will just complete the job. We come amongst people that have highly technical folks, but completing stuff kind of seems to be a issue for them. So educating our customers in virtual visualization, that we’re delivering has been different and making sure virtual meetings are prepared we’re to the point and have minimal operational issues.
Yeah. How’s that been for you? We did a whole podcast, you may find helpful on communicating virtually. There are a lot of little nuances to make that flow, right?
Absolutely. Being prepared, nothing more than death by meetings. There’s some great books out there. There’s a book called Death by Meetings. I rushed to read this book in the last eight months when a peer of mine actually shared it with me. And I demonstrated time got wasted. We were sitting at home and we felt like we had to have virtual meetings every hour. It was like back to back to back meetings. Cause we all felt like we were missing something and cause the opportunity to show up and just talk was not available.
Right. That’s shifted things. No doubt. So, well, I mean, it sounds like you’re doing a great job and you’re mastering that virtual communication which is important. And I know you work with a lot of OEMs, you know, as your business has grown.
And that’s, what’s different about us and a lot of, in fact, while we blend the line of what we call a systems integrator. It is because we are very OEM focused,
Right. With that OEM focus, you know, how are you trying to inspire vision with those OEMs because technology is changing, man. You’re seeing it, you’re in front of it. I definitely follow THINK-PLC and you’re definitely a innovator. So just curious how you take that innovation and inspire vision with the OEMs that you’re working with.
Yeah, that’s a good one. Yeah, traditionally machine or system OEMs were all inclusive which means they did everything. They had the electrical mechanical sales, everything for good or bad. We’ll leave it there, right? Because it’s like being everything to everybody is complicated. Where we fit really well. We’re focused in, they’re going the guys who are innovating, they have that reach. We are, or that’s our business. So if they bolt us in and we’ll call us a bolt in business to their business as a contractor, they’re getting the best of the best.
So fully staffed for realm of the whole machine used to be a thing it’s not anymore. Through a handful of things from the late nineties, the boom of the IT professionals and in lieu of manuacturing engineers. In global competition, we just saw a lot of OEMs go away for a bit. And we saw the traditional controls engineer or maintenance technician start to, I think, deplete.
And it has created harder time for an OEM to keep people on staff that want to be that want to be energized and keeping them entertained with new technologies. So what they do is they don’t try to keep those folks anymore. They allow us to act as their controls arm or as a partner.
And it’s win-win for everybody. It really is. And we bring a depth of newer product knowledge. We can act faster and often have more of added support that mechanical only teams wouldn’t have otherwise
So that’s really like a completely outsource, but you’re really ingrained and you understand the process what the end-user’s trying to accomplish, and you’re helping them get there.
Yeah it comes with trust. I mean it really does. I come back to the Krispy Kreme business that we do and we’ve supported. I’ve been engaged with those guys for 12 years now. First, you know, life cycles of products, going back to your question, they were they’re using an, how to ease the pain of traveling the world and retrofitting old equipment because this stuff is going to go away.
There is a life to a product and then eventually. Through innovation manufacturers are going to come out with something to replace it with. I don’t make the same product over and over again. We see the automobile industry, obviously they’re innovating every four years new model.
Right? Well, we’re seeing that with the products you sell, actually drives and PLCs and things like that. For us, it’s responding the quick cost effective solution that solves the problem. It’s one thing to just make something work, but it’s another to do that at a reasonable price, but to do that and make it better, you know, it’s not often what my customers have experienced. So being that person for them is all around satisfying to me.
Yeah, no doubt. I mean, you spoke about Krispy Kreme and I know you support a lot of different customers. I mean, do you have examples that stand out where you can look back and you say how you really helped them see possibilities and maybe get them past some of the technology that is fading, you know, or aging away.
I’ve got to say something about Krispy Kreme. They’re a great customer, but they holistically have full control. And it’s kind of interesting someone that does such a good job with a food product. Be such a good machine builder internally. You know and we’re probably one of the very few things, controls-wise that they knew trust to outsource.
I mean, they literally build every piece of their own equipment. They have welders that worked there over 40 years. It’s quite incredible, but with that being said we went to the IOT platform with those guys. What first come up was as we talked about before we got on the podcast, I wanted to have a vacation every now and then when you support such a large company globally, I found at one point in my career that was getting hard to do because I was the guy or my team was that person. And I was engaged quite a bit. And so leaving them, I felt bad to even take a day off and they might need me. What we did is we worked with the engineering and equipment guys. To help improve the remoteness so that we were not sending thousands of dollars worth of product to just throw parts at a machine.
We could actually do remote connectivity for service. And so what it is, sped it up in, in 10 minutes, I’m online, figuring out potentially what the issue is so that the folks, the boots on the ground could get it fixed quicker. In the past we would say, you know, send us pictures, we would just take a guess. And you know, these are people making a product to dispense to the public. They’re not machine folks actually at the end account. So that was complicated. So we went to a IOT device. Okay. And I can, through a very encrypted, secure connection, I can connect to the machine anywhere. I can get a wifi connection and help them out.
And then we found from an innovative standpoint, we can take the data that we’re seeing. Which is PLC code in the form of tags and values of the machine. And we can pump it to the cloud like this podcast, right. You’d mentioned. And we can show that data up in the cloud and create a dashboard so they can see what’s going on with their equipment anywhere in the world.
Okay. So for any of the machines that are connected, they can actually see performance metrics.
Yes exactly. Yeah. We have what we call KPIs and we have full dashboards. We can go back and trend all the alarm messages over the last six months. One particular was here close by in North Carolina. I was doing a demonstration class for the folks in Australia for Krispy Kreme and I pulled it up live.
You know, might as well train on live a machine, so I did one locally here, early on. And I said, you know what guys, the shortening pump, I’m getting a lot of circuit breaker trips in here. And I hung up. I did my thing. I kind of set to the side that make a point of it. And I called the service manager, who’s great. And I said, you know, next time you guys are over in Clayman’s you might want to take another shortening pump over there, there’s something going on. And a couple of weeks later he said, I’m so glad you told us, Ricky put it on his truck. And that’s, they’ve been having problems. Big deal.
That’s awesome. And so how long has that IOT solution? Have you been doing that with them?
Yeah. Probably four years. So if you think back about it and again, I say innovative because it was just a, it wasn’t brand new, but people actually implementing it four years as long time ago for, from an IOT standpoint.
It’s, you know, early 2020? It was the buzzword sure. Internet of things, industry 4.0, we all heard it. Nobody knew what it really meant. You know, there’s manufacturers like Siemens had MindSphere out for at least four years. And when it came out, people were like, this is really neat stuff. I don’t know what to do with it.
You know so we need to see someone innovate with this so we understand how we can apply it to our business. And going back to the early topic about communicating with customers. I can do that now. I can say, well, am I the right choice for you? Well, I’ve got 600 machines connected to the cloud that I can pull up on my phone and show you right now. Is that good enough, right?
Yeah, no kidding, man. I mean, so I am curious on your platform and your KPIs. Did you build that that front end for them to work with as well or is that like a third party? Oh, so you, you guys entered, engineered that.
Wow, man, that is that’s awesome.
Yeah. And there’s some neat things it’s going past a one solution fits all and that was. Uh, you know, Rockwell has their products out now that are cloud connecting and the monster I mentioned from Siemens, it’s a really neat concept where, they know best to connect to their products, I would say.
And with that you’re paying for time on the pot for those guys and what it’s called for, or, or data to the cloud. And then the neat thing Siemens did is they made it where any, anyone who can develop an app can put it on MindSphere. And then if that app solves a solution for any of the customers looking at that product, they can actually purchase that app. Like an app, in an app store is the general concept that I’ve taken from it.
But in our Krispy Kreme engagement, it was more so we wanted to have full control, full focus and make sure, you know, when they wanted a new user added or anything, we can do that quickly for them. Yeah.
I mean and it probably saved them some expense too, and it gets it done faster. You don’t have to send some, yeah. You don’t have to put anybody on an airplane.
Yes. And I mean, I go back to one of the first ones was out in Honolulu, right? So the guy I’m on the phone with this gentleman, Honolulu trying to fix a machine. And it was actually when the missile scare came in a few years ago.
You know it’s expensive to plane hop UPS parts, right from island to island and these things, we have stores in Korea, Russia, everywhere you can think of, Middle-East, we have stores and we’re sitting here in little old Welcome, North Carolina. We got to figure out a way to support these guys.
Yeah. No kidding, man. And you mentioned 2020 that definitely became a buzzword remote connectivity. So I was expecting you to say we started this year, but you were four years into this or three years into this when that hit.
Man, that’s amazing. I love that story. And thank you for breaking it out for us. Cause that’s, I mean, for me, you’re right. It’s all about the buzzwords, but you’re taking the data and actually making impactful business decisions to help them run better.
Yeah, it was a, it was an ancillary thing. It really was. My focus was service. You know, I was, I had a little bit tunnel vision at first which was a big thing. So again, let’s not put $10,000 of parts, in a box ship on, we did Delta dash picked it up, took it to the store in need a $60 part on that box because we just had no clue. And you didn’t want to send parts, but the one thing you need to not be in that box by being able to connect now and, through the the job with the programming and I got to give it up to some of the engineers, I didn’t develop all of it.
The extensive diagnostics that we implemented on the machines. That was another thing, but to be able to get that data out where we can connect and see it’s been a huge.
No doubt, man. Well, hats off to you because you’re actually making the buzzwords, you put in them in action.
So interesting enough wa had a CEO early in the year, he said, look you know, this is a 200 plus million dollar company.
He said, our board has said, we’re going. I would tell you in the next two years, that’s our business. It’s going to be what we’re doing. We got to figure out how he feels. I don’t even know what it is. Could I engage with you to come speak to us about what this is. And so it’s been interesting to be a champion of it thus far.
No doubt, man. That’s incredible. Well, thank you again for sharing all that information and w we’ll go to keep moving here. Cause I know there’s some things you want to talk about evolution, things that are working, but before we get there, when you think through a system integrator, And what people’s perception is.
Is there anything you’d like to debunk? Like you may think we do this, but no, that’s not the case?
No I don’t think I’m your guy to debunk myths. No, I probably agree with them to be honest with ya. I try to, I’m a little, probably too honest in that sense. And that was the great thing about THINK-PLC is let’s get in a room and let’s talk about all the myths and let’s talk about what we’re not going to be to get to who we’re going to be.
You know, the traditions of high hourly rates for subpar knowledge, burning billable hours. No flexibility. When issues arise, all the things that I have to prove that I’m not to every new account, you know, the people that know me, they know me, but every new account that I engage with our company, I’m having to prove that’s not what we are.
You know, and let’s face it. What we do can be hard, long hours, last minute, holidays, I’ve already alluded to nothing ever breaks on a schedule. Even though we talk about these predictive analytics, in these machines that are coming and none of my customers will accept, “Can we wait until Monday?” It just won’t. So, I mean, That’s it. I answer your question. I’d say that that’s kind of where I’m at.
Got you. Understood. Well, Bobby, thanks for sharing. Some of that. I think you really, you helped us understand better some of what the system integrators face, and I know when we were prepping for this together, you had a lot of cool ideas that I just, I wasn’t anticipating, you started talking about engaging with content experts to help develop your people.
So can you share with us, what’s your doing there?
Yeah, for me I’ve quit trying to be the best content expert in engineering, the best engineer myself and our understanding that I’m a student of leadership. And I’m working on being a better leader, which I’ve not done in the past.
I’ve always ran out to be the best Allen-Bradley programmer or the best Siemens dynamic servo guy or whatever it was. And I really shifted gears and THINK-PLC and said, “Oh, I’m gonna need to learn to be a better leader.” And let’s take this business forward because that’s what my customers are asking for.
So, and my thoughts are, management should not be the only ones with leadership focus, but every single person in the organization. And you don’t hear that talked about very much. Right. And, we don’t hold professional development at THINK-PLC for just our management team anymore.
We include everyone and we’ve promoted an entrepreneurial spirit through being servants to each other and everyone. And we talk about it often. Everyone can speak up. Everyone has a voice here and it matters. It truly does. And as for content experts, like you mention we’ve been inviting business engagement, speakers, technically, or business to everybody that works here, not just our management team. And we do internal development as well.
Start off the new year, this year, 2021. We had Richard Consoli who is the president of JA King and been a friend of mine for a long time. He came in and discussed his 35 years of experience in the end.
He made a note in his presentation and sometimes the hard way, he’s owned an integration company and he knows what it means to be entrepreneurial, team member which is an interesting concept and the topics we talked about or ethics and being entrepreneurial, but being a team member, personal goals for our folks, just to name a few of them, but the big one is, does your company care about your growth really? You know, personally and professionally and do they, do you plan, we joke that we don’t do employer reviews. We actually do mentorship for growth.
That’s awesome, Bobby. So for our listeners THINK- PLC how many people, how long have you been in business?
We’ve only been in business about two years now and we’re a little over 20 people.
Wow. That’s awesome. That is great. I mean, and that you have the foresight and the wisdom, to want to pour that into your employees, that says so much, man. That’s great, great leadership.
I appreciate it. I mean, and it’s proven, you do things, you make decisions like all owners and business managers and everyone does. And you want to see them come to fruition. I’m careful to not make a decision and not shift gears too soon. I’ve learned my lesson that in the past and the meat of it, is in the numbers. We did three times the revenue expected last year in the worst economy ever really. That proved in itself. And I have been a part of a business like this before, and this year, our EBITDA, which is what matters from a business standpoint was as much as it was before with double the revenue. So it’s huge.
Unbelievable. That’s great, man. Congratulations.
Yup. And, we’ve been able to , tuition has been a big thing, keeping our folks happy. Cause this is a, it’s an interesting life. It’s constant changing and, it’s different than being the guy on the plane. It really is.
Right. And I know one thing that really threw me off when we were prepping together you brought up the topic of digital marketing, and I was not expecting that from a system integrator to talk about how the digital marketing is impacting.
But man, what’s going on there?
Well, you know, LinkedIn is back. Years ago I stopped getting on LinkedIn because honestly it was nothing, but folks offering me jobs, recruiters. It was a place for recruiters and that was it. And although I still think it’s fine for people to recruit folks on there, but it become a place just for recruiters, folks in our industry are going back to places like LinkedIn to get their information, instead of, let’s face it, nobody wants any more emails than you have to get an answer today. So the old days of getting newsletters and the emails that you’ve never looked at, cause you didn’t have time. Well, they got, so used to scrolling through their Facebook wall and that just become a part of their life.
But instead of seeing your uncle’s political views, you can jump over to LinkedIn and see some cool stuff you’re into in your career. And, maybe find that new job or find that new employee. And so it kicked back off a year or so ago. And for me, you talked about digital marketing.
We are, we actually. I’ve engaged more so than I would in the past. We actually have a digital marketing expert full-time that works here which is kind of interesting, and I’ve made jokes that today’s a 60 year old sales guys, coming by to bring you brochures or over, I think anyway, well maybe not, and that’s that.
Generally over. Yeah. I mean, you can’t engage them folks like that, right. With COVID it’s changed. And it’s the expectation, but you know, even if it is, that’s not the way we’re going to do business, that’s just the plan I laid out for us, I think, and being about 98% of our businesses at what we call it, the fences where there’s a problem and it’s already identified.
Usually money’s already allocated for a project. It’s more engineering label to identify, the budget and the solution. If we’re doing anything from a sales perspective. And so we’re on the defense and again, I appreciate more of a relationship business, put it all out there, let people know who we are and don’t go to your building and hide.
Let’s put it out there and let’s, I think we’re doing some great stuff. Let’s talk about.
I mean, I just saw recently you guys did a poll and then you have, you’ve had a couple of things where you’re getting people to engage with you. Like I forget you think automation or something like that you had to say to get into that, that raffle for some swag, but it’s just really cool, man. I mean, I don’t see other integrators or very many people at all doing that level.
Yeah, why not? Let’s have an open conversation. That’s what I’ve been about since day one. I can make some fancy brochures and talk about how we’re, doing robot projects, but let’s show that off. Let’s show pictures of the control panels. And, you know, honestly, I love it when people say, wow, that looks great, but I get negative comments too. I get people asking, they’re saying, “Hey, that’s too close together,” or, you know, “I would do it a different way.” We’re having a conversation we’re learning. Right. And you know, Post COVID, that’s where we’re going to be at.
Leading up to that I started a local group through North Carolina and East Tennessee called Beers and PLCs. We called it Brew Logic and we would go out and just invite folks and we’d go to a local brewery clicking off one of my hobbies and I’m getting somebody to pay for it.
And then I’m engaging with people. And what was cool was we get those groups of folks together, my company, my community, and all that good stuff. And with COVID who can’t do that, so let’s go to LinkedIn and just have those conversations.
So, I mean, that is that group still like an active group on LinkedIn.
You know, we didn’t take it to a LinkedIn group. I left that for us just to kind of engage. But, but soon as we get this vaccine out and we can all get in, it’s a personable thing. It’s about getting in a room, it’s about, and what I said is. I did not want to sales or a sales engineer. I wanted someone to show him, you know, bring your products that don’t get me wrong, but let’s bring somebody that’s actually integrated it and let’s show it off.
Show how you did it. What was neat about it? Let’s make this a learning event and a social event. We had folks finding jobs, finding employees, finding new suppliers or suppliers finding customers. They otherwise didn’t have.
Man. That is so cool. Bobby. That’s awesome, man. So great. Great for you.
And we’ll make sure, as I mentioned earlier in the show, follow Bobby followed, Think-PLC. They’re doing some wonderful things with digital marketing. I really enjoyed that part of the conversation, by the way. Thank you for sharing.
Yeah, appreciate it.
Absolutely, man. So we wrap up the EECO Asks Why with the Why and we get to this on every episode. It’s the heart of the show.
So, if you’re thinking through a system integrators and how they’re serving in the future, why should they start evaluating how they serve their clients and try and really work towards being those change agents for all this cool technology that’s coming to industry.
Bottom line, the world is changing. If you and your team in its entirety are not customer centric my opinion is you’re going to fail or you’re going to have a tough road, right? And not if but when and that culture must be part of the development and cadence and communication to everybody that works here and in companies like what we’re doing. I think if not everyone does not understand that the customers who are, who pays the bills, who pays our paycheck. If you don’t understand that, then you’re destined for a hard way. And, trust me, I’ve been there. You know, arrogance and that sort of thinking is a cancer. No doubt about it. It’s why we talk so much about character here at THINK-PLC, and I say character, not culture, right. And everyone talks about culture. They supposedly have in their businesses, but if you’re individually asking their employees, what does that mean? You’d probably get an answer in a multiple of how many employees actually have.
I mean, I’ll just be honest with you. I often open up all my company meetings with an image of an iceberg graphic that shows 80% of the iceberg under the water and underneath it says character. And then. The small portion is taken out of the water says skills. We constantly remind ourselves so that here, if you ask any of the THINK-PLC associates, they would say, it’s the 80% of the character that that will sink the ship. You know, it’s about character. Then I think that builds the culture. Right? Don’t force it.
That’s right. That’s right. Well, Bobby was wonderful. People can obviously tell your character the way that you treat your employees the focus on customers and try to get them to be better.
So, man, this has been so much fun. You really unpack the whole system integrator evolution topic, man. That was wonderful. So thank you so much.
That’s a tough one. Yeah, I appreciate it.
You’re a great guest and I, again, thank you for taking the time with us on EECO Asks Why.
My pleasure. I love this podcast.
Thank you, sir.