Few things are as frightening to a first responder as a cloud of colored smoke. Knowing if that smoke is merely the result of a harmless, burning substance or the plume of a deadly toxic cloud is literally a matter of life and death.
Smiths Detection has been working to give responders the tools that tell them whether the conditions they face at an emergency site are everyday hazards or something more ominous.
But Smiths is about much more than just onsite hazardous-materials protection. The parent company, Smiths Group, is a very large and diverse engineering company based inLondon, UK. Its history stretches back to 1851, when Samuel Smith opened a family clock and watch-making business in south London. From these humble beginnings, the company grew into an engineering firm with global business dealings. More than 50 years ago, it began military work, developing means of detecting chemical and biological weapons.
Today, the company, which has four divisions, has sales of more than $4 billion and employs 26,000 people, principally in North America and Europe.
Heading its homeland security marketing effort is Bill Mawer, president of Smiths Detection’s North America/military division, headquartered in Edgewood, Md.
“About four years ago, I was in the aerospace side of the business, where I was responsible for strategy and marketing,” Mawer recalled. “Around that time, Smiths Detection was part of the aerospace business. I got very involved in the acquisitions we made at the time, particularly post-9/11. When the opportunity came up to become involved in that business full-time, that was an exciting opportunity to be given. It was probably the most interesting, fastest-developing market to be involved in at that time.”
Indeed, starting in 1997, Smiths Group, the parent company, seeing the danger of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility of future chemical battlefields, began an acquisition program to make it the world’s premier chemical and biological detection company.
Three companies, Graseby Dynamics, Environmental Technologies Group and Barringer Instruments, were purchased and merged to form Smiths Detection in August 2002. In December that year, Smiths acquired Heimann Systems, based in Germany, whose principal product was X-ray systems. In August 2003, Heimann was integrated with the other companies to form the Smiths Detection division. This year, Smiths acquired Cyrano Sciences Inc. and SensIR Technologies.
It is this division that Mawer oversees, and it is a broad one. “We go from detecting explosives in airports to X-ray systems, to mail and baggage screening to containment screening to providing systems to the Coast Guard and so on,” Mawer pointed out. “By comparison, there is no one out there with as wide a range.”
To Mawer, Smiths’ ability to move from concept to production sets it apart. “If I was going to take one thing that makes Smiths outstanding, it would be the ability to take science in the form of highly accurate scientific instruments and package them in a way that they’re put directly in the hands of a fireman or a first responder. We can take a highly complicated DNA test from a laboratory and put it in a hand-held instrument that a fireman can use in a cloud of yellow smoke. I don’t think everybody knows how to do that.”
Like most companies selling to the American homeland security market, navigating its fragmented purchasing agencies has been a challenge, but one that Mawer seems confident of mastering.
But the market, and Smiths’ response to it, continues to evolve, according to Mawer. “What we’re seeing at the moment is the move from the immediate post-9/11era, with rapid procurement of various systems around airport security, into a longer-term effort to raise the overall level of security across a wide range of applications. … In the early days of TSA [Transportation Security Administration], it was very much about getting equipment out there. We’re now seeing longer-term programs to raise the whole level of protection for people generally.”
When it comes to Smiths’ strategic growth, Mawer is optimistic about new possibilities. “I don’t think our appetite for acquisitions has finished,” he said. “I think you’ll continue to see us look to continue to grow through that route. I think you’ll see us continue to acquire technologies that we can take to various markets. And you’ll see us continue to go after large government programs.”