Impossible? A rarity at Imtra

Maker and distributor of lighting and parts says its small size enables it to provide a ‘personal and nimble’ client response
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Maker and distributor of lighting and parts says its small size enables it to provide a ‘personal and nimble’ client response
The average tenure of the company’s 59 employees is 15 years and many have worked there for decades.

The average tenure of the company’s 59 employees is 15 years and many have worked there for decades.

Build a moving platform that opens into a yacht balcony? Strip a part off another piece to rush to a customer so the customer won’t spend a vacation day without the boat? Customize a NorSap rotation plate and get it to Dubai the following day? Even if it’s something Imtra Corp. has never done, the company’s answer is most likely yes.

Even long-term boating professionals may not have a full grasp of New Bedford, Mass.-based Imtra and its capabilities, even though the company was founded in 1952. But if you call with a question, you will reach a human. If you call about a problem with one of the lights Imtra manufactures or one of the many products it imports for U.S. distribution, you will be transferred immediately to a specialist who probably can solve your problem. And about everything can be customized or repaired in an extremely quick time frame — such as a customized-and-sent-overnight-to-Dubai time frame.

“We’re still at a size that allows us to be more personal and nimble,” says CEO Eric Braitmayer. “We are very careful when we select people to work here. They don’t have to know the industry; that, they can learn. What they do have to do is fit in with the company’s culture: Do they get the big-picture idea of customer service?”

That high level of concentration on customer service means that although Imtra might sell the Mercedes of windshield wiper blades and the Honda of windshield wiper blades, it does not sell the Yugo, says marketing vice president Peter Kilgore. That’s because the amount of time required to repair the products — the company fixes them in house most of the time, and if it can’t, it bears the burden of having them fixed and getting them back to the customer — would be too intensive to make sense for Imtra’s business model.

“We support all our products and we service everything we sell,” Braitmayer says. “We can give factory warranties.”

Imtra’s Jim Thomas (left) and Mark Raeder perform maintenance on a windlass.

Imtra’s Jim Thomas (left) and Mark Raeder perform maintenance on a windlass.

Shared commitment

The company’s relationships with vendors, customers and staff are equally important, Braitmayer says. “We work with some of the best brands in the world — companies like Side Power, Exalto, Muir, Vimar and Lofrans are just a few of the top names who trust Imtra to present their brand to the U.S. marine industry,” he says.

The relationship works because the companies share Imtra’s commitment to quality and customer service, he says, and it’s reciprocal. Imtra routinely sends staff to its vendor factories for training and product development summits.

Everything around this level of relationship-building is laced throughout the company, with the mindset that happy employees who are valued will personally care about the customers. Imtra generates as much power as it consumes, having gone completely solar. It is heavily involved in the community and in charities. But don’t think of it as a board of directors telling employees which charities it will donate to. At Imtra, employees pool ideas about which charities are important to them and teams spearhead fundraising events around them. This is important also to make sure that everyone in the company, from accounting and manufacturing to people in shipping, know one another by name, says Braitmayer.

A recent visit included a stop at the new paved and shaded employee dining area outside among a patch of trees, where employees can enjoy some fresh air and leave their desks for a bit. There also were tours through offices with those really cool, ergonomic sit/stand desks and framed pictures of children and family members lining walls. A shrimp and hors d’oeuvre platter that a co-worker supplied was front and center to celebrate one employee’s impending marriage.

Little turnover

The company promotes from within, and many employees have spent their entire career at the organization. “Eric started on the order desk at age 22 or 23 and identified areas of weakness in the company that could be improved upon,” Kilgore says.

Of the company’s 59 employees, the average tenure is 15 years, but many people have worked there for decades. Everyone interacts. Even the warehouse is clean and painstakingly organized to ensure that someone who wants a blue light does not get a white one. Revealing the company’s sense of humor, a huge cutout of Statler and Waldorf — the Muppet critics who hate everything and heckle everyone — lurks from the rafters as Lori De Benedetto assembles LED lights.

The salespeople operate in territories, but they’re not competitive, Braitmayer says. (“We call them salesmen, but then they’ll ask, ‘Oh yeah? If I’m a salesman, how come I’m in a greasy T-shirt hanging upside down on a boat on a Saturday?’ Because if a thruster goes right and not left while a customer is out on vacation, if we can’t get that fixed until Monday, they’ve lost their vacation.”)

Instead, they are salaried so everyone owns every customer and every customer’s problem that arises.

“We try to make everyone who works here feel like they have the power to make any decision that’s right for the customer,” says Braitmayer.

The level of focus on employees and customer service seems to be working. “From our fiscal year-end in 2009 to what we project for our 2016 year-end, we will have grown our sales 65 percent,” Braitmayer says. “We anticipate this being Imtra’s biggest year yet.”

Half of Imtra’s business comes from boatbuilder customers. On one afternoon Ron Dulong quietly sat in a room customizing antennas for Sea Ray, as well as the extra wiring and harness, stamping it with the Sea Ray logo and packaging it all up in one box — which “makes it much harder for competitors to come take business from us,” Braitmayer says.

About 35 percent of Imtra’s business comes from aftermarket buyers such as boatyards and companies such as West Marine, and only about 3 percent of that is customer-direct. Typically that’s when Imtra can get a product to a consumer more quickly than a dealer, but Imtra sells at full retail in those situations so it doesn’t undercut its dealers.

“We don’t want to compete with our dealers. Often we say to consumers that reach us, their best opportunity for a discount is if they buy through our dealers,” Braitmayer says.

The other 15 percent of Imtra’s business comes from commercial and industrial customers.

The company has been growing the commercial side of its business, particularly with the adaptation and customization of NorSap marine chairs. Those have been popular in the oil and gas industry because the people who occupy them must sit in them for hours and hours. Customized control systems allow for more comfort, as well as accuracy, Kilgore says.

Lighting sales manager Colby Chevalier explains Lumishore underwater LED’s master and secondary light synching.

Lighting sales manager Colby Chevalier explains Lumishore underwater LED’s master and secondary light synching.

Product development

Imtra often is heavily involved in the development of products it does not manufacture, especially those that it’s integrating into marine applications. Product categories include lighting, thrusters, stabilizers, anchoring systems, wipers, antennas, gangways, seating, controls and other specialty products. For many of the company’s products that originate in Norway, for example, Imtra tries to send a few team members a year or bring product experts from the Scandinavian company to New Bedford to help its own staff become experts.

Imtra makes its own LED lights, with help from a plant in New York. “For our premier Imtra-branded LED products, the light engines are built for us in Long Island, N.Y.,” Braitmayer says, adding that the phrase “designed and assembled in the U.S.A” is important to the company. “We do customer-specific tweaks — special wiring, custom trim rings — and all [quality control], packaging and final assembly is here in New Bedford. All circuit boards and electric components are developed here in the United States, as well. The only components that are sourced overseas tend to be base metal materials. That is where the most significant cost savings are, and they have little impact on product performance. All tech components are done in the U.S. so that we can stay up to date with the latest LEDs and other electrical components. We also find the quality of the electrical assemblies is far superior when made in the United States.”

The company is constantly coming out with new ways to light spaces, such as AcXent Linear lighting, which virtually disappears when the lights are off because it is recessed into the interior. The custom-size units in up to 8-foot tracks can be configured in any way, giving builders an opportunity to be creative in an era when signature lighting has taken off.

Those underwater lights

Imtra does not manufacture its own underwater lights, which have become a phenomenon in the boating industry. Any after-dark visitor to the Miami International Boat Show and Yachts Miami Beach would have noticed as colorful lights strobed and flashed in time with music from boats.

“We make the products we want to make and buy the products we don’t want to make,” Kilgore says.

Colby Chevalier, lighting sales manager for Imtra, explains that the company had wanted to distribute Lumishore underwater lights because Imtra believes Lumishore is a superior product with the widest product offering, both in thru-hull and surface mount models. One major benefit is the mast and secondary light system, so the lights never get out of sync with one another and communicate seamlessly through a DMX signal.

“Each secondary light will listen to the master and operate together as a system, including fade, strobe, color change and color sweep effects,” says Chevalier.

“It’s like your front lawn,” Kilgore says. “It’s how you can differentiate yourself from the other boats at the dock.”

In fact, at the Miami shows, Chevalier says he heard from customers using Lumishore that those using different products shut them off after dark because they would keep getting out of sync or looked subpar, compared with Lumishore’s products.

Having decided to stop making underwater lighting and focus solely on interior lighting, Imtra had been eyeing Lumishore for some time, Braitmayer says. “We want to have global brands, but also feel our brand is a sign to consumers and trade customers that they can expect service and quality,” he says.

The “other” category has all kinds of different meanings. During a recent visit a huge box lay in the shipping area, the result of a new feature Hatteras is planning to debut on its yachts this fall — a retractable balcony that would help blend interior and exterior space, another trend in the superyacht sector. Braitmayer and Kilgore thought, well, we’ve never done it, but sure, we can do that.

First, Imtra worked with a designer of the yacht to see how much weight it should support, dimensions and other details. Then the company approached the Italian manufacturer Besenzoni, which makes gangways, pedestals, pilot seats, ladders and davits and cranes that Imtra distributes. Imtra worked with both companies throughout the process to ultimately develop the balcony, which was sitting in a huge box.

And then there are the “kooky” uses for some of its products, such as on the Maximum side, which Kilgore heads up. This company, purchased in the mid-1980s, is run independently of Imtra, though adjacently in the building. This arm of the company prides itself on its accuracy with wind and weather instruments. When wind farms began expressing interest in some of the Maximum products, it pushed the company to find ways to improve consumer products and monitor wind at varying heights.

“We sell anemometers to dairy farmers who know that cows only produce milk when they’re comfortable,” Braitmayer says.

This naturally involves a follow-up question that sounds something like: “Wait … what?”

“A dairy farmer’s challenge is to keep milk cows comfortable in changing weather so they produce milk to optimal levels,” Braitmayer explains. “When it is hot, they have mister systems to cool the cows. The wind also cools the cows and saves the cost of water for the misting if the wind is over a certain velocity. By using the Maximum anemometer, this customer developed a system that automatically adjusts the cooling system — wind or mist — by measuring the wind speed in the barns.”

It’s fun to see the innovations the company uses to test products and demand precision. A cooler has been transformed into a humidity changer, where hygrometers are calibrated to ensure accuracy. Mulitple metal racks have been custom-built to mass-test lighting products for function, consistent color matching and light output.

Vector Fin stabilizers

Through its partnership with Merritt Island Boat Works, the Ocean Alexander 70e will be the first production yacht in the United States to use Imtra’s new Side-Power Vector Fins Stabilizer System. For the Ocean Alexander 70e installation, the company worked in conjunction with Volvo engineers — who produce the electronically controlled Volvo IPS drive systems for the vessel — to integrate the Side-Power stabilizers, ensuring the best total performance in terms of stability, fuel economy and speed, says Phil Whittaker, the stabilization guy.

“The unique thing about Side Power is the curvature of the Vector Fins. People had been hesitant for fins because of the drag associated with them,” Whittaker says. “But the curve provides some positive lift, so you’re not going to lose any speed.”

Fins rather than gyros are typically used on boats larger than 50 feet because they offer effective stabilization both under way and at rest, Whittaker says, adding that the Vector Fins of the Side Power system allow the boat to bank through high-speed turns comfortably without any loss of stabilization.

The key to Imtra’s success is how dynamic and nimble the company remains, giving it the ability to provide a level of service that is hard for others to compete with, Braitmayer says.

“The products we sell right now are the products we sell right now,” he says. “In 10 years we may not have the same exact group we have now, and we’ll have some others that are new. But we hope the customers are the same.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.


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