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Innovation Award: Synergy Controls Corporation

"Everything is about repeatability."

Automation isn't just Synergy Controls' business; it's also how they do business.

"You can't believe in automation, if you don't use it yourself," says Mike Gribbons, president and CEO.

As an engineering solutions provider, Synergy Controls' business dealings with mining, steel, water waste, and other heavy industries typically involve products such as valves and regulators. However, it is the company's creative use of Internet automation technologies that has helped to distinguish them from their peers, earning them the 2006 Northern Ontario Business Award for Innovation.

"Our industry was very stagnant with respect to using technology internally," says Gribbons. "We sold high-technology pieces of equipment, but our industry wasn't using any sort of real automation internally, and that's where we really catapulted ahead of (everybody) else."

Founded in 1992, Synergy Controls has a 4,000 square foot head office in Sudbury, with satellite offices in Timmins, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Despite this geographical disparity, Gribbons has learned to bridge the distance through the use of technology, much of it having been designed by his own company.

Using private virtual networks, Gribbons and his employees can conduct their business anywhere in the world, be it from a car in Northern Ontario or from a café in Paris.

At the heart of this system is a set of custom processes that Gribbons and his full-time IT manager have developed to enable just about anyone to create detailed business-related communications, such as a fully informational business proposal, with little more than a few clicks of a mouse.

Through the custom-designed front-end, users can browse drop-down menus to select the appropriate client from among a broad list, with the selection then providing the user with appropriate background information about the individual or company. Product information and technical manuals are instantaneously attached when the proposal relates to a specific item, and much of the additional necessary information is automatically generated.

In the past, such efforts would require anywhere from a half-hour to an hour for a trained person to complete – now it requires only a few minutes.

"Everything is about repeatability," he says, adding that he learned a lot from the story of Ray Kroc, the man who bought the McDonald's chain from its founders and used automation and repeatability to spin the company into the fast-food juggernaut it is today.

"I learned a lot from that philosophy. We do that with software, internally. We had to take the variability out of the process."

This technology has also allowed Gribbons to open new offices with tremendous ease and speed, often without even having to visit the locations at all. New branch staff are typically trained over the phone and Internet, with the repeatability of the company's custom technology often allowing for rapid knowledge transfer.

"I opened my Sault Ste. Marie office in one day, and trained the staff in a week," says Gribbons. "I've never even been to my Winnipeg office."

Inclusive of all branches, Gribbons employs 15 highly trained and committed individuals.

Synergy has made the effort to extend this creative use of technology to its potential clients, blending its engineering know-how with cutting-edge web-based solutions. As an example, Gribbons points to a project currently being undertaken for cement giant Lafarge, which has commissioned them to create a remote monitoring and measurement system to instantly gauge cement and fly ash levels throughout their nearly 2,000 silos across North America.

Combining in-the-field equipment with a web-based interface, Synergy's package allows for an instantaneous overview of various levels and types of information.

Via a series of handily-accessed displays, users can inspect the status of individual silos as well as their exact inventory levels and the amount of time in which that inventory will deplete.

The drive to blend technology with a commitment to customer service has helped to contribute to Synergy Controls' current success. The company has continually seen growth within the last 10 years, and now has an annual revenue bracket ranging from $5 to $10 million.