It used to be that the best times at Dent Instruments were during an economic downturn.
Business managers who were too busy during a sales boom to pay attention to energy costs suddenly got interested in efficiency, and they’d buy a lot more of Dent’s energy metering devices.
“As we’ve gotten bigger and bigger, that kind of anti-correlation is less of a driver than it used to be,” founder and CEO Christopher Dent said. “Energy is just hot. Everyone is interested in energy.”
A 30-year-old company, Dent Instruments continues to roll out new products and increase profitability. This year it’s introducing a line of submeters, which can measure energy use of individual units in an apartment building, or break down a single commercial building’s energy use among power sources such as lights, computers and heating and cooling equipment.
Dent is expanding in the permanent-mount meter market as most new commercial buildings are equipped with centrally controlled energy management systems. Those systems tend to have multiple metering points, but there are always opportunities to add measurement, said Jason Jepsen, owner of Commercial Energy Consulting in Portland.
“We do need to add energy meters and energy monitors a lot of the time,” Jepsen said. Sometimes the building owner fails to buy the right set of meters right off the bat, he said, or the system is outdated. “A lot of these systems are old, can’t communicate on today’s standards,” he said. “For that there’s a good opportunity for the Dent instruments.”
Dent is well-known for making a portable data logger, the ELITEpro XC, which is commonly used by utility companies, Dent said.
In a typical scenario, the utility workers will go around measuring energy use by different pieces of equipment, for example the lighting in a grocery store, before and after a retrofit.
Dent has been making the ELITEpro for 17 years, and customers are still finding new ways to use it. Seattle City Light captured about $1.5 million in revenue over two years by using the product to meter electricity used by construction crews as they worked on high-rise buildings before permanent meters were installed. Dent hopes other big city utilities will copy Seattle City Light’s program, but he said there’s more potential for growth in the permanently mounted products.
While utility companies buy only a handful of portable data loggers to use on multiple projects, each PowerScout submeter can serve only one building at a time. And Dent sells the PowerScout through internationally known manufacturers, such as Siemens, which also sells building control systems. “Our business model is essentially to leverage the marketing departments of these big multinational companies,” he said. “That’s how we can have four people in the marketing department.”
Dent Instruments has 22 employees, and about a third of them are engineers and technologists, Dent said. “There’s probably more energy metering expertise in Bend, Oregon, per capita than anywhere in the country,” he said.
Dent, who started the company in 1988, is a mechanical and electrical engineer, but he said he knows just enough to hire the right people and communicate ideas to them. “I’m the chief geek, mostly,” he said.
Engineering, business operations and assembly all take place in the Dent Instruments headquarters on SW Emkay Drive. The building formerly belonged to Columbia River Bank, which failed in 2010.
Although sales are growing, Dent doesn’t foresee a need to add more employees because the company is more efficient than in the past. The ELITEpro, for example, can now be assembled and tested in about 10 minutes, instead of an hour, because of improvements in the manufacturing design, he said. “What does that do for the company? Your margins get better.”
Annual revenue at Dent is in the “high seven figures,” Dent said.
At 64, Dent said he’s not interested in selling the company, though he receives a call on average every month from one investor group or another.
Dent said his long-term plan is to grow the company. “Do more fun things,” he said. “Better products, bigger markets.”
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