To Jim Hall, it was a harmless product sample. The Egyptian airport authorities didn’t see it the same way.
The resulting misunderstanding cost the CEO of Atlanta-based Triatek a few hours as he passed through Cairo en route to a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon.
At issue was one of Triatek’s airflow valves, a stainless steel cylinder a few feet long and eight inches in diameter.
“If I was to take this and mount it on my shoulder, you kind of get the picture,” he said, noting that he made things worse by gesturing with both hands toward the ceiling.
Whatever the Egyptians thought, Triatek’s products are used to help save lives, including that of an American doctor flown back to a New York hospital after being infected while treating Ebola during the 2013 West African outbreak.
Over a weekend, Triatek was able to deliver and install a customized valve system to control the flow of air into a treatment room. (Ebola isn’t airborne, but hospitals are being extra safe these days.)
That’s Triatek’s claim to fame: Designing valves, fume hoods and related electronic control systems that regulate the flow of air in sensitive environments — mainly hospitals and research laboratories.
“We answer the crucial question: What happens when the door opens?” Mr. Hall told Global Atlanta in a recent interview.
It’s a booming business overseas as more countries invest in their health care systems and upgrade their innovation infrastructure. American companies, too, are demanding the same equipment they trust back home in their international research facilities.
Mr. Hall didn’t know just how globally engaged Triatek would be when he bought it out of bankruptcy in 2008. The former medical-device executive saw potential in the company’s intellectual property, reputation and committed staff. There was nowhere to go but up, he thought.
“At that point, I can’t screw it up any worse,” he said.
Fast forward a decade, and global markets have become integral to the 25-person company’s expansion in Gwinnett County.
Exports have climbed as high as 50 percent of sales and dropped to as low as 15. They’re now hovering around one-fifth, but that could change quickly with a big order like the one that came in from Saudi Arabia a few years ago.
The oil-rich nation was building a “medical city” to treat patients and train doctors and nurses. It’s one of many ambitious projects the kingdom has undertaken over the last few years in the ongoing experiment to diversify its economy.
It was a bit of a shock for Mr. Hall to see fast-food joints and other public areas segregated by gender in the conservative Islamic society, but he said has enjoyed learning about navigating various cultures around the world.
The Middle East, Asia and even Africa have been fertile markets for Triatek, which has seen U.S. customers deploy its products in places like Qatar and Kenya. Developed countries like Sweden, where a Triatek system serves the Carolinska Institute, the lab that awards the Nobel Prize in Medicine, are stable markets — if not the fastest-growing.
“In a lot of ways we were pulled into the idea of exporting,” Mr. Hall said.
But the company is also being more proactive, identifying regional distributors with expertise in the HVAC industry, then bringing them to Norcross for training on how to install and maintain its systems. These partners often visit during the ASHRAE (the global heating and air trade association) convention or other trade shows in the U.S.
Exporting, Mr. Hall said, has helped the company punch above its weight with the help of local resources. The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Shanghai trade office found him a stellar translator during a recent China trip and is currently researching a potential customer in Pakistan. Local banks like SunTrust have been integral to finding international payment solutions.
“Even though we’re a small company, we’re on equal footing internationally,” Mr. Hall said.
Georgia named Mr. Hall one of its Small Business Rock Stars in 2015, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber piled on with a 2017 Global Impact Award. Named a semifinalist (and winner of $5,000) in the Atlanta Metro Export Challenge last year, Mr. Hall will soon to pitch to win an additional $20,000 to boost his export initiatives.
One key future move might be to hire an international sales manager, something it has never done despite landing customers in Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Kenya, Kuwait, Mexico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.
Triatek’s only missing continent is Antarctica, though it isn’t yet targeting the southern tip of the Earth (even though there is a research lab there), Mr. Hall said.
As for Egypt, the situation worked itself out despite the English-Arabic language barrier: Mr. Hall made it on to Beirut, then spent a thousand dollars shipping the valve home rather than risk flying it back through Cairo.
The costly lesson was worth the hassle, especially since it helped him land the massive Saudi deal, he said at Global Atlanta’s recent Export Stories event, pointing to the valves.
“I sold 3,300 of those.”