BioTek Instruments is headquartered in a modest industrial park in Winooski, where its 250 Vermont employees design and manufacture microplate instrumentation and software. But BioTek isn't just selling to local customers — its products are used in hospitals, universities and research centers all over the world. Peter Weith, vice president of marketing, sales and service, reports that approximately half of the company's revenue comes from clients outside the U.S.
That's not so unusual in the Green Mountain State — in 2012, Vermont companies like BioTek exported $4.1 billion worth of goods to foreign customers.
The 45-year-old, family-owned firm may be producing its goods in Vermont, but it isn't selling them to international customers from its Onion City HQ — it relies on distributors and 13 subsidiaries in places like China, India and Singapore to market its products. The company recently announced the addition of two more offices: in Taipai, Taiwan; and Toyko, Japan. Weith explains that the company chose to add offices because its product line is constantly evolving. "Fundamentally," he says, "our products have grown increasingly complex and require dedicated resources, especially within applications, sales and service."
Weith points out that BioTek is competing against giant international conglomerates in a "very sophisticated global market." Small and mid-size companies like BioTek, he says, need "very dedicated, well-educated individuals" to sell and service products overseas.
To that end, the company recently recruited sales and service staff in its emerging markets, starting with two new general managers long known to the company and familiar with BioTek's product line.
So how does BioTek export its Vermont values to those overseas outposts? By bringing its new staff to the Green Mountain State and giving them maple syrup. Seriously.
BioTek's Japanese and Taiwanese sales staff spent a week in Winooski at the end of June. While they were here, the groups soaked up Vermont culture by going bowling, having a barbecue, taking a Lake Champlain cruise on the Spirit of Ethan Allen and getting maple syrup from a BioTek employee, who explained the sugaring process.
But the visit to corporate HQ wasn't all fun and games — the teams also sat through training on BioTek's new Cytation3, a "cell imaging multi-mode reader" that can be used in stem cell research and diagnostic tests for diseases such as hepatitis and HIV; the company just shipped its first unit to Duke University.
The new general managers also presented their sales strategies — and met with a reporter.
Both Satoshi Sagara (pictured, second from left), who runs the Japan office, and Jack Lu (pictured, third from left), general manager in Taiwan, have long been familiar with BioTek products; Lu sold them for years through his former employer, a Taiwanese distributorship that sells multiple life science product lines.
Why would two Asian executives decide to accept posts with a Vermont-based firm? Satoshi explained that he wanted to work with a company with a global footprint. In Japan, he said, there are global companies in the car and consumer electronics industries. But in the life sciences — his field of expertise — "there are no global companies in Japan."
He was specifically attracted to family-run BioTek because, he says, it's "very stable." Indeed, the Winooski bioscience company is run by Briar and Adam Alpert, the sons of founder Dr. Norman Alpert, and staffed by numerous veteran employees. Kathy Gendron, vice president of human resources, who was also present for the interview, chimed in with an anecdote about a recent conference with the senior management. "As a 25-year veteran," she quipped, "I was one of the newbies in the room."
That longevity, said Satoshi, means that he doesn't have to fear the company hiring new management and changing direction.
Lu said he's long been impressed with BioTek's products, which he said are used widely in his home country. Any place with a laboratory that uses biological-related devices, he said, "they are our customers."
BioTek hopes the two men and their teams will be able to build on that success. Weith points out that opening a dedicated office is a strategy that has worked for the company in South Korea. "Three years after launching BioTek Korea," he notes, "we have assumed the top position the marketplace."
Photo by Sarah Williamson