We’re discussing how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting integration. In this episode, we hear how Premier Integrator DSI Innovations are working remotely amidst the global shutdowns. DSI talks about the impact this pandemic is having on their essential manufacturing customers all over the US. They also share their risk mitigation strategy for keeping staff and customers safe, what they’ve learned through this experience, and provide inspirational words to their staff, customers, and other integrators who are all working through this together.
"Everyone is still productive and keeping projects on schedule. We’ve adjusted to keeping our people working safely; safely for them, and safely for our customers.” - John
“There is a ton of talent within DSI and we’re dedicated to our customers and our group of repeat business clients that are being loyal to us now and these times are pure evidence of that.” - Eric
John Rankin’s career spans over 25 years working for system integrators and engineering design-build firms to design, program, start-up and validate PLC/HMI and DCS automation systems. John has executed projects covering numerous applications in multiple industries for discrete manufacturers as well as continuous and batch processing facilities. Some of John’s passions include discussions on S88 batch design, project planning and execution and utilizing plant floor controls to implement MES functionality. John is driven to execute his automation projects in a way that generates profitable, repeat business for DSI Innovations from his office near Raleigh, NC.
Eric Mayer is a well rounded, aggressive leader with a strong background in industrial automation, process control, and high level technology. A West Point graduate with an M.B.A. degree, 22+ years sales experience and 8 years leadership experience in project management and operations. He has a keen sales and marketing experience in sophisticated product lines with a proven record of increasing sales and profit. A strong leader, manager, salesman, and motivator with creativity and strategic foresight. Willing to go the extra mile for clients, business partners, and fellow employees.
Justin: Hello and welcome to Inductive Conversations, my name is Justin Reis, I’m the Integrator Program Manager here at Inductive Automation. And we are here today with John Rankin and Eric Mayer from DSI Innovations. John and Eric, thanks for joining us today.
John: Sure, glad to be here.
Eric: Appreciate it, Justin.
Justin: Great, how are you two doing in these wild times?
Eric: Going a little stir-crazy, but doing well and staying healthy. And everyone in my family is healthy. And everyone at DSI as far as I can tell is healthy so we’re thanking the good Lord for that.
John: Yeah, it’s tough. For some of us remote working is very new and very different. I know for our sales manager Eric, who likes to be around people, this is a very tough gig for him. We hear that from our other salespeople also.
Justin: Yeah, I can imagine. Inductive Automation is also pretty much working all remotely, it’s about 115 employees, so we’re getting to know each other's families and cats and dogs a little bit better than we ever thought we would.
So you guys are one of the most recent Premier Integrators we have, DSI Innovation, and I just kind of wanted to touch base with you on that and kind of what that means to you and a little bit about your newly found Premier status.
John: Sure, we’re excited to be here and be a part of the Inductive team. We committed to the Ignition products a few years ago and committed to getting people trained and we use it because it works for us. Our customers like it, we like it when we’re designing and implementing, the model for pricing is solid, it allows us to grow systems easily without having a significant hardware/software cost. So we’re thrilled and look forward to the extended relationship.
Justin: Yeah, same on this side.
Eric: Yeah and I’ll tell you that from a sales standpoint, being a Premier Integrator is very valuable when you’re being evaluated. Even when we were in the interim phase and being considered, I still use that data in those communications we had back and forth to just let people know, you know, how embedded we are with Inductive Automation. We’ve done, I think it adds up to about 25 different projects and work with a number of the modules and Perspective. So I think we’re pretty well-versed and I think it’s like 9 people that are trained, maybe it’s 12, I don’t know. But it’s something that’s growing within the organization and we’re going to keep it growing.
Justin: Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, from our end, it is extremely important for the engineers to be trained and get the knowledge transfer of exactly what the platform can do and DSI has definitely made that a priority and that is much appreciated. So John and Eric, can you explain what you guys do exactly at DSI?
John: Well, like most integrators, everyone does everything. Where I’m focused though are kind of on two fronts. One is opening an growing an office in central North Carolina, the Raleigh area, the RTP area, but also a focus on operations; resources planning, branches, project assignments, project management, processes, project execution processes, taking everything that we’re doing at DSI and trying to get some systems in place and really streamline how we perform.
Justin: Great, and Eric, go ahead and touch on your role.
Eric: I’m the Director of Business Development. There’s a number of us that contribute to the sales process and I manage that. There is a dedicated salesperson in Florida. I have been doing this in control systems integration for longer than I’m going to state on this podcast, but if you’re out in the Southeast, I have a lot of contacts, a lot of people that I’ve worked with in the past on projects. DSI has a great reputation so it’s an easy thing to sell and promote and we’ve been very successful and you know we’re clipping down orders in this environment and that’s proof that we’re delivering for our customers.
Justin: That’s great. So I just kind of wanted to touch bases, how are you guys dealing with your staffing issues? I mean, we have this whole working-from-home thing going. How are you guys adapting to it?
John: You know, you ask that question and it all of the sudden occured to me that we’ve got 40 people working from home, you there’s probably 5-10 still in offices doing service work but, those 40 people, we’ve had very little issues working remotely and I gotta remind my IT guy, give him props because VPN access, whether it’s from a remote office or a remote home, has really been solid for us. Everything is always on the server, so that was an easy transition anyway. Really it’s just, you know, staying sane. Eric can try to talk about trying to figure out how to sell without being face-to-face. The only people really in the office are panel shop guys and service techs, and they’re practicing social distancing and keeping clean. So that part is going really well for us, thank goodness.
Eric: Yeah, we’re doing a lot of sales meetings remotely and, you know, we struggle with technical difficulties, people get new versions of teams or circuits or whatever they’re using, and they’re using it more and more and they’re putting more people on it. So there are some technical challenges that have occured in March and now here in early April. But I think that will line out over the next two or three weeks and people will get their systems down and those meetings will go much more smoothly. It’s not like meeting face-to-face but it’s what we can do and you do the best you can with what you have in this environment.
Justin: Right. I know that DSI services many different industries in areas around the U.S. Can you tell us a little bit about what industries and areas you work with in the United States?
John: Yeah, I always answer that a little differently. We don’t really focus on a specific industry, we focus more on the concept of controls around discrete manufactures, controls around batch and continuous processes, and then automating data systems. And those three things happen in almost every industry. So we do a lot of work in chemical, pulp and paper, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, life sciences, aggregates and mining, automotive, transportation, we do a lot of work in a lot of industries but really we focus at being expects in automation and controls, integration of hardware systems, integration software systems, and then project execution.
Eric: Yeah, and I would add to that, we’ve got a lot of talent in coordinated drive systems for web applications and machine control and servo as well as MES applications, and our product of choice is Ignition and it seems to be the easiest and quickest to roll out, gives the right visualization that our customers want, they appreciate the pricing model. We’ve done a lot with the MES modules within Ignition and the other products that Inductive offers.
Justin: And how have you seen with the recent stay-at-home orders, with the COVID-19 going on, what areas and industries have you seen the most impacted? Are you seeing some that are less impacted? What does it look like from your viewpoint?
John: I think some customers are ramping up, actually. And it’s not clear if they’re ramping up because of demand or if they’re ramping up because they’re worried about being shut down in the future. Almost all of our customers have sent us letters saying they’re essential manufacturers. They want us to have those letters because they want us to be able to service them if needed, or continue our projects with them if needed.
We had one customer who ran out of raw material and therefore had to shut down and what they’ve done instead is pull up some upgrade projects and pull those ahead. We’ve had to jump through some hoops to try and get people staffed for those but for the most part everyone we talk to on projects, they’re moving forward unless it’s the kind of project that involved a big startup or installation where there would be you know, 10, 20, 50, 100 people doing an install. Those projects have pushed out. But other clients, they’re talking about working and planning to do work. We are seeing proposal activity go down though, and so we know in the future, work for us is gonna slow down unless we can pull in some short-term quick hits in the next two months.
Eric: Yeah, certainly in our customer base, I haven’t heard of anyone that is classified as non-essential when you’re talking about food, pharmaceuticals, automotive, chemical. Those things are all part of the nation's infrastructure and the government does define them as essential. What you are seeing here near-term is ‘Okay, wait a minute, we’re gonna just take the month of April and not have contractors come on-site and just have regular employees and have them tested,’ and you know there’s a little bit of on-hold and I don’t know how long that’s going to last. But many projects are still moving forward; they're just getting delayed a bit. And everyone is just in a position of uncertainty, but they are uniformly reducing the actual physical traffic to their site, which is the appropriate thing to do right now. It’s more conference calls and more things remotely and getting proposals out and dealing with customers’ technical issues remotely. And then if they are essential and deemed needed on-site, we have a screening process for all our employees so we make sure everyone that does go on-site is clearly free of any symptoms that may be associated with the virus.
Justin: Yeah, exactly, I am curious to find out the different things that integrators are doing to adjust and what are some of the best practices going forward. I know there’s a little bit of uncertainty in the next couple of months: How are things going to go? Like you mentioned, there’s less proposals.
John: They’re just unsure of whether they want to execute a project or not. And it’s not across the board. Some are pulling forward and doing work more quickly. But large, big-capital projects, there’s a little bit of a pause. And don’t forget, you know, COVID-19 is one big uncertainty, but this is an election year. And election years always have some uncertainty about them. You know, is the next president going to be pro-business or less pro-business? And that can drive or affect capital projects as well. We were starting to see that before COVID even hit us.
Justin: Yeah, that is a great point. And from your side of things I know that you guys have been very proactive in terms of your risk mitigation strategy. Do you want to tell us a little about that?
John: Yeah, Eric alluded to one of the main things and that is just keeping track of our employees and we have a requirement for each employee. They update us on their symptoms and if they’ve traveled anywhere. And the reason is that the customers are asking for that and they will use that to decide if they want us to come on-site. And customers are looking at, ‘Well, I have to have you here for this thing. I’d like to have you here for this thing,’ or ‘I don’t want to have you here for this thing.’ So they try to use those tools to decide if we absolutely have to be there.
One of the other things that’s not necessarily up to us, but we try to request of our customers, is, ‘Can we have an office area or a dedicated space where we can work that the customer doesn’t com into, and at the same time, are they places at the customer site that we shouldn’t go into?’ You know normally you would want full access to everything, but in today’s climate, we don’t have to have full access so let’s limit it where we can. And that’s working pretty well too.
Eric: And certainly there are a number of fairly new communication devices that are low-cost that we can apply in certain work areas and view remotely and do much more remotely than you could five years ago. So those tools are helping us and they’re going to be very popular here over the next year.
John: You know we certainly have talked about having more competitive rates too, especially for a customer who has been directly affected by COVID-19, but even just in-general we’re doing everything we can to get through this together as a team and if we see a slowdown, we’re gonna do everything we can to keep our costs minimized and keep our team together.
Damian and Jason, the owners of DSI, clearly know who makes this company successful and it’s all of the employees so they’re committed to sacrificing what they need to, whether it’s salary, whether it’s profits for the company. They’re committed to keeping us all together, and every email that we get as an update ends with ‘We’ll get through this together,’ and it’s a pretty powerful message and frankly it’s a part of that kind of company.
Eric: I concur.
Justin: Yeah, that is great. That’s kind of a similar thing I’m noticing with a lot of different integrators and over at Inductive Automation as well, it’s like we’ve kind of been using this to come together more as a team and that’s what I’m hearing from a lot of other businesses as well, so that's awesome.
Eric: It’s kind of a belt-tightening mode, but that’s what you have to do in these times.
Justin: Yeah exactly. And who knows, we’re probably going to pick out some operating basis that will help us going forward when this thing is all over that will be successful that we can use.
Is there anything else you guys still want to talk about the risk mitigation plan?
Eric: I think it’s pretty much covered. We did send it to you, we sent it to all our customers, of course every employee has been required to read it. It talks about best practices associated with avoiding and contracting the virus of course, but also the testing program. It’s a good document and it’s a good guideline and everyone understands it and believes it.
John: You know, it’s really easy to get confused about what you’re trying to do. For example, do you wear a mask? Are you trying to protect yourself? You trying to protect the people you’re talking to? We talk about that too in terms of risk mitigation, this isn’t just about keeping our employees safe, it’s about not transmitting the disease and keeping our customers safe and the entire country safe for that matter. So we really try to recognize that protecting ourselves from this virus directly means protecting others as well.
Justin: Right, and that’s a good point, that brings me to a question that I had because I noticed on your website on the pop-up that you’re approved to travel. So how are you dealing with traveling from place to place and still keeping everybody safe and secure?
John: Yeah, so we’re allowed to travel, we all have a letter, some of our customers have sent us letters saying that we’re allowed to travel. You know the airlines are still flying wherever people want to go, certainly at least within the states. We haven’t restricted travel if our customers need us. But we absolutely push for remote meetings as much as we can.
Justin: Yeah, that makes sense. How has that affected the sales area too? Do you guys do much traveling to do sales or is that pretty much remote anyways?
Eric: Absolutely. I mean, this is a face-to-face business. Obviously there’s marketing and email campaigns and website interaction and all of that is great but, you know, to close a deal in system integration, you need to be with the customer, you need to have the technical resources available in those meetings to instill confidence. Particularly with a new account right? You know they’re trying to figure out if you’re a right fit, if you’re a good partner. And so from a sales standpoint, to do that remotely is more difficult and the gestation cycle will stretch out some just for people to get comfortable with it rather than going to a meeting and it’s a two-hour meeting and you’re there for five hours because they’re so interested in the technical discussion that you’re putting forth. Yeah, it’s impacting it but we’ll deal with it.
Justin: Yep, we’re all adjusting for sure. So you guys went over that, are there any other major hurdles that DSI is still trying to overcome at this time and any success stories that come with that?
John: I can talk about a success story. Well, I don’t know if it's a success story. One thing we’ve had to do and change, or just adapt to are new requirements. I kinda mentioned the idea that we look for segregated spaces where we can work on-site. Well, one customer said, “Yeah absolutely, no problem, but in fact that place you’re going to be doesn’t have access to a restroom or at least we don’t want you to access the restroom.” So they said to include a porta-potty in your price. And that’s what we’ll do right? That’s not a typical automation deliverable but it is on this job.
Justin: That’s interesting
Eric: And many times we’re asked to manage turnkey scope during the shutdowns so that means we’re aligned with an electrical contractor or some type who’s installing panels or putting in instrumentation and, you know, a safe distance must be maintained and good segregation and certainly the portal check-in is a mandatory requirement. It’s just something we manage and add to the safety aspect of the project. There’s always a huge safety impact whenever you’re going out into a plant and putting in a control system and this is just another aspect that you seriously have to adapt into your daily safety means.
Justin: Yeah, that makes sense. And I’m curious to know: Are you guys hiring?
Eric: Well, we hired a number of people right before this scare happened in January and early February and some senior people which is really helping, they’re doing a great job. And then we’re kind of a little bit like some of these plants, probably a little bit on-hold unless the right person comes up and is available and offers a particular value. It’s not as if we’re not hiring.
John: Yeah, fortunately we’ve got a strong backlog, probably 70 days of work for everybody, 70 man days and that’s been great. We actually had our best-performing first quarter this year in the history of our company. But that’s gonna be followed up probably by one of the worst quarters in the history of the company so it’s an interesting scenario. We are issuing fewer proposals so we know revenue will follow so we’re on a hiring freeze right now. That can turn around, you know. It’s interesting to think about how things will turn around. Like I mentioned earlier, the virus is one issue, the election year is the second issue. And we’ll just have to see how companies start reacting coming out of this thing.
Justin: Yeah, that makes me curious, you spoke about an election year. What did you notice four years ago when that was an election year? How did that affect you guys?
John: Yeah, so that was a very pro-business result to the election so there was a lot more spending. Money was a lot more available. The climate of what’s going to happen to EPA requirements and things like that, it was expected that they were not going to be increased and therefore a lot more capital spending happened.
Eric: Yeah, it’s funny I was at a conference, an automation conference, I don’t need to mention the company's name, but the industry leader in North America, and there was a lot of toasting at the end of the result during that conference and we saw some positive impacts. But certainly the months before, there was uncertainty. There was a little bit of hold-back at various sites so you just have to adapt to that as well.
Justin: Yeah, exactly. Well do you guys have any advice for the integration community listening in on this?
John: It would be the same advice that I’d give my own company. This is an excellent learning opportunity for how to work remote, how to sell remote, it's got challenges to it and it’s got benefits to it. And if we can capitalize on that, you know, if we can learn how to bring in a new client remotely, that can extend our reach into other areas around the world and keep our costs very effective. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s what I would encourage any integrator to do. All the things that are hard right now, as you figure out how to do them, don’t forget them when this is all over. Capitalize on them and use them in the future.
Justin: Yeah, exactly.
Eric: Yeah, and I think that in this business it’s all about your people. So take care of your people, value them and get through it together.
Justin: And they’ll remember you. They’ll remember you if you were there for them. And moving forward into the future, any plans in place in case the shutdowns continue longer than anticipated?
John: When we can work remotely effectively, it’s gonna be positive going forward. I look forward, I hear from half of my guys, ‘These things I’m doing from home are extremely productive. In fact I need more work because I’ve gotten more done than I expected.’ And then I hear, ‘I just can’t get these things done as well because I need to be sitting next to the five of us sitting together in a room.’ So I think both things happen, and I think we’ll benefit from that learning going forward.
Justin: Right. And how about you Eric?
Eric: Well, you know, certainly in this environment, people are not working 9-5 or 9-6 p.m., they’re working all kinds of crazy hours. Because they get up, they’re working remote, they’re at home, they’re like, ‘I got this on my mind, I’ve got that on my mind, I’m all set up. I’m going to work!’ You know we’re getting emails at 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. So there are ways to be productive and utilize your time and manage it effectively.
Justin: Great, thank you. And then any additional stories you guys would like to share? Either personal anecdotes with the shutdowns or ones from your engineers out in the field?
John: Yeah, for me I would say the precautions we’re taking for COVID-19 are physical really, right? If you run through those in your head, it's, ‘Hmm, do I want to wear gloves? Because I don’t want to touch something that someone else has touched.” And keep 6 feet away, or maybe even 10 feet away. And then we’ve got these stay-at-home orders, you almost feel guilty going outside, or going to the grocery store to pick up things you need.
And I find myself, you get into this mode of avoiding people. And to me it’s just an awful feeling. Even though we have to stay physically apart, I wish we could all remember, and I’m talking about myself mainly is, we don’t have to be apart emotionally. We can smile at people, we can make eye contact, we can find other ways to show that we’re all still human, we’re all still people here. And just because we need to stay apart, and that’s important, with no more hugs and no more handshakes, I care about you and you care about me and we’re still a people. If we lose that, and that’s my fear is that we’ll lose some of that and become a more cold society. So that would be my personal takeaway from all of this is that we all need to still find ways to share those positive emotions and friendliness and happiness of seeing others.
Eric: That’s good.
Justin: Yeah, that’s good, that’s great, John.
Eric: Some other successes are longer-term, repeat-business customers are still being loyal. They’re giving us purchase orders. They’re asking us to absolutely minimize the people who need to come on site but they realize that it is essential and they’ve been loyal to us. We’ve clipped down a lot of purchase orders from those longer-term repeat customers and they want us to keep things moving at their plant site, it’s just that we have to take care in how we execute from a safety aspect.
Justin: Right. So we’re going to get into your employees a little bit here, guys. What would you two like to say to your staff, co-workers, customers who have been working through this pandemic?
John: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know the support from our employees has really been tremendous, it’s sincerely appreciated. We’ve had to trim some benefits, we’ve talked about sacrificing pay and pay cuts, that kind of thing. Our goal is to come through this together, and that’s what Jason and Damian are going to make happen.
And so to all of the DSI employees, I know Jason and Damian are very thankful for everyone here. They sincerely appreciate the sacrifices that everyone is making. They appreciate everyone learning how to be efficient in these new environments and these new times. And all of the support that I know Jason and Damian have heard from everyone meant a lot to them and it only makes them want to work harder to keep us strong and healthy coming out of this. And whole.
Justin: Great. Anything you want to add to that, Eric?
Eric: No, that sums it up good, John. Good comment.
John: To customers I’d say, we’re here for you. And we need you. This country needs us, DSI, to be busy and productive and working. This country needs our customers to be busy, productive, and working. So anything you can do to keep pushing your business forward. Yeah, I think it’s self-serving to ask for purchase orders but I think that’s exactly what drives this country is all of our businesses working together. Earning money and earning profit. Making ourselves more efficient with automation. Taking advantage of all those tools, making them competitive advantages for our customers.
For active projects, we’re on track. Everyone is still productive and keeping projects on schedule, so that’s there. We’ve adjusted to keeping our people working safely. Safely for them and safely for you as our customers.
Some customers are doing upgrades now because they have some downtime because their production is being affected. Others are ramping up production and that is breaking equipment, so they have more service calls. We’re here, we’re available, we are being aggressive on rates. We want the work, we need the work, and we’re gonna do everything that we can to earn it. So please call us, and if we can do anything, we’ll help.
Justin: Great. Anything to add to that, Eric?
Eric: There’s a lot of capability, there’s a lot of experience within DSI. There’s a good sizable staff and everything from MES to drives to PLCs to HMIs, even DCS systems. There is a ton of talent within DSI and we’re dedicated to our customers and our group of repeat business clients that are being loyal to us now and these times are pure evidence of that. So we will continue forward in that vein.
Justin: Awesome, thanks Eric. So I’m curious, on your website it says you guys do Taco Tuesdays. How’s that going? Are the employees still doing that remotely with virtual tacos? What are we looking at?
John: Yeah. Virtual tacos. And they taste about as good as a virtual taco would. Yeah, who knows what people are having for Taco Tuesday, but that is something we’re not supporting anymore right now.
Eric: Well I’ll tell you what, I’m supporting the takeout community. I’m making it a point for all of these restaurants around here that have closed. About 50 percent of our meals have been takeout for my wife and I. Do what we can to stimulate various industries that are really impacted by this.
Justin: Right, absolutely. You’ve gotta keep them going. At Inductive Automation, we have Bagel Fridays. So even though we’re not eating bagels together, we’re still posting pictures of our bagels on Slack.
Justin: Good, well, anything else you would like to discuss? It could be about COVID-19, DSI, Ignition, Inductive Automation, anything you guys want to say.
John: I would say that we’ve had great success with Ignition and we’re really looking forward for Inductive to continue marketing and promoting and generating more interest in Ignition because that helps us put Inductive Automation products into the customers’ hands. It’s a flexible product, or family of products. It’s very capable, it’s very cost-effective, and we can integrate it, we can be successful with it. And our biggest challenge in that regard is just getting customers interested in the product and that’s where Inductive comes in.
Your marketing efforts, your sales efforts, that’s going to make a huge difference. You’ve got us convinced. We know the product is good and you work very well with us. What we need, what we’re looking for is for Inductive to really continue to saturate the market and grow the interest from the customers, and then we’ll answer their call and put it in the plant.
Eric: Yeah, I will say that you have been very loyal to the integrator community.
John: Hands down.
Eric: I’ve been at DSI a long time, but we’ve got a number of leads directly due to Inductive’s marketing and Inductive’s people recommending us directly and it has resulted in projects. So we appreciate that loyalty and assistance in the sales process for DSI Innovations.
Justin: Yeah, absolutely, and that goes both ways. Obviously we were very happy to work with DSI and promote you as Premier Integrators. And it’s just as our CEO Steve Hechtman said, he was an integrator and is very committed to the integration community. So we definitely appreciate that and appreciate you guys being on today and working with us. We look forward to continuing the relationship and continue to support DSI and all of the rest of our integrators.
Eric: Thank you so much Justin.
John: Thanks Justin, it has been a pleasure.
Eric: Appreciate it. We’ve enjoyed this.
Justin: Yeah, same here. Same on our side.