Q & A with: Travis Young, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Vortex

Published: January 18, 2019

As Published in Milling & Grain – January 2018

Travis Young, CEO

Biography

Vortex was founded in 1977 by Travis Young’s grandfather, Neil Peterson, and his father, Lee Young. Travis grew up in the material handling and engineering industry and has now continued to revolutionise the industry for the past two decades.

His career at Vortex began as Director of International Business, overseeing the company’s exports. He later established Vortex’s operations in Europe and Asia, serving for 10 years as Managing Director of Vortex Global Limited in the United Kingdom. In his current role, Travis is responsible for Vortex’s strategy and direction.

Mr. Young has a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and International Business from Kansas State University. In addition to PEMA, he serves on the Board of Directors for other non-profit and for-profit entities. Travis and his wife Melanie have two sons and reside in Salina.

Q. How does Vortex maintain a high level of consistency and quality in each and every one of their products?

A. We are always up to the latest ISO standards for manufacturing, which proves our engineering quality and accountability. We quality check every single product before it is shipped out, and those tests vary from product to product. So, if a product needs to seal a certain pressure, we bench-test every one; we don’t take a sample out and test it. That way we know when a product goes out of the facility, it has been tested – every single one – to uphold these standards.

Q. Vortex is very heavily involved in grains and food, and the feed side. Today, Vortex is 26 percent food-feed, 20 percent minerals, 25 percent original equipment manufacturers (OEM) etc… How would you explain this development? Has it been company-driven? Have you sought out to diversify into those industries, or has it happened organically?

A. It’s a bit of both. I think when you’re seeking to provide value for people, you get entered into conversations and it comes naturally. Also, the products themselves are designed to be versatile, so they cross over industries quite a lot.

By nature of where Vortex was born, in the wheat fields of Kansas, it was quite evident that’s where our first opportunities would be, in the flour and feed mills. My grandfather was a bit of a pioneer in material handling and pneumatic conveying systems for the grain and milling industry. That’s where he really honed his craft as a pneumatic conveying engineer. He then started getting into other materials and developed miniature systems to test velocity, pressure, and material bulk density. Through his experience in doing that for the grain and milling industry, he created our core products which we still sell today. So, when he got his first patent in 1980 it was really born from his experience in the feed and grain industry. Though we are a lot more diversified now in the materials we can handle, our core products were made for this industry.

Q. Vortex has grown over the last 20 years and in 2006, a division was established in the UK. What is the story behind that? What made you move to set up here, in Europe and the UK?

A. When I started, Vortex had less than 100 employees. Now, we have more than 400 employees; so it has grown quite a lot. In 2006, I sat down with the Vortex Sales Manager, who said the company wanted to grow and expand our export business. Because of my background in international business and previous work abroad, I recommended we start with Canada and Mexico. It quickly dawned on us that our customers are multinational customers, and that was both an opportunity and a threat. As the world was really going into this globalisation cycle, logistics were easy to get.

We realised international growth was both our offense and defence. We didn’t have any customers here (in the UK) that we were talking to directly. Because we had no brand recognition in Europe, we came over and spoke to our OEM customers. It took three to four years to really establish our brand. It takes a long time, so we always approach business decisions with a long-term perspective.

Q. If you are looking to convince someone to change their loading bay from an existing system with socks to your loading chute system, how would you go about it from a return on investment perspective? In what way would you quantify that this is going to cost you, but you are probably going to get that back? What would the tangible cost-savings be that you think might persuade them?

A. Dust management is difficult to quantify when it comes to return on investment. Sure, you will have some spillage and waste, but bespoke engineering offers savings by significantly reducing spillage and waste. But what I think most operators have weighing on their mind is liability. What is the cost of an employee getting hurt because they’ve slipped on materials accumulating on the floor, or ill because they’ve developed respiration problems? You have crystalline silica, for example, that is a huge issue. If someone breathes in silica dust, they can develop silicosis – a fatal lung disease. There are risks that grain and milling companies are exposed to also. If you have a dust explosion because of fugitive dust in a loading bay, that’s the company’s responsibility. Infestations are also big issues in mills, and if you allow grain and flour dust to just sit, then you allow spoilage to contaminate your own product.

And so it’s the well-being of everyone. My take on it, really, is you’re preventing these major liabilities. What is that worth to you?

Q. Are there any new projects that Vortex is working on right now?

A. Yes, I would say there are three things that we are working on that will be newer to the industry. One is the ship loader for handling grain. We are starting to do a lot more of these projects. This ship loader moves bulk materials at one tonne per second. Like all loading chutes, it is also gravity-fed. We’re really starting to push that in the industry.

The other thing is that our loading chutes are now certified for ATEX Zone 20 internal and 21 and 22, for dust environments. This means our equipment adheres to the highest standards for dust explosion prevention. Our equipment has been certified and designed so that it cannot create a source of ignition to airborne dust, which is fairly critical in the grain and flour industries. All of our valve equipment also has that rating.

The third project is we’ve developed a pivoting chute diverter valve, designed for handling highly abrasive products with a lot of throughput; so that certainly includes grain. The bucket pivots back and forth to distribute into different legs, and we have some pretty high tolerances for that, so you get minimal dusting into other legs. We can make the bucket out of Hardox 400, so you’ve got an AR400 bucket with AR400 legs, as standard. Our equipment is really meant for lifetime use. We have also made it very maintenance-friendly. You can access and remove the bucket to do inspections of it while the valve remains in situ. We have designed it for the end-user.

(Continued)

Q. You have been involved in the bulk handling industry for two decades. How have you seen the industry develop in that time?

A. Probably the most significant change I’ve observed has been the consolidation amongst bulk handling equipment companies. Mergers and acquisitions used to be rare; now, they are a common occurrence. It makes sense, as companies seek ways to leverage themselves in a global market. After all, most of our customers are multi-nationals and you have to be where they are.

Another major development has been the heightened awareness and regulation surrounding dust explosions and emissions. Over the past decade, we have invested a lot of resources to ensure Vortex products exceed expectations when it comes to meeting the latest electrical and mechanical directives for mitigating dust hazards.

Q. What sets Vortex apart from other similar companies – not only in the US, but also, the world?

A. Our past and future success is driven by our people. No matter what the job role or location in the world, Vortex strives to hire people who embody our core values of Passion, Respect, Integrity, Humility and Empathy. This has formed a corporate culture and framework dedicated to innovation, continuous improvement, and fulfillment. By nature, this gets passed on to our customers in the forms of great service, product performance, and value creation. We are in the business of creating mutually beneficial exchanges with our clients. In other words: Every transaction should be a win-win scenario for all.

Q. Dust is a big talking point in the industry, at the moment. What can we do to minimize it? Why is dust control so important to you, individually, and Vortex, as a company?

A. Dust control is at the forefront of every product Vortex designs. Our slide gates and diverter valves are built to be dust-tight. This is why we avoid elastomer seals – to prevent dusts from migrating into the plant atmosphere. Elastomer seals may work for liquid or gas applications, but will inevitably fail in dry bulk handling applications.

Five years ago, Vortex acquired a company that specialized in truck and rail car loading spouts and their associated in-line filtration systems. The sole purpose of these products is to prevent fugitive dusts from escaping throughout the work environment during the loading process. This reduces a myriad of health, safety and environmental risks which grain and milling companies are exposed to.

Q. Would you say that Vortex, at its heart, is a company made up of engineers, rather than businessmen? Does this give a special insight into what is important for those millers and professionals on the ground that perhaps others would not have such a keen knowledge of?

A. I’d say the heart of Vortex is made up of all the disciplines required in order to meet the expectations of our clients. We strive to be our best at everything; customer service, engineering, planning, welding, painting, assembly, safety, quality, logistics…the list goes on and on. If we do not excel in all disciplines, then we might fail to deliver the value a customer expects from an exchange with Vortex. If we do not do our best, then we need to make it right. I believe this is why we have developed strong, trusting relationships with our grain and milling customers over the past 41 years.

Q. Vortex is a global company, covering the Americas, Europe and Asia. Where would you want to see the company expand next – or is there more that you could be doing at home?

A. We are constantly innovating and finding ways to provide value for our customers – no matter where they reside. We have learned that expanding for the sake of expansion does not necessarily create the win-win scenarios we seek with our customers. Delivering solutions that improve processes and increase production efficiencies is first and foremost to any future business developments we may have.

Q. If you were to have a favorite product or project that you are most excited about, what would it be and why?

A. We have a lot going on at the moment, but I am quite pleased with an installation our UK team is working on with Taylor’s of Harrogate in Yorkshire. This was one of our first major clients in the UK and it is always nice to see this mutually beneficial collaboration continue after all these years. They also make the best tea! We always take a few caddies of Betty’s Earl Grey Loose Tea back to the US with us when we visit. Luckily, we can still buy their Yorkshire Tea in Kansas.

Q. What would you consider the biggest challenges facing the Dry Bulk Material Handling industry? What are you and your company doing to combat them?

A. I think the industry is as strong as it has ever been. I suppose if there was a challenge it would be the strength of industry experience. Dry bulk material handling is a combination of both science and black magic. That “black magic” can really be defined as experience. If you are new to the industry, you quickly learn about the complexity and difficulty of getting solids from one place to the next. Much of Vortex’s success comes from decades of not getting it right the first time. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution in this industry. There is a reason why we have one billion variations in our standard product lines.

Q. Vortex celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. How will you and the company be celebrating for the 50th anniversary in 2027?

A. A big party and everyone is invited! Do you know anyone who rents out giant bouncy castles?

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