By Chris Meehan | Sep 22, 2014
CEO Patricia Dean is moving the country's oldest greenhouse automation company forward with innovative and user-friendly interfaces.
Wadsworth Controls, which makes control systems for greenhouses, was born as Wadsworth Electric in 1952 when Colorado was the nation's carnation capital.
Back then, CEO Patricia Dean's father learned of a carnation farmer who was sleeping in his greenhouse to make sure he could control the growing climate for the plants. "He saw what they were doing," Dean explains. "He said, 'This is silly.' Dad put together a simple control system, but it changed this guy's life."
Soon the flower farmer was not only sleeping in his bedroom, but saving money on heating and cooling. Wadsworth Controls has since developed control systems complex enough for use at biomedical research labs and testing facilities at the United States Department of Agriculture, but it still makes control systems fit for small-scale greenhouses.
"We're the only control company in the North America that offers a full line of controls," Dean contends. The company sells simple thermostat systems, but she recommends at least a four-stage controller. "The system has a single temperature sensor so everything is in agreement about the temperature in the greenhouse."
It gets a lot more complex. "One of our largest projects is at the USDA in Maryland," says Dean. "They have 40 outputs for these small, living room-sized greenhouses. They have an unbelievable amount of equipment." She explains that the equipment includes fog and irrigation systems, carbon dioxide monitors, and more, all controlled with Wadsworth's systems.
The company also offers venting and curtain systems and controllers for greenhouses. All of its products are assembled at its site in Arvada.
Some of the components come from elsewhere, but Dean, a fourth-generation Coloradan, tries to keep it local. "We work with a lot of Colorado companies," she says. "As much as possible, we try to support other local small businesses and we have a lot of rich relationships that have evolved over the years."
Dean says Wadsworth distibutes its products through resellers. "We work primarily with greenhouse manufacturers," she says. "When they're building a house, they need to put something in to open and close the windows. They generally want to put in some type of energy curtain and something to control the equipment in there." It follows that Wadsworth customizes its systems around the needs of the clients.
The company is expanding into new markets. Greenhouse-based marijuana cultivation is one of the newer markets for the company, but Dean says Wadsworth has been contacted by potential customers interested in using the systems to control the climate in everything from stadiums to chicken farms.
The company ships all over the world, though most of its international clients have something in common. "Our biggest markets are places that have four seasons -- they have a little bit more challenge," Dean says. "It's easy to grow in California. But there are tons of greenhouses in New England and around the Great Lakes area."
The company's business has remained steady, even weathering the recent recession. "We've never had to lay anyone off," Dean boasts.
"We're really known for our reputation," Dean asserts. "That reputation has really seen us through tough times. We're the oldest control company in North America. There are also a lot of family-owned businesses in the industry. We have generational relationships with these families."
The company's control systems are programmable, many can be controlled remotely via the Internet, and each control also has a manual override. "The hallmark of our company is the controls are very easy to use. They're incredibly durable and we have great tech support," Dean says.
As controls have gotten more advanced, however, they have also become more complex. In response, Wadsworth plans to introduce Seed, a new control system with a touchscreen interface, in 2015. The new interface, according to Dean, is more intuitive and easy to use. She recently sent a few beta units out for customers to test. "Everyone came back with: 'Wow, this is cool. When can I have one?'"
Challenges: Health insurance for employees. While Dean says costs actually fell a little bit under Obamacare, the company now has to do a 75/25 split with employees.
Opportunities: Poultry barns. "We're trying to make the animals' lives more pleasant," Dean says. Also, a recent ownership change in Canadian control supplier Argus represents an opportunity for Wadsworth to pick up more business.
Needs: "We need to finish our product," Dean says, referring to Seed.