Story by Donna Reges Hall
Owner Bill Howe started his company Apex Instruments Inc. in 1988. For 23 years, the company has manufactured equipment that samples emissions from industrial chimneys and smoke stacks for air pollution measurement.
Apex Instruments has always been directly involved with the environmental industry, working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When the Clean Air Act was established in 1990 and hazardous air pollutants were identified for control, Howe’s company was at the forefront of product design, method evaluation and implementation.
A North Carolina native, Howe says he was always interested in air but they didn’t have the program at Virginia Tech where he went to college, so he majored in environmental management.
Howe got his start in the field doing wood stove emissions testing.
“The EPA was developing new regulations for the wood stove industries for residential wood stoves and I saw that as an opportunity to start my own business,” he says, “Every wood stove had to be certified, currently, for emissions standards and when I started, the EPA had identified 400 wood stove manufacturers. Two hundred of those were in North Carolina and surrounding states, so this was an ideal location. That’s why I started the business, it was to pursue that industry.”
In its infancy, Apex Instruments Inc. did work with wood stove testing, but later transitioned to focus more on smoke stack sampling.
“I would say the first two years was dedicated to just wood stoves, and then we were manufacturing some of the equipment that we currently manufacture,” Howe explains. “The equipment for wood stoves is very similar to the equipment that we use for stack sampling.”
Howe was grateful to make this shift.
“I hated woodstoves, but it was an opportunity,” he says. “We were burning the wood stoves seven days a week, 24 hours a day doing catalyst longevity studies for EPA.”
“Traditional customers are the stack testing firms and that is the majority of our customers, or companies that just go out and do stack testing, and they’re easy to identify because they advertise that they do stack testing,” he says. “So, it’s easy to find those. Industry is another base. If you divided up between stack testing firms, testing firms, engineering firms, and then you’ve got the industrial base, the power plants, maybe the chemical plants that do the road testing. They don’t advertise that they do it, so that’s a little harder to identify. Then we’ve got the international market and with them we’re selling to research institutes and governments.”
As political administrations change, so does the level of attention to environmental concerns. Howe says that the EPA has had more regulations out in the last year than they’ve had in the 15 years prior to that, and this means more work for him.
“Now what is driving a lot of our business are the hazardous air pollutants from the Clean Air Act of 1990. The biggest part of our business right now is mercury. That’s the hottest thing for us domestically and starting internationally to the UN.”
As for competition, Howe says there are quite a few stack testing companies in the Triangle area due to the EPA’s proximity, but he calls it a niche industry that’s very customer service oriented.
“We’ve got two or three primary competitors here domestically,” he says. “We compete against them internationally, too. There’s a lot of competition in Europe. We’ve never really pursued the European market that much. We’ve concentrated primarily in Asia and South America, but we sell a fair amount to Europe, too, especially the U.K. We target places that have adopted U.S. EPA methodology. If a country is going to adopt our regulations and methods, that’s who we target.”
This is the third time that Apex Instruments Inc. has made the Inc. 5000 list, an accomplishment that Howe attributes to the company’s outstanding customer service. He says he’s always operated under a bit of simple wisdom taken from L.L. Bean, “Give people a good quality product for a fair price.”
The road to growth hasn’t always been smooth however. Howe says the financial crisis in Asia in 1997 caused his business to take a dive. There were three years of decline, and it took several years for things to come back up, but the company has been growing steadily ever since.
Howe hopes for more of the same in the future.
“We’re expanding, we’re offering more services, more products. Most of our standard product lines are rudimentary,” he says. “It’s just basically all manual equipment. Most of our newer equipment is micro-processed based that we’re working on. But we’ve expanded into manufacturing mercury sampling equipment here for several years. Now we’re starting to offer the assortment traps that go along with them. Our customers, internationally, are wanting the complete package. So they’re wanting the sampling equipment, three agents to go with it, and the analyzers. That’s what we’re working on right now.”