While working in sales and service for another company, Dan Burton, Sr. saw the many opportunities available in process control automation. With a degree in mining engineering from Ohio State University, Dan took success into his own hands and started a business of his own.
With the help of a private financial backer, Northwest Instruments and Controls (N.I.C.) was incorporated in 1992 in Billings, Montana.
Today, 30 years on, N.I.C. is a highly respected, exclusive manufacturer representative for process control equipment, serving the industrial market throughout America’s West Coast (except California), including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada.
Recognized across the West Coast for its outstanding customer service and quality products, N.I.C.’s instrumentation, control valve expertise, and complete engineered solutions make the company a one-stop shop for process control needs.
With about 15 staff today, N.I.C. is now expanding fast. Increasing its territory in the past few months, the company is actively looking for more people, including and outside sales professional for the Northern Wyoming and Montana area as well as another valve technician for the repair shop in Timnath, Colorado.
Active in multiple industries including oil and gas, refining, power, food and beverage, water and wastewater, and pharmaceutical / biotech, the team at N.I.C. encompasses mechanical engineers and also chemical engineers, since the company deals with corrosion and material compatibility.
“A lot of our solutions touch different processes, and some of those can be very corrosive or erosive or have certain reactions, so there’s always that coming into play,” says Rick Jenkins, Regional Sales Manager for the Southwest Region and part of the Rockies. “Oftentimes, there are multiple possible solutions for a given application, but usually one will be the better fit, and getting that right comes with experience.”
Unlike some process-control equipment companies, Northwest Instruments & Controls is a family-owned business, and it shows. Every call is important, and all are taken personally. The company wants to succeed and see its customers succeed. “We develop very close-knit relationships with our customers, see them outside of work hours, and get to know their families,” remarks Rick, “and we want them to look good for their bosses in advance in their careers.”
Treating clients like partners, N.I.C.’s hands-on approach is less about one-off sales than about personalized service and satisfaction. Along with striving to ensure that products are installed to customer standards and satisfaction, the company will come back and do training if necessary.
“We take full ownership of these solutions, and if something fails it’s very personal to us,” says Rick, “so we do all of our due diligence upfront and make sure we’re providing the best solutions we can for our customers.”
Sometimes, customers come to N.I.C. with specific requirements; in other cases, the team will go to their clients. Often the staff will make helpful suggestions that the customer hadn’t thought of, which can lead to other projects.
Engineering firms are process experts, and often have written specifications of what their needs are—for a certain instrument valve analyzer, for instance. N.I.C. will then find a solution, based on its own expertise and that of the manufacturers, and partner with them to review applications and share any necessary discussion.
“Especially nowadays, when there are a lot of younger folks in the workforce who may not know what they need, we can lean on our experience and say, ‘This is what I’ve seen that works here,’” says Danny Burton Jr., Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Northwest Instruments & Controls. He notes that some younger people are a bit out of their element, especially those working for power plants.
“In those cases, we rely on our own expertise and working with our own manufacturers, who often have subject-matter experts in the field they sell into and the applications they sell into. We work with them to review applications and have discussions with customers about potential solutions.”
If necessary, N.I.C. will write specs for customers. Owing to the company’s vast knowledge of instrumentation and of the client’s plants themselves, N.I.C. will come in and train the client’s engineers. And because the company does plenty of damper configuration, from surveys to drawings, and building dampers with manufacturers to expansion joint configuration, drive configuration, and linkages, Rick will perform a lot of the work himself.
Along with instruments and controls, N.I.C. has a large mechanical side to the business. In some cases, the company is doing even more work on the valve side in the mechanical world, where there may not be an actuator or any instruments. This includes dealing with highly erosive, corrosive processes, or even high-heat areas like 5,500-pound steam lines or a coker line.
Some clients have areas where they just have a manual isolation valve. “And so, based on our experience and examining of the process conditions and proposed solution, we can tell the customer with confidence that this particular valve should last at least, say, 150 cycles, as opposed to maybe the 10 to 15 they were getting before,” says Rick.
Over the years, Northwest Instruments & Controls has established relationships with many of the finest manufacturers in the world. These include Baker Hughes Masoneilan, Flexim, Reotemp, Mogas Industries, Process Insights, Groth, Continental Disc, Ametek O’Brien, Teledyne, Environment One, Schubert and Salzer, Clyde Industries, Fuji Electric, Berthold, and Swan Analytical, to name a few.
“We have our set manufacturers that we work with directly—and we obviously have our sales territory—but often, it’s not just quoting part numbers,” says Dan. “We have an identified problem that’s going to require probably some sensors, some valves, and maybe a controller, all for solving this one problem. So it’s an all-around solution for a given problem,” he explains.
“And a lot of the time, when a customer is asking us for a certain piece of equipment, we’ll identify an issue, and then we’ll start probing and asking questions. What we often find out is that there might be a separate root cause for the equipment problem, that they might need other pieces or components for that solution.”
One of the company’s recent partnerships is with Germany’s FLEXIM. With over 30 years of engineering experience, FLEXIM has emerged as one of the global leaders in clamp-on ultrasonic flow meters for liquids, gases, and steam. “We are doing a lot with them,” says Dan of the company, which has its headquarters in Long Island. “The FLEXIM line, it’s exclusively with us here in the Rockies region.”
More than a manufacturer of measuring devices, FLEXIM is a comprehensive provider of customer-driven solutions and services including on-site measurements, instrument commissioning, lab analysis, project handling, training, consulting services, and instrument rentals.
To fully respond to its customers’ needs, N.I.C. has around seven outside salespeople. They spend most of their time inside industrial plants—refineries, power plants, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, water, and wastewater—all of which have control systems with valves and sensors.
Danny Burton, Rick Jenkins and the rest of N.I.C.’s outside sales team are often in these plants looking at systems, following wires, examining processing instrumentation and diagrams, talking to engineers, and delving into problems. They will then work with their manufacturers to provide the best-fit solution within the time constraints, which invariably have been affected by the pandemic supply chain issues.
“Things that we could once get very quickly now have much longer lead times, so often we have to look out of the box,” says Rick. “Maybe we haven’t necessarily provided that brand of equipment to that manufacturer in the past, but right then we need to find something that’s on the shelf for a certain need-by date, so we’re increasing our flexibility, our number of solutions, and trying to make our customers look good for their bosses.”
Thanks to its salespeople, N.I.C. is now selling many more fuel supply valves, recently fulfilling an order of almost one million dollars for a large project. Also recently developing a full potable-water control system, Rick says that although the company didn’t build the actual system, it provided all the instrumentation, including the controls, valves, analyzer, and transmitter.
“We just handed that to the plant that we did it for,” says Rick, “and we’ve got a couple of others that are environmental wins. One is providing easier measurements and easier reporting for people at this plant to be able to hand off information to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Another project we won is automating a system that had been normally manually controlled to put dissolved oxygen into the process of going into a boiler to protect the steam piping.”
In December, Northwest Instruments & Controls celebrated 30 years in business and looks forward to working with its customers and being partners in their successes for a lot longer.
“The big thing for us is that we’re always looking for the next challenging application so that we can create a solution,” says Dan. “Give us a challenge and we’ll cover it, whether it’s an analytical challenge or process issues, or even obsolescence—that’s the biggest thing today. Just give us a challenge.”