In this conversation, we learn how integrators and engineers are adapting and making quick adjustments through uncharted territory during the COVID pandemic. Prime Controls shares some of their challenges and successes as they strive to stay productive and operational during this time. They discuss dealing with the drop in oil prices, forming an executive committee to process information and establish protocols, utilizing automation tools to enable factory acceptance testing remotely, and how their employees continue to support customers.
“We’re increasing the communication with our customers, we check in with them daily, try to understand what their roadblocks and issues are, what their timelines are… and then being able to get creative with the tools that we have.” – Scott
“Listen to your people. Don’t get caught up in rumors, and follow the guidelines that are coming from authorized regulatory and governmental groups ... because of the health and safety of your employees and keeping track of that.” – Bill
“Getting people to learn how important these remote applications are, especially during this time, has been greatly beneficial.” – Brandon
Brandon is an Automation Specialist for Prime Controls primarily working in the oil and gas industry. Skilled in Inductive Automation’s Ignition, Allen Bradley PLCs, Red Lion HMIs, Emerson Flow Computers, and other devices related to the oil and gas industry. He is a strong engineering professional with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas Tech University, as well as 8.0 Gold Certified in Ignition from Inductive Automation.
Bill Bivens is responsible for the corporate business development initiatives. This includes sales team management, proposal/estimating management, key account sales, key project pursuits, and marketing. Bill has 22 years’ experience in the industrial automation industry with responsibilities including application engineering, sales, business development, and corporate sales management and direction. Prior to joining Prime Controls in 2009, Bill spent 13 years with Siemens Energy & Automation, with his latest position there as Director of Sales – Central Region. Bill holds his Bachelors of Science in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. He resides in Trophy Club, TX, with his wife, Amy, and their two children Dylan and Reagan.
Scott Ogletree is Regional Manager - West Texas at Prime Controls, focused on oil & gas and municipal water & wastewater efforts. Scott is a Project Management Professional with over 27 years of experience in design and implementation of industrial automation systems. Prior to working for Prime Controls, Scott held engineering positions at Rockwell Automation and Automated Power.
Justin: Hello and welcome to Inductive Conversations. My name is Justin Reis, I'm the Integrator Program Manager at Inductive Automation. And today I'm joined remotely by Prime Controls, specifically Brandon Ellison, automation specialist; Scott Ogletree, Regional Manager and Bill Bivens, Vice President of Business Development. Gentlemen, thank you very much for being on the podcast.
Bill: Thank you.
Scott: Thanks for having us.
Justin: Of course. So let's start out with some introductions. Bill, do you wanna go ahead and introduce yourself and tell the listeners about your role in Prime Controls?
Bill: Yeah, absolutely, thank you. My name is Bill Bivens, I'm the Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Business Development at Prime Controls. Been with the company approximately 10-11 years but I've been in the industrial automation business going on 23 years. And, I can honestly say I haven't seen an environment like we are working in today before.
Justin: I'm sure. And then Scott, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.
Scott: Yes, Sir. Scott Ogletree, I'm the Regional Manager for our West Texas region. I've been with Prime going onto eight years, been in the business about, feels like 25-26 years now. So my role is to run our office in West Texas and our focus is oil and gas in this area, but we're diversified and do water/wastewater work as well.
Brandon: I'll say a little bit about myself. This is Brandon Ellison, I'm an Automation Specialist in the West Texas office as well, primarily in the Midland and Odessa region. I've been with Prime Controls for three years now, mainly working with Ignition, various devices, PLCs and everything that kind of entails in the oil and gas industry.
Justin: Great. Well, thank you for the introductions, great to have you guys on. Bill, would you mind giving me a bit of a description about Prime Controls, what you do, industry served and any other information you'd like to share?
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for asking. So Prime Controls is an industrial automation engineering and system integration firm. We specialize and focus in the process automation sector, that makes up easily 99.9% of our business. But we're very focused in select, diverse industries. And those process automation industries are specific to energy, water/wastewater infrastructure, high tech manufacturing and utility systems, and any and everything that as we see it in this day, in today's day, fortunately, is a central business utilizing industrial automation. So right now we're fully operational and are here to help any and all at this time.
Justin: Fantastic, thank you for that. And Brandon, I'm wondering, could you tell us a little bit about being Gold certified and what does that mean to you and how have you found that beneficial for your company?
Brandon: Absolutely. I think a huge thing is, obviously, having a discount as being a Gold integrator, so being able to get software cheaper for our customers and potential customers throughout the region. Also it has given us the ability to have the experience, the wisdom to build and install new applications for these customers in the most practical and best knowledgeable way. So, that's really helped us as far as being Gold certified, and we have continued to adapt and learn as much as we can to continue that development for newer and existing customers as we go along in our projects.
Justin: Yeah, exactly. I've noticed you guys have several Ignition version 8 certified engineers, so I think that's awesome. Brandon, who in the company is working remotely and how has that been going?
Brandon: Well, generally, at least out here in the West Texas local region, it's been all of our automation specialists and our engineers. Granted we do have to have some people in the field for the mechanical and the electrical issues that we usually come across for most of our customers. But generally, all programming as far as devices and SCADA work have been all done remotely, through the use of radio and cellular systems that we have implemented for our customers.
Scott: And along with that, to what Brandon said, that right there is a function of us utilizing technology and what we've done for years and years. However, I will tell you with this pandemic, what we've been able to do is we've been able to employ our other workers with the ability to work from home, and those percentages have gone up drastically, as far as who is working from home right now. In the past, in a corporate support environment, 100% of the people were in the office, and I'd say right now we've got at least 60% to 70% of the workforce working at home.
Justin: And I'm assuming you're seeing an increase in customers that would need remote work done as well.
Scott: That's correct.
Justin: Is there anyone still going out on a site, and if so, what adjustments have you needed to make for that?
Brandon: Yes, sure. So yeah, we still, like I said we still have our technicians going out for existing commissioning that was already happening, granted we're still following our guidelines of having lessons in people on site, practicing social distancing. So when we have issues as far as the maintenance on existing applications, we do usually have to send someone out there or if we're commissioning a new site for a customer.
Justin: Great. And then Bill, you wanted to get to something on that, right?
Bill: Yeah, I just wanted to point out that ... And I'll echo this throughout, we're trying to operate in a normal business fashion. Now, some of our customers have had to take the limitations on who they allow on job sites, but probably the biggest difference right now is, yes, people are still going out, except now we have to follow certain protocols that either we as a company have established or our client base has established. And that's, I used to say the new norm but I think ideally is the new temporary norm and that's how we're operating every day.
Justin: Right. And then while I have you on that subject Bill, what has Prime been doing to communicate and coordinate with your team and with customers?
Bill: It's a very good question, I can tell you I came back from... And most of us came back from our Spring break vacation in early March to a whole new world. And that began with formation of an executive committee specifically established to address the COVID19 pandemic. And number one we had to figure out, when you're talking about communication, what was communication coming in? That was the information we needed to bring in and process and find out what was factual, what was going on, what was going on with our employees number one, what was going on at our job sites, with our customers, with our suppliers? We had to get the lay of the land, the whole thing. And it took about a full day to get an assessment, and immediately what we did is we needed to make two forms of communication. And that was, number one, to our employees about, we are committed to operate business as usual, but our self health and our self health assessments come first.
Bill: Second thing, we communicated to our customers the very same thing. This went out through broadcast emails to specific, not only customers, but also to specific individuals that were tied to certain projects, to certain customers. Then we utilized social media to get the message out to our suppliers, our customers, our contractors et cetera, over what our status was. And that was our commitment to operate as normal, along with, as long as the health of our employees were stable and not put at risk. And that began a numerous amount of communication from customers, that we were receiving and about how their protocols were changing and how we then needed to continue to communicate to our employees about how they needed to operate on the job site to keep going.
Justin: Right. Yeah, great answer. You know, you mentioned continuing as normal and trying to operate as if things were still normal. Have there been any big projects put on hold or anything put on hold as a result of this?
Bill: Yes and no. Projects have changed and altered slightly on how they've moved forward with the normal schedule, but I hesitate to answer this question in a positive fashion 'cause I don't want the phone to ring. But so far, most of our customers have been able to adapt to this environment. We've had to have some people that normally were on the job site work from home or a hotel room. We've had some customers that have had to scale back as far as what they call critical resources allowed on the job site. We've had some customers that have postponed for a week or two weeks, maybe commissioning or a certain effort that's on the job site, until they really get their hands around what their new protocols are gonna be. But for the most part, all our customers are trying to operate and continue with everything as planned.
Justin: And then, what have been some of the biggest hurdles in doing that? Either for Prime or for your customers and how are you overcoming those hurdles?
Bill: I think processing information, number one. Because information is coming in starting early March, every hour upon the hour, you are hearing something different. So, it became day to day and now it's become week to week, when it comes to what we're dealing with. The biggest hurdle I would say is processing what our clients need and want day to day, 'cause it changes as they gather information. So, we are trying to gather information to make sure our employees are operating and working in a safe environment, but then we've gotta get them on a job site and we don't know what's gonna change day to day. And then, by the way, as soon as you think you've got things under control, you get the phone call that, well, there might have been this person that was compromised or this person that was exposed at a certain client, and then you have to track all the facts involved with that and that becomes challenging in its sense to track data, to track all the information coming in, and then responding in the proper way again for our employees and then along with our customer's protocol.
Justin: Yeah, it's quite a responsibility. And then could you touch on a little bit of the successes you've managed to have during the shutdowns?
Bill: Well, I could tell you one of the things that we've been able to do is we've had to learn quickly how to work in an entirely different environment. So, all of a sudden all these people that are used to driving into the office or going to see a customer or going to a job site, are now staying at home. And a lot of the workforce in America is used to working from home. Well, in our business, some people are, but a lot of our resources have adjusted to that. And we've been able to utilize and enable some really neat tools. Microsoft Teams, Skype, our internal collaborative tools that Prime Controls uses, has allowed us to ... it almost seems like we're more productive and busier now than we were several weeks ago, because you're packing everything in while you've got everybody's attention and you can access them right in front of your screen. And you're being more efficient with your time, that's for sure, because it's scheduled, it's right in front of you, and you gotta move on to something else, so you gotta get it done.
Justin: Yeah. That's also a big change I'm hearing from a lot of different integrators, is that you have everything kind of right there at your fingertips. We have the technology with the remote capabilities, and I haven't heard too many people saying that they have lost efficiency. So, that's good to hear. So, Scott, how has all of this impacted the support of your customer's machinery?
Scott: Well, Justin, we've kinda been hit with a couple of them. Obviously, we've got the Coronavirus pandemic, it's kinda pulled a lot of the resources out of the field that we normally work with and work alongside, and we've also been hit with the oil pricing. So, that's even taken the preferences of our customers way even more. So, what we're being told on the news is what we've always done, is to be able to support these customers in the field as their employees are back home or not at the job at the time. So, we continue to work on our remote side and we're getting more and more calls to be able to start handling the maintenance services for those guys. Our business picked up during these times. So we're continuing to communicate with our customers to make sure that we're listening to what they need and adapt.
12:33 Justin: That's great.
Bill: You know, aside from the communication, I think we've got dozens of employees right now that are saying, "Hey, tell our customers, we're ready to get out there and go see 'em and go visit 'em, go take care of them." Yeah, we're ready to do this. That they're in good hands. We have the technology, we have the will, I have been really, really amazed by our employees and their willingness to step out, and get out and go see the customers and go support them. Instead of wanting to hold back and be fearful of the exposure. I feel like the company's set them up in a safe environment and that their customers are set up in a safe protocol, so they're ready and willing to go.
Justin: Yeah, that's fantastic. So Bill, how do you go about factoring acceptance tests, and correct operations of new equipment in front of the customers?
Bill: That is a very good question. And we had to learn almost within hours, how to adapt to this new temporary environment. Literally the week that sheltering places were being issued and travel was being restricted, we had factory tests set up at our Lewisville, Texas office and some of our remote offices. So clients couldn't get there, consulting engineering firms, third party contractors or whatever could not get there. And in some cases the test was supposed to be done elsewhere, outside of a Prime facility, and our guys could not go. And this would include being out of the country. So, to answer the question, what we really did is we enabled the tools that were already in place.
Bill: So what I think we're seeing is, I think we're seeing some of our third party consultant, contractor, and our end users, they're opening their eyes and they're seeing the real power of the automation tools that we have. So one example is we've got a test going on, where the end user is in one part of one country. Prime's engineers are enabling the testing of the equipment from their home base, and the owner is in their home base witnessing everything. And it's going great, and we're able to do this remotely, on a number of tests that we've just really switched to, in the last three weeks.
Justin: That's awesome. So Brandon I have a question for you. Are you still continuing to work closely with Inductive Automation during this time?
Brandon: Absolutely. Whether it be coming from trying to still get our Premier integration status with Inductive Automation or contacting y'alls customer support, which has been absolutely awesome during every experience I've had with them. We are still continuing to use y'all, especially since we've kinda had a ramp up in questions from our customers about their Ignition platforms. Now that they've been working remotely, it seems that they have been relying on them of course a lot more now. So, we've came into a few issues that we were not able to solve and had to get y'all’s customer service to kind of look through all what's going on and found a solution very quickly. So, yes we are.
Justin: Well, that's great to hear. I know from our end, we definitely want to work as closely as possible with all of our different integrators at this time, especially now with everything going on, I think it's really important that we all stay connected. So, this is just one of those things, podcasts and different comarketing opportunities. So I appreciate that, Brandon. So back over to you, Bill, I have another question. How have production and shipping personnel been impacted in compliance with the government shutdowns?
Bill: Well, one of the things we had to do ... I was talking about the amount of resources that we're able to work from home. So we conversed the landscape of the workforce, and we said, "Okay if you can work from home, then take that opportunity, if you're set up to where you can still be productive." But it's very clear that in our business, the personnel that cannot work from home are production and shipping. So we had to adopt our own protocols, we went to shift work to be able to minimize the amount of production people that were in the shop. We have a very large facility where we do production, but they're abiding by our social distancing guidelines that we have in place. They're being supervised to make sure that they're abiding by those social distancing guidelines while on production. And then from a shipping perspective, all of our suppliers and all of our personnel managing both the outgoing product and the suppliers coming in. Everybody is operating masked, gloved, distanced. The proper protocols are being handled and we've been able to adapt pretty easily.
Justin: That's great. And then we saw that Prime put out a message from the president about continuing to operate. Any other ways you've been communicating with your customers about the coronavirus?
Bill: Wait, well first of all, I'll say that I've been a part of a committee that's met. Myself, our president and three others that have met every morning for the last three weeks, to go over whatever the issue of the hour is that's been brought to us from this pandemic. And I can tell you, it's been very important for him to continue to communicate several different things. And I won't go into all the messaging, but what's being done is the communications coming from him. There's additional meetings that are being had with all of mid-management personnel. Each mid-management personnel is having team meetings, where obviously be the Microsoft Teams or conference calls, to continually communicate with their employees about the state of the business, and to gather input, to get feedback about what they're seeing. And then we're feeding it up to the necessary people on the committee, which always includes our president. It always includes their manager, managerial person, and it 100% includes the head of our safety, which is our corporate safety manager, who's involved in all aspects of what's going on right now.
Justin: Great. So Brandon, what have you guys learned from working remotely?
Brandon: Well, not only have we learned how important our region SCADA networks are, I believe the customers also learned the importance of having SCADA and the remote applications that we have integrated for them. I'd like to say, we've seen and experienced that the managers and the managerial department usually don't have a problem using SCADA, but we found a lot of operators tended to stay away from it and not wanna learn it. Well, now that we're in this time, or we're practicing social distancing, can't be on site, I believe a lot of them have adjusted to actually wanting to use the software and learning how important it really is. And as well as just remote applications to all of our devices have just completely changed, at least in the thought processes of all the people that use them in most of our industries.
Justin: Great. And just a followup question on that, do you guys see yourself using some of these things that you learned going forward, even after everything does return to normal?
Brandon: Oh, yeah, 100%, I believe so. I think getting people to learn how important these remote applications are, especially during this time, has been greatly beneficial to not only us being able to develop more things for the customer in their cells, but also being able to use it in a capacity that it can be great in.
Justin: Awesome. And, Scott, the next question is for you. Do you have any advice for the listeners who are trying to manage this unprecedented situation?
Scott: Yeah, I do, Justin. It's been successful for us, and we've increased in our communication with our customers. We check in with them daily, try to understand what the roadblocks, what their issues are, and really what their timelines are, now that everything has been pushed out, or that has been pulled back into a more immediate future. You have to understand where they're at is really what's helping us push our work. And then being able to get creative with the tools that we either already have in place, or look for those tools that'll help us be able to take care of our customers. But, of course, as long as the pandemic goes on.
Justin: Right. And then, Bill, did you have anything to add to that? Any advice for the listeners who are trying to manage this?
Bill: Yes, I would say, the most important thing is listen to your people and listen to your customers, don't get caught up in... And abide and follow the guidelines that are coming from the authorized regulatory and governmental groups. Don't get caught up in anything else, in rumors and all that other stuff, because again, the health and safety of your employees and keeping track of that and making sure that that is communicated properly, along with sticking to your customer protocols.
Justin: And then, Brandon, same question to you, if you have any input.
Brandon: Yeah, I just think that using this time to develop and give your customers all the tools that they need to be able to use all of their devices and their sites remotely is just gonna be so beneficial right now. I know since having a lot of downtime, a lot of our customers that use this time to verify data coming into SCADA, verify alarms and the things of that matter, basically practical maintenance that you can't do in a fast-paced type of integration setting. So that's what would be my biggest advice to any type of other engineer or integrator out there.
Justin: Great, thank you.
Bill: I think just in general, everybody has learned to roll up their sleeves and understand it as a new working environment, whether you're having to deal with a barking dog, understand that somebody's kid came and interrupted you during a conference call, or somebody walked through in the background, and somebody's like ... Somebody waves at your wife, that walks by. So we all have to just realize that this is what we have to deal with, that's make some aspects of it lighthearted. But other than that, I think we're staying serious and down to business.
Justin: That's great, yeah. And in my own personal statistics, reaching out to integrators, I've noticed there's about a 70% rate of dogs being involved in one way or another, so ...
Justin: Either on the video calls or barking in the background. Good. Any other personal anecdotes or additional stories you'd like to share regarding working with the corona outbreak?
Brandon: Yeah, I'd actually like to say something. So we've had to adapt to the government guidelines, practicing social distancing when we're actually on site. That's been a little bit challenging for us integrators, because we're so used to having so many types of vendors, contractors on site at the same time. At this point, we've had to speed up that work and stay away from people and just be conscious of having others around you, not trying to get into their personal space. So that's something I think everyone's had to adapt to. And from what I've seen, actually doing very well at being able to do that.
Justin: That's great. Well, what would you guys like to say to your staff who have been working through this pandemic?
Bill: I can take that one for sure. Amazing. The team has done an amazing job. Considering what's going on, it's not just about your local region, it's not about just this country, what's going on in this world. And one of the things that's been said over and over and over again, it's something we have never ever seen, no one that we know has ever, ever seen or experienced. But yet, the team at Prime Controls is operating on a daily basis, although from a different work environment, it's business as usual. And they're still trying to deliver the best product with the best integrity they can to the customer base. And what I say to them is, "Amazing, you still impress me, continue to impress me every day."
Justin: Fantastic. Does anyone have anything else they'd like to say about any topic?
Scott: Yeah, I'd like to add just a little. Obviously, there's a lot of uncertainty, whether it's coronavirus, oil prices, lack of work, things that are going on. And our statement, not just in West Texas, to our team, but to our company as a whole. As Prime Controls, we're still open for business, we're looking at our customers, we're trying to make sure that we're taking care of them regardless of what the situation is. We mentioned that to our team as well, to make sure they understand that Prime behind our employees as well, just talking to our customers to let 'em know we're ready to come and help 'em whenever.
Justin: Beautiful. That's great.
Brandon: I'd also like to add, I'd like to give a little kudos to Ignition, because especially with most of our customers that are using y'all's applications, being able to control and supervise their fields and sites remotely, have been a great help during this time, especially. We have customers coming to us, telling us that this has given them the ability to have no one onsite and still be able to protect their employees during this time. So that's been a great thing.
Justin: Yeah, that's awesome. Okay, good. Anything else that you guys wanna go over? Anything I left out?
Brandon: As a global supplier, what is Ignition seeing and feeling for how long we're gonna have to adapt and change to the corona pandemic?
Justin: Wow, that's a good question. You're asking basically how long we think that this is gonna go on, as a company?
Brandon: Yeah, from y'all's experience.
Justin: I think we're kind of going off of just the national data that comes in every day. Obviously, they're just like you guys are doing. I'm sure we're monitoring everything very closely. And I think the main thing that we're doing is we're really trying to take advantage of any opportunities that we can to enhance our operating bases, to really make sure that we are providing as good a service as possible to our customers, and especially the integrators. As you guys know, that Inductive Automation is kind of built, focused on integrators and built for integrators. So we just wanna try to make them as useful as possible, 'cause obviously how well you guys are doing is how we'll be doing long term. So, I don't know if there's really an answer to that, that we have anything taped down like we're expecting this to go back to normal.
Brandon: Bill, would you like to answer that for our company?
Bill: You know, I'll tell you that three weeks ago, we didn't know what the next day was gonna bring. And then last week, we got to where, from a business standpoint, we felt like we had a good handle on the next two weeks, and now we're over halfway through that, and we see what the two weeks after that are gonna bring. So I'm not gonna say that everything is every other two weeks, but we see in addition to having better visibility into what's going on and stabilization, we also see that there's been an uptick in business opportunities and bid activity and things that are coming about now, to where we see people that we're dealing with, they're kinda acting like things are more normal, or they've just gotten used to it. But in things that I see, that we prepared for the worst, and I don't know that we're gonna get there, and I think that we're going to be back to normal... Not back to normal, back to the new normal, I think, sooner than we think.
Justin: Yeah, I think so, too. I'm gonna agree with you on that. I don't think anybody wants this economically, to go on for much longer. And so I think there will be a natural push for people to start asserting themselves into more of the scene and making things go back as close to as possible as the old normal.
Bill: Well, if you look at the market, it's gone back up another 700/800 points again today, so.
Justin: That is a good indicator. Thank you very much for being on the podcast, it's great to have you guys on.
Brandon: Thank you.
Bill: Thanks for having us. We really appreciate the opportunity. It's been tremendous, and it's good working with you guys.