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June 2014
Gauging the Global Marketplace
By Kathleen E. Conroy

Randy Austin is a true enigma. The slow talking, unassuming businessman who started a metering company nearly 25 years ago measures his words before he speaks. Shake his hand and converse awhile, and you’ll see why the seemingly quiet man is at the helm of one of the largest independent distributors and renovators of electric and gas meters and related equipment in the United States—maybe the world.

 

Not parking meters, mind you, but the gadget-y ones on the outsides of homes and businesses and atop utility poles. Meters that measure electricity, meters that measure natural gas, intelligent meters that can’t be tampered with, and meters that report directly back to utility companies for reading, connection or disruption of service.

 

Talk about utility meters with Austin and his demeanor changes. He’s blunt, shoots straight from the hip, and is passionate about the not-so-simple round gauges and related gadgetry.

 

“We are a small company in a very big building,” says Austin about his 264,000-square-foot building in York, S.C. “Our customers know where we are and that’s all that really matters.”

 

Most of those same utility powerhouses don’t know that Austin’s company, Vision Metering, LLC, got its start in a basement shop in Belmont, N.C.

 

Surplus Consignment is a Start

 

Austin, now 60, grew up in Detroit. He began his fascination with electricity, its properties, and how it makes things work as an electrician in the U.S. Navy for eight years, traveling the world. He also worked stints at Westinghouse Electric and Ekstrom Industries Inc., a meter socket adapter manufacturer.

 

It was in 1983 that Austin moved to Belmont, N.C. He was consulting for Brazilian metering company Nansen, importing their product, and selling it to electric utilities in the U.S.

 

“Our price was the driving factor. We had a better price than anyone else,” he says proudly.

 

It was during that time that Austin met Debbie Ruth, now Vision Metering’s executive vice president, while the pair both worked at Process Systems and APTECH, Charlotte companies and leading manufacturers of isolation relays and protection devices used by electric utilities.

 

What followed next can only be called fate—the kind of fate that any businessperson dreams of.

 

Friends in the meter department at Georgia Power asked Austin if he knew where to sell their surplus electrical equipment. Austin had lots of ideas. He didn’t hesitate and sold a shipment of solid-state recorders the following day.

 

“They took us in to a warehouse and wanted us to sell surplus equipment,” Austin recalls. “It was all sorts of equipment related to meters, metering parts and more. They said, ‘Take all of it!’

 

“We had 12,000 square feet of space back in Belmont, and were looking at a consignment contract to sell 300,000 square feet of equipment!” remembers Austin.

 

So that day in 1991, Austin and Ruth rented a Ryder truck and transported the equipment—and that was the start of Austin International, Inc. They had leased the basement of a building next to Sammy’s Restaurant in Belmont, and would eventually buy the town’s closed Family Dollar and Food Lion stores just to have space for their growing inventory.

 

“We created a newsletter called MeterScene and sent it out to all the potential customers we could think of,” says Ruth of pre-Internet catalogs. “The newsletter detailed all of our surplus parts and grew from two pages to 52 pages at one point.”

 

Austin notes that their first sales markets grew in Central and South America, leading to sales in the Philippines and then the Caribbean basin. “We now have a factory in the Philippines to build special elevated metering equipment,” says Austin.

 

The consignment business eventually parlayed into $14 million in annual revenue.

 

“The significant part of the history of our company was the consignment factor. There was no outlay of cash really. The constant business helped keep us going,” says Ruth, 56.

 

With constant business from Florida Light & Power, Georgia Power, Virginia Power (now Dominion Power), as well as Duke Energy, the pair knew they needed to grow in size, and look beyond surplus goods to manufacturing and refurbishing meters as well. The need was there. How to meet it?

 

Through a vendor tip, the pair showed up at an auction in York, S.C., in 2001 and nabbed the town’s former Cannon Mills/Fruit of the Loom plant built in the late 1800s. Austin and Ruth, who now lives in York, paid $300,000 for 264,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 25 acres.

 

“It’s all on one long, long level building with lots of docks. It’s been perfect for us and our employees,” says Ruth. “It was a steal.”

 

In August 2001, the company consolidated all of its metering operations in the York facility and began branching out into manufacturing and refurbishment to meet the needs of their growing customer base.

 

Moving Forward with Selective Manufacturing

 

Over the last 10-plus years, Austin’s company has become one of the largest utility products and service providers in the U.S., if not the world. The company has developed its own trademarked product, the Vision, which is a family of smart grid solid state electrical meters for residential, commercial and industrial use.

 

In 2011, Austin decided to change the company name to Vision Metering, LLC, an Austin International company, to reflect the fact that electric and gas metering had become the most significant part of the business. The ownership, management and personnel remained the same.

 

Visitors to the Vision Metering’s massive, glossy pine-floored York facility can imagine the former 1880s textile mill as it was, but now there are boxed meters and meter parts spread as far as the eye can see. The building consolidates the company’s headquarters and operations under one roof.

 

The electric and gas meter shops are largest division of Vision Metering, a cost-effective operation providing cleaning, testing, retrofitting and meter retirement services for utilities in the wake of deregulation. Vision’s engineering department designs and builds the Vision family of meters, data-on-demand smart grid products, data recorders, totalizers and isolation relay equipment.

 

The company still works with the purchase and sale of surplus electrical equipment in the electrical industry and has a second facility located in Belmont, just over 100,000 square feet on 15 acres, used primarily for inventory.

 

Vision Metering now has 150 employees, including seven engineers, and enjoys a culturally diverse workforce with talented individuals from Russia, India, Laos and Latin America. Austin adds that his employees talk of two ghosts from the Cannon Mill days that roam the building. He scoffs at the idea but still seems intrigued. Asking an employee if she has seen a ghost, she shyly replies, “We heard a woman scream loudly once when no one was here.”

 

Ghosts aside, Vision Metering has made almost every aspect of metering equipment big business, working not just on refurbishing old meters and building new ones, but developing new innovative products to meet utility giants’ needs.

 

“We discovered early on that surplus sold better if we made it look better,” says Austin. “So we began big business in meter refurbishing or even transformers. We clean, paint. We do whatever it takes to make it look like new and perform like new.”

 

The company’s biggest customers are Florida Power & Light, Dominion Power, Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey, and Entergy, which provides utilities for parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. FirstEnergy is another large customer, based in Ohio, serving a 65,000-sqare-mile are in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.

 

In the past, the company also worked closely with Duke Energy refurbishing meters until Duke brought the work in-house after its merger with Progress Energy. Vision Metering did complete an automatic meter reading project for Duke from 2001 to 2004, retrofitting meters for new technology. Austin estimates Vision worked on 1.6 million meters for Duke in those three years.

 

He maintains that Vision attracts and maintains business from utility giants “because we are affordable and our project quality is beyond anything they see elsewhere, including overseas.”

 

For example, a clear replacement cover for a meter might cost $6 from one manufacturer, while Vision charges $3. “They would much rather buy it from us with our volume discounts. It saves them time and a tremendous amount of money in the long run,” says Austin.

 

Vision Metering also has a contract with the South Carolina Department of Corrections. State prisoners work on building the bases for standard electric meters that are then sent to the York facility to be assembled and finished.

 

Austin is complimentary of his team of employees, from testers to assemblers to administration. “The team I’ve built here is strong and they are self sufficient,” he adds. “I don’t have to micromanage.”

 

Vision Metering now works with both electric and gas meters, offering new Vision meters, using two state-of-the-art testing facilities for both gas and electric meters. They service over 1.5 million gas and electric meters a year. Austin estimates that the company spent about $1 million in preparation to add gas meter production, testing and refurbishing to its list of services.

 

Keeping It Smart, Preventing Energy Theft

 

Products and services offered by Vision Metering are in even more demand now that technology has made meter reading by humans nearly a job of the past. That’s because engineers, like those who work for Vision Metering, are designing and building smart grid products and isolation relay equipment.

 

“Smart grid” refers to new digital technology that utilities are adding to substations, power lines and metering to modernize the grid. It also includes new computer systems to manage all of the new devices. Smart grids make it easier to prevent and repair outages, allow for faster and more accurate meter reading, and provide controls for energy usage and costs.

 

Isolation relay is designed to isolate and protect network components for safety and security. It can be used for both pulse replication and pulse isolation applications, where a utility needs to isolate their billing meter’s pulsed output from a customer’s energy management system.

 

Many utility companies now use radio transmitters within meters that transmit the kilowatt-hour usage reading directly to the company. Utility companies can also disrupt service or connect service using the same smart meters, according to Austin.

 

Austin explains that he is working closely with Florida Power & Light which has 100 percent of its service using smart meters.

 

One of Vision’s newest and most promising projects is its HawkEye Compact Meter along with an enclosure secured by electric circuit breakers to prevent utility theft.

 

“We are very focused right now on electricity in developing countries and the theft of energy,” says Austin. “In some of the Central American countries we are working with, as much as 40 percent of generated power is being stolen.”

 

Vision Metering has developed a new approach. In the past, electric utilities have resorted to clusters of electric meters on top of utility poles to divert theft of energy. It has resulted in metering that is difficult to read and bill, disconnect, reconnect and maintain, says Austin.

 

The company’s HawkEye Compact Meter measures roughly 4 inches by 4 inches by 2 inches compared to the large meters of the past. Up to 50 of the compact meters can be placed in a large metal compact enclosure, framed by an electric circuit to prevent theft or damage.

 

“Non-technical losses have always been a large concern for utilities in developing countries,” says Austin. “This low cost solution helps address that issue, and enables utilities to take control of energy theft. We are always trying to solve customers’ problems.”

 

According to Austin, his company has been working on the technology for about two years for parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and delivered the first meters last October. Production units started shipping in April.

 

“Right now about 75 percent of our business is in service with the other 25 percent in new metering products. I expect new products to dwarf our current set up very soon,” says Austin.

 

“New technology is being developed by our engineering team using 4G LTE modems inside meters for Georgia Power that will provide a way to communicate via a cellular system,” he adds. “Utilities currently have to have access points or nodes on top of poles to communicate. That will get rid of that utility-owned communications infrastructure completely.”

 

Whatever they aim their sights at, Vision Metering certainly has a vision for the future. As Austin says, “It’s the way of the future, and we are right there every step of the way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen E. Conroy is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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