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June 2013
The Spark of Success
By Barbara Fagan

     Based in Charlotte, Argus Fire Control designs, manufactures and installs automatic fire protection and metal detection systems to keep textile, non-woven and recycling businesses safe from fire. Many of their customers are cotton spinning mills which make the yarn or thread that goes into woven or knitted fabric. These mills are at a particularly high risk for fire.

     “Over the past 20 years the production rate of spinning machines has increased in velocity, multiplying the risk of spark and fire” explains Michael Viniconis, who’s been president of Argus Fire Control for the last 10 of them. “Many modern mills run 24 hours a day and are almost ‘lights out’ with few people and only security cameras in production departments, making fire detection an issue.

     “Argus products can extinguish a fire while it’s still a single spark. Our products can detect a spark and extinguish it or control it in less than 50 milliseconds—that’s one-20th of a second.”

     Besides protecting people from injury, fire detection and protection equipment safeguards mill machinery which has an average value of $100,000 per machine and prevents loss of production time at an estimated rate of $2,000 per hour or more.

     Argus also has products that detect loose metal traveling in production lines. “Metal will damage machines and cause sparks,” explains Viniconis. “Our products detect metal as small as two millimeters and remove it without interrupting production.”

     Argus products include automatic fire protection systems for bale openers, infrared spark detectors, spark diverter systems, metal diverter systems, filtration system fire protection and their newest product, the high speed AD-50eC THS-TT Metal and Spark Diverter designed to be the most compact and sensitive product of its kind on the market.

     Argus uses their products to design a customized solution for each customer. “Costs range from $5,000 to protect a small machine to $500,000 for a large mill installation. There may be multiple processes in cotton spinning mills and textile mills and each machine is a little different, requiring a different solution,” says Viniconis. “The mill will send us a machinery drawing and we’ll advise them on what they need, we’ll have a technical discussion and then we’ll put it all together.”

 

Regional Roots

     The roots of Argus Fire Control trace back to the 1940s and an Atlanta company called Southeastern Safety Appliances which sold safety goggles and handheld fire extinguishers. Argus founder, Dick Thomas came up with the idea of automating the process.

     Initially the company protected Southeastern U.S. spinning mills like Parkdale Mills, Frontier Yarns and Gildan. But as the textile industry—key industry for the Carolinas since the early1900s—started to shift, so did company operations.

     “At one time there were about 600 spinning mills in the U.S.,” explains Viniconis. “Now there are probably 50. By the early 2000s much cotton spinning had shifted to Pakistan, India, China, Bangladesh, Brazil and Mexico. That business—and our customer base—began moving offshore.”

     It was something that Viniconis himself had done. Growing up on a small Connecticut farm, he dreamed of traveling the world—a shortwave radio, a gift from his father, allowed him to listen to broadcasts of Radio Cairo and All India Radio and to fall asleep to the chimes of Big Ben from the BBC.

     Later Viniconis studied International Relations at Colby College in Maine and received a scholarship to spend his junior year studying in Vienna and Paris. Graduation led to a 14-year career with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

     Viniconis continues, “Luckily, Dick Thomas and his wife Jeanne, who ran the business together, had forethought. They had the vision to see that the textile industry might not always stay in the U.S. and were already exporting to Latin America and Europe. When I came on board in the 1990s, they tasked me with developing more business overseas.

     “I figured I didn’t know anything about fire protection or textiles but after working at KLM, I knew about international trade. I found out quickly this isn’t something where you make one trip overseas and change your balance sheet. It takes years to develop some international markets.

     “It was three years of travel to Pakistan—more than 10 visits—before we started generating business there. The management of most companies wouldn’t have the patience but Dick Thomas did. He said, ‘Just keep going. It’ll happen.’

     “And it has continued to happen,” the veteran Viniconis says, his lifelong “travel bug” not yet satiated.

     Argus Fire Control participates in an average of five major industry trade shows around the globe each year.

     “Myanmar and Cambodia are new markets with trade shows coming up,” explains Viniconis. “At first I may just go to the shows as a visitor with brochures, business cards and an open mind. I meet the local companies, find an agent and then possibly exhibit at next year’s show.”

     Viniconis is quick to point out that the encouragement of Argus’ international growth is strongly supported by company Chairman Bob Duncan and Vice Chairman George Wagner.

     “They have invested a great deal of time, money and patience to reach current levels of exports in these markets, and they have carefully assembled a team of international-minded and dedicated staff, engineers and technicians to support this growth,” affirms Viniconis.

 

Export Promotion

     Argus Fire Control also takes advantage of the resources of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Export Assistance Center (USEAC) to stay ahead of emerging markets. “The Department of Commerce has been instrumental in getting us overseas,” says Viniconis.

     “They assisted us with raw data to identify markets we should consider. We still use them to identify new markets and different sales channels. They can open the doors to U.S. embassies and attaches around the world.”

     The USEAC opened its Charlotte office in 1996. Greg Sizemore is the director. “Argus used our program called ‘Gold Key Service,’ where we can set up meetings for them or for other North Carolina companies with qualified buyers abroad,” Sizemore explains. “We have offices in over 80 countries and our people abroad can find key distributors and develop market intelligence. We can even provide interpreters and driving services. It’s one of the best things we do with an over 80 percent success rate.

     “But the key to success internationally is travel. Mike Viniconis knows this. His passport is easily two inches thick with annexes stapled onto the back. When you get on a plane you’re proving to potential buyers that you’re serious about their market and you’re willing to commit. Getting on a plane and building that relationship with prospective buyers overseas is critical to international success.”

     Since the Thomases retired from Argus in the late 1990s, Viniconis has continued to spearhead the company’s international push. One five-week business junket last fall had him in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan. Since September 2012, he’s been overseas for a total of 15 weeks.

     The push has paid off; Argus Fire Control now does business in more than 50 countries and exports of their product are 80 percent of their total sales. And while Argus exports to the more familiar regions of Europe and Southeast Asia, it seems no location is too exotic. Current work includes a project in a remote corner of Uzbekistan and they just concluded agreements for three textile mills being built in Angola.

     “We do business in countries where there are no Starbucks or McDonalds,” Viniconis says. “It’s been interesting as well as a lot of fun.”

     Argus credits their use of independent sales agents in each country as key to their success. “The art of this business is to find the right agent,” says Viniconis. “We’re doing extremely well now in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Mexico and Korea because we have good agents there and the markets are doing well. Having the right agent is critical to a small business exporting successfully.”

     Viniconis affirms there is great demand overseas for American products. “Everywhere we’ve done business we find American products are held in high regard. Overseas markets like Americans’ honesty in business, they like the service we provide and the high quality and reliability of the products. American products last.

     “Argus has systems out there that are 15 or 20 years old. We joke that it’s not good to be a spare parts salesman for Argus; you won’t make any money. These systems have to operate not only locally in the Carolinas but also in Uzbekistan—that’s a long way to go to replace a part. These systems need to work.

     “We design our products to be as ‘plug and play’ and as robust as possible so they don’t require much service, just normal maintenance. We also train the end user, the mill, to do the service. If they prefer, they can contract maintenance to our agents but most of our customers do their own service.

     “We’re not the low cost provider, but considering the life of the product, we offer great value and reliability.”

     Viniconis maintains that internal R&D also factors heavily into design improvements and new products: “Our products have to perform under harsh industrial environments—dust, dirt, noise—and be able to withstand power fluctuations of 15 to 20 percent.

     “Imagine the power grid in Bangladesh. Our systems need to be able to withstand power surges, brownouts and blackouts and to come back and operate as if nothing happened. That’s why we sometimes install triple levels of power protection.”

 

Shrink or Swim

     For Argus Fire Control, the challenges of doing business globally are far outweighed by the benefits. One enormous benefit in particular stands out: survival.

     Argus customer Parkdale Mills is a leading global provider of spun yarn. Parkdale President Dan Nation has worked with Argus Fire Control for 25 years and has a unique perspective on the company.

     “The textile business was on the decline for awhile. There was a lot of consolidation and a lot of companies went out of business. This affected a huge part of Argus’ business, but rather than sit back and shrink with that market, they decided to make their market bigger, to expand overseas.

     “I watched Mike build that business. It was amazing to see the places he would go—countries I would never go to. He’s a road warrior. Now they’re all over the world. When I became president of Parkdale, one of the first things I did was sit down and talk to Mike about how he took his company international, because he’s done as good a job at it as anybody I’ve seen,” attests Nation.

     Viniconis states it simply, “If we had not expanded overseas, we would not exist. We couldn’t have survived on domestic business. Exports kept us alive and now the profitability of exports allows us to grow.”

     And growth has led to a new Argus Fire Control facility. In May, the company moved to a 13,000-square-foot facility near I-85 and the Billy Graham Parkway. “I always like to be in either the landing or takeoff pattern of the airport,” Viniconis jokes.

     In May, the company also received the prestigious President’s E Award for 2013 from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the White House. Winners of the E Award are recognized for their significant contribution to increasing U.S. exports.

     “We’re very excited,” says Viniconis. “It’s an award that every exporter aspires to. We’ve had four steady years of export growth. Because of exports, Argus Fire Control never experienced the recession.”

     Viniconis is also a proud member of the North Carolina District Export Council and says he has learned a lot from his involvement with the group and from their chairman, Wayne Cooper, whom Viniconis considers a mentor.

     “The Export Council is very active,” Viniconis says. “They host seminars and road shows and work with local community colleges. It’s made up of a cross section of industries—manufacturing and service—and every size of company from small businesses like Argus to Caterpillar. We’re all excited about exports.

     “We mentor other businesses and encourage them to export. The statistics are that only one percent of businesses in the U.S. export and of that one percent, most only export to one other country.

     “Any company making an interesting product nowadays probably gets inquiries from international customers. I’d advise them to take those inquiries and contact the Export Assistance Center or the District Export Council or me and we’ll tell them what their next step should be.

     “Field those inquiries because you never know when your domestic market might start to wither and you need an international market to keep your company going and strong.”

 

 

 

Barbara Fagan is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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