By Eric Peterson | Mar 16, 2015
100 (65 in Colorado and 35 in New Mexico)
Nuclear materials storage and automation
Employees: about 100 (65 in Colorado and 35 in New Mexico)
President and COO John Allbery is steering the manufacturer of nuclear storage and processing equipment into aerospace and manufacturing automation.
Gil Brassell spun NFT off from of his work on the cleanup of Rocky Flats in the early 1980s.
The former nuclear weapons facility between Golden and Boulder -- and others like it -- had a serious problem. "Back in the Cold War years when they were making nuclear weapons at a crazy pace, the waste would go into 55- and 85-gallon drums," says Allbery. "They would seal them and bury them 200 feet below ground."
The problem: The drums didn't vent the hydrogen the waste produced and could blow up. Brassell invented a filter that allowed the gas to escape without any of the nasty radioactivity.
That innovation has been central to NFT's growth ever since "There's a 50-year-old campaign to dig up all of these drums," says Allbery. "There are literally hundreds of thousands of them."
Thus, the company built its business on the industry that's sprung up around excavating nuclear waste from places like Rocky Flats and Hanford, Washington, and making it safer by outfitting the storage units with filters. It's typically shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Of course, it's no simple task. "One filter doesn't fit all," says Allbery. The company has developed a number of other filters, and that's led to a number of other product lines for the nuclear industry, ranging from transportation storage for weapons-grade plutonium to processing equipment.
Gil is no longer active with the company -- his son, Travis, is currently CEO -- but his legacy remains strong. "For a small business, we're very well known in the nuclear space because we've done a lot of proprietary and interesting things," says Allbery. "We have 22 current patents."
In 2013, NFT acquired Carlsbad-based EPD, which services Type B storage containers for transporting nuclear waste by truck or train. "There's a whole fleet of these that need to be maintained," says Allbery, touting EPD's machining and fabricating capabilities in its 40,000-square-foot facility in southeastern New Mexico. "That's been a really good strategic acquisition for us."
Nuclear waste aside, the company's recent growth had been driven by diversification into aerospace and automation, says Allbery. When he joined the company in 2012, he laid out his vision. "You guys are doing all kinds of interesting and unique things for the nuclear industry you could easily apply to other industries," he recalls.
The strategy is underpinned by the 2011 acquisition of Paradigm, today the company's aerospace division, and its move into robotic automation in 2013 with NFT Automation, now a Rockwell Automation partner. Both businesses dovetail nicely into the same core competencies the company developed to serve the nuclear industry and have attracted plenty of unnamed "blue-chip" customers, says Allbery.
The moves are paying off. "We're growing at an annual clip of 10 to 15 percent," says Allbery.
Digging below the data's surface, nuclear isn't contracting and both aerospace and automation are growing. The company's business was "98 percent nuclear” in 2011, says Allbery, and today it's 60 percent nuclear, 25 percent aerospace, and 15 percent automation. "We're on a trajectory that, by about three years, we'll be about one-third, one-third, and one-third."
Aerospace and automation divisions are based at NFT's 35,000-square-foot facility in Golden. "We're very unique to have all of these core competencies under one roof," Allbery adds.
Challenges: "Our challenges are not unusual," says Allbery. "Obviously, as we continue to grow, finding good people is always a challenge."
The push into aerospace and manufacturing automation has also presented hurdles, he adds. "While the diversification is great, it's also challenging." Different industries require different certifications and different levels of precision, and have different budgets. "You've got to be cost-competitive," says Allbery. "You can't make a Lexus for a Chevy price."
Opportunities: The acquisition of EPD in New Mexico allows for easier regional expansion, Allbery says. Industrial control panels represent a product opportunity, he adds. "Every few oil wells they put in Colorado needs a new control panel -- think of it as a fuse box on steroids. That's an opportunity that's basically fallen into our laps."
Needs: Engineering and programming "horsepower," says Allbery. One solution is teaming up with subcontractors. "It's faster and easier to do a teaming relationship than picking off new employees," he explains.