GERSTEL, Inc. President Robert J. Collins, Ph.D.
Impressions of the new company building
Impressions of the new company building
Interview with Robert J. Collins, GERSTEL Inc., USA
Looking forward to shaping the
future of the business
GERSTEL is recognized as one of the leading providers of automated sample preparation and sample introduction solutions for GC/MS and increasingly for LC/MS. After building a reputation as a leader in specialized solutions for GC in Germany and Western Europe, management decided to expand GERSTEL’s presence to the United States. In 1994, the company took the plunge and GERSTEL, Inc. was founded. Today, almost 15 years later, GERSTEL, Inc. has moved into new larger headquarters near the Baltimore Washington International Airport in order to provide the best possible support for its large and growing family of customers. GERSTEL Solutions worldwide spoke with long-time GERSTEL, Inc. President Robert (Bob) Collins, Ph.D., about how GERSTEL, Inc. developed over the past 15 years.
GSW: You have been with GERSTEL Inc. for 15 years, you are so to speak a man of the first hour, and you have been in charge of steering the company for a number of years. Please describe to us how the company has developed?
Bob Collins: In the beginning it was a very small operation of just two people. The challenge was covering the entire country instantly. This had to be done even though we were so small, since U.S. companies typically have a country-wide presence and need to replicate their solutions in other branches as well.
So you can’t just sell in Baltimore, you also need to be able to support customers in Los Angeles, which is a 6-7 hour flight away. In the beginning, I was the sales person, the service engineer and the technical support person all in one. With such a small staff it was a real challenge initially, but as sales grew, we added people and things became easier. We have had organic, steady growth, adding people as sales grew while doing our best to provide world-class support along with the world-class products and solutions GERSTEL offers.
What is the distinguishing feature of GERSTEL, Inc.? What are the strengths of your company and what is the added value you offer your customers?
The unique feature of GERSTEL is of course the products themselves; they do things that no other products can. They provide unequalled sample preparation capabilities that are easy to use due to our advanced software. They allow the analyst to achieve very low detection limits in even the most difficult sample matrices; within the field of chemical analysis our products and solutions are truly unique. Additionally, we offer comprehensive application support, technical training and service support. Our customers consistently tell us that we do this better than anyone else, in the US alone, we have five application scientists. Our service engineers are excellent, and our sales people are very experienced and knowledgeable. This can be a great help to customers when they are trying to determine which GERSTEL product best suits their needs. All system purchases from GERSTEL in the U.S. include a training course.
We have just moved to new headquarters with a wonderful new training facility that has greatly improved our capacity. Also, every time you call GERSTEL, you get an actual person on the line. You can speak directly to an application scientist or a service engineer; you are not just asked to leave a message or just given a reference number with the message that you will be called back. We try to give personalized high-level support in all aspects of the business.
In order to be innovative and to offer customers added value, a company needs to invest in research and development. What is GERSTEL doing in that field?
We are doing a lot! GERSTEL, Inc. is a subsidiary, product development is performed in Germany, but we are very active in method development and provide ideas for product development based on input from our U.S. customers and our sales and support staff. This combined with input from Japan and Germany allows GERSTEL to constantly refine existing products and develop new ones. If you look at GERSTEL products and solutions today, you can see we’ve come a long way from just GC inlets. We now offer a wide range of sample preparation and analyte enrichment capabilities that can be used in almost all areas of GC and LC analysis.
Speaking of innovations, you are a long time PittCon exhibitor, which products are you highlighting this year?
The main thing we will be highlighting is the new automated DPX technology, which we are extremely excited about. DPX is an abbreviation of Disposable Pipette Extraction, it is essentially a miniaturized, fast SPE technique. We are also showing a host of other new solutions: Automated SPE; Automated SPME Fiber Exchange, a multi-fiber system that will be a useful tool especially for the food, flavor and beverage industry. It enables the use of different SPME phases in one automated sequence for flexible and efficient screening and analysis.
Will any other innovations from the past year be shown?
A lot of automated sample preparation techniques have been developed over the past few years that we will present such as an automated blood analyzer with centrifugation, sonication, sample heating and barcode reading. We have also integrated sample weighing. We have a great tool kit for automated sample preparation.
Better than the competition?
I would say yes, since it is much more modular, easier to customize to the exact needs of each laboratory and surprisingly inexpensive compared with other robotic solutions. And since everything is controlled through our powerful, yet easy to use, MAESTRO software, it is really amazing how quickly we can put a solution together.
Why do you think that DPX will be a success?
DPX is really a faster, more efficient form of the SPE technique. And it is much less sensitive to changes in method parameters such as flow rates, with which you have to be really careful when you do SPE. DPX is just so much quicker than SPE and that will be a key factor.
You introduced automated DPX at the Society of Forensic Toxicology (SOFT) 2008 annual meeting in the U.S. – what was the reaction?
DPX was extremely well received; we had a great deal of interest from people visiting our booth, and our presentations. Since then, DPX Labs has developed even more phase materials and we have been working closely with them to provide automated solutions for the entire range of tips available. We have already sold some systems in the U.S. and are about to place a system into one of the largest drug testing laboratories in the United States.
Is DPX useful outside the field of Forensic Science?
Oh yes, DPX is useful for anything where you need sample clean-up, extraction and concentration. Areas that come to mind immediately are drug screening, foods, including the QuEChERS method, and beverages.
Looking back: Which were the most successful products from GERSTEL over the years? Where do the particular strengths of the company lie?
A big success has been what we call „bundled systems“, for example the Thermal Desorption Unit (TDU) bundle, which is extremely flexible. I’ve always said that a typical day has the analyst come to work in the morning; and while having his or her first cup of coffee and thinking of what the plans are for the day, the first emergency comes through the door. The original plan is set aside, and the emergency must be dealt with. The TDU bundle enables the analyst to quickly set up and use any of eight different analytical techniques and allows them to quickly meet any challenge. I would have loved to have had one when I was active in the laboratory.
The U.S. is a geographically very large country. How do you support customers throughout such a vast territory? What is your strategy for reaching every part of the map both in terms of sales and support?
We use a hybrid system with GERSTEL employed regional sales managers that work with independent manufacturers’ representatives to cover their territory. We have four regional managers and about 35 manufacturers’ representatives covering the U.S. and Canada. Every region has direct service support as well as third party service engineers that support our customers throughout this huge nation.
Is it important for U.S. customers that GERSTEL products are made in Germany?
I don’t think U.S. customers place a lot of emphasis on where a product comes from, as long as the quality is good. Of course, German engineering and German products, especially cars, have a great reputation, but every company has to build its own reputation, and more importantly, maintain this reputation by delivering quality products and service. If you look at our products, they definitely live up to the expectations associated with “Made in Germany”.
GERSTEL develops, produces and markets advanced instruments and technologies. These are used in many different industries, universities, state and public laboratories, and on top of it all, they are used both for routine analysis and for research. How do you go about supporting so many different types of users and keeping them satisfied?
Before we sell a system we make sure that it fits the customer’s needs, and allows them to successfully do whatever they need to do. This eliminates a lot of problems up front. We do not try to put product out there just to rack up big sales numbers, this doesn’t help the customer or us. Secondly, as I mentioned before, all system purchases from GERSTEL in the U.S. include a training course at our Baltimore facilities. This covers theory, hands-on instrument operation and maintenance. This ensures that the user is fully trained to perform the analysis. Additionally, an extensive set of maintenance videos and user manuals help a lot. Thirdly, our users can always reach us over the phone or through e-mail. Most problems are little things that are quickly resolved. Fast assistance means that productivity is quickly restored. This saves a lot of everyone’s time and makes the customer very happy. Large companies simply cannot or just do not offer that level of support.
How well is GERSTEL accepted in the market place?
Our recognition and acceptance has grown enormously over the past 10 years. In the food, flavor and fragrance markets, for example, almost everyone has our products. In State Health labs across the nation and in some homeland security applications we are also well accepted. In a U.S.-wide project headed up by the Centers for Disease Control, we equipped almost every State Public Health laboratory in the U.S. with a unified custom solution that included sample preparation, sample introduction and integrated custom software for homeland security. There are about 100 of these units out there now. Apart from that, we have steadily built a presence in the U.S. and now have a loyal following. Word of mouth also helps us grow – and we still have tremendous room to grow, which is a good thing.
What was your reason to move to new and larger headquarters?
As we grew at our previous location, we added more and more space as adjacent suites became available. The disadvantage of this approach is that the layout of the facility is always inefficient because you have to use the previous tenant’s design and it can only be changed by expensive and disruptive demolition. In the end, the laboratory, training and warehouse facilities were no longer adequate for the size of the business, and before our lease was about to expire, I decided to look into options to alleviate the problems we were having. We were very fortunate to find an excellent property close to the Baltimore airport. We were able to design the interior from scratch and it has greatly improved our work-flow. We can now do a lot of things simultaneously, which gives us more flexibility and better efficiency. In the end we are now able to provide even better support for our growing number of customers.
Do the new headquarters mean that you’ll pursue a different corporate strategy? Which plans and goals do you have and what is the outlook?
A big part of our plans with the new facility is that we want to increase the amount of customer training and bring more customers in to see our instrumentation first hand. We also recently had an Agilent 6410 Triple Quad LC/MS/MS system installed in our applications laboratory in order to support our expansion into the LC/MS market. We now have the facilities and the people we need to take the business to the next level – I am very much looking forward to shaping the future of the business ...
... and GERSTEL is the leader in automated sample preparation?
Yes, I think we are; especially if you are talking about combined automated sample preparation and sample introduction. When you combine our technologies and hardware with MAESTRO software control and extensive applications support, it is fair to say that GERSTEL is a recognized leader.
Is it important in this context that GERSTEL is a family owned company?
I think it is extremely important. When we make a decision to pursue an opportunity, we can take a much longer view than publicly listed companies and that has made a huge difference. Customer support and satisfaction is the overriding priority at GERSTEL, and as a family owned company, we can stick to this priority without pressure from share holders that are looking for short term gains. Our customers know and see this and it makes a big difference for employees too; they are more involved, better informed and feel more secure.
When other companies are laying off employees, do you see this as an opportunity?
Yes, absolutely, and not just because it makes it easier for us to compete. It is a great opportunity to get excellent and experienced new people on board to help GERSTEL continue the steady growth that we have seen for over ten years now.