Building a Leader: Q & A with Lee Young

Published: February 27, 2018
 As published in World Cement – February 2018


Lee Young and his father-in-law, Loren Neil Peterson, founded Vortex just over forty years ago. In this interview with World Cement, Young describes the history and development of the company from a small start-up in Salina, Kansas, USA, to the global company it is today.

Vortex Co-founder Neil Peterson inspects the company’s first large order of Orifice Gates.

Q. You founded Vortex with your father-in-law in 1977. Can you tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you came to found the company?

A. Our story is more about perseverance than brilliance. Neil’s background in aeronautical engineering and nearly 15 years as Chief Engineer for an industry-leading dry bulk material handling company provided the experiential knowledge. I had a degree in business administration and work experience with a grain handling equipment manufacturer. Working for a large corporate entity no longer appealed to Neil and, with an idea in mind that “would revolutionise dry bulk material conveying,” he convinced me to join him.

One year into the development of this revolutionary pneumatic conveying concept and down to our last pennies, Neil came out of his office and literally pulled the plug on the prototype pneumatic conveying system, declaring it was
not going to work well enough to be commercially viable.

From Humble Beginnings: In the company’s infancy, Vortex’s inventing occurred in an abandoned military building. At the time, many of Vortex’s raw materials were outsourced and manufacturing resources were limited.

For three days, we both pouted over our situation, now broke and with nothing to sell. In many ways, it was fortuitous that we were so broke during that first year that we could not afford to outsource some of the components for the pneumatic conveying system. In particular, we needed a gate valve to shut off the flow of material into the conveying system. Unable to afford a traditional “bull nose” knife gate – which was designed for handling gases and liquids, but was the only option we had for handling dry material, at that time – Neil and I designed and built what could best be called an industrial cigar cutter. We called it an “Orifice Gate,” and we found that it worked pretty well in handling dry material.

On the fourth day of contemplating our plight and failure, almost simultaneously, we both arrived back in the test area with the same idea: “Why not see if we can sell this Orifice Gate?” Within a few years, the Orifice Gate was patented and awarded the Vaaler Award for the “most significant advancement in dry bulk material handling.” The innovation continued; now Vortex has 28 product lines and serves more than 20,000 clients in 120 countries worldwide. From coffee beans to gold ore, Vortex is a world leader
in handling dry bulk solids.

Today, Vortex operates an office annex, a manufacturing floor and a full-scale machine shop at its corporate headquarters in Salina, Kansas, USA. Vortex also operates global offices in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.

Q. Over the last forty years, you must have seen some significant changes. What would you say have been the most significant of these?

A. The most significant change has been in the automation of material handling processes. The cost of labour and its availability has now driven many industries to automate processes, requiring equipment to have position sensors, flow sensors, and feedback mechanisms to aid in computerised control of a material handling system. Additionally, equipment today has to address the labour/cost concern by being more reliable and maintainable while in service, to ensure the efficiencies of automated, around-the-clock operations. Environmental concerns have also driven innovation/change, requiring better material seals and dust control. These changes are all related
to labour cost reduction, employee safety, and improved housekeeping in
production facilities.

For many years, Vortex has worked alongside the cement industry to develop innovative products that compensate for wear and prolong service life in particularly harsh, abrasive environments.

Q. The cement industry is now a key customer for Vortex. Has this been the case since the business was founded?

A. Originally, Vortex’s product and market focus was on gate valves and diverters designed for handling dry material in dilute phase pneumatic conveying systems, as well as gate valves for handling non-abrasive to moderately abrasive dry materials and foods in gravity flow applications.

About 10 years ago, however, we recognised that there was a need for engineered solutions for handling abrasive minerals, cement, and larger aggregate. Our experience with handling materials in pneumatic conveying systems – where dust control, wear issues, and automation are critical – helped Vortex rapidly gain market share by bringing new designs and innovations to the cement industry. Today, we provide reliable/low maintenance
loadout spouts, better dust control, abrasion-resistant and high-pressure
gate valves, and wear-resistant diverter valve componentry.

These diverters feature abrasion-resistant liners, lifting lugs, and square-to-round outlet transitions. Vortex offers numerous modifications to improve process efficiencies within pre-existing footprints.

Q. Vortex is now a global brand with offices in the UK, China & Mexico, and with representatives around the world. How did a company from a small town in Kansas develop into a global business?

A. Many of our domestic customers are multinationals with global businesses and the desire to produce near the markets they serve. So, we followed them. They are interested in working with reliable vendors and in duplicating successful domestic production facilities worldwide. For Vortex, this required establishing engineering and customer support in the UK and China in order to “follow the sun” and be responsive to quote requests and customer service. Most importantly, we have established in-country representation for all major markets in order to manage language and custom barriers, and to facilitate rapid customer support, as needed.

Vortex Loading Spouts are essential to dust management. Throughout the loading process, Vortex Loading Spouts use a vacuum pull to retain dust inside the outer sleeve, capture dust in a filtration system overhead, and purge the dust back into the load. The Vortex spout is specifically designed to reduce dust emissions to atmosphere and to address the cement industry’s many health & environmental safety concerns.

Q. How has the company’s technology for the cement industry evolved? What developments can we expect from the company, looking forward?

A. In years past, the cement industry’s primary concern was getting the equipment from point A to point B. Initial acquisition cost was the most important consideration. Today, our cement industry customers are looking beyond initial cost and are considering long-term cost/value-added concerns, such as ease of equipment maintenance, robust components for longevity, elimination of product “shrinkage” due to dusting, and how that form of material loss relates to housekeeping and health & safety concerns.

Looking forward, the cement industry needs better means of maintaining 24/7 operations. This creates opportunity for the incorporation of loader-assist aids, such as cameras/warning signals and equipment designs that reduce all forms of labour required to maintain processes.

Our rapid growth in the cement industry can be attributed to our approach that “one size does not fit all applications.” It is not surprising our cement industry customers are more astute and understand their systems better than most industries. They have expectations for performance and processes. We have listened to their needs and now, most Vortex equipment destined for the cement industry is custom modified for each application. Innovation and improvements take place with each order. As a result of the feedback we receive from our customers, we make customer-inspired improvements on almost each order. Examples of such improvements include no tools required to change our spout’s dust filters, and robust load-out spout hoist drums designed to prevent cable wear.

Q. Looking to the future, what do you believe the challenges and opportunities are for the company?

A. Globalisation will continue to be a challenge that requires we grow our company organisationally and competitively to meet our customers’ needs here in the US, as well as in the 120+ countries where our customers reside. Opportunity lies in product and process innovation. If we can automate, we should; if we can make products last longer by design, we must; and if we can help lower our customers’ costs, we both win.

Q. After 40 years of building a successful business, what lessons have you learnt along the way? If you could give advice to your younger self, just about to start on the Vortex journey, what would it be?

A. Clearly, the most important lesson learned is to always put the customer first. This seems like I am playing to the reader here, but too often, companies put their near-term bottom line first: calculating costs and showing reluctance to service equipment sold, fudging on warranty issues, or just plain walking away from a failed project. I have often found that when we have had a problem with an installation and we have worked through those problems, it is that very customer who becomes our most loyal customer – because they know we will be there when it counts.

If I could give my younger self advice, it would be twofold:

  1. Focus on what you do well. Don’t dilute your efforts.
  2. And most importantly, ask questions. You will learn more by asking of others, rather than listening to yourself.

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