Spirit of safety: Chattanooga-based power line equipment maker wins innovation award

Spirit of safety: Chattanooga-based power line equipment maker wins innovation award

November 14th, 2012 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Mike Dunn, CEO of Sherman and Reilly, accepts the Spirit of Innovation Award during Tuesday's luncheon. The Spirit of Innovation award ceremony was held at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Tuesday.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Mike Dunn says Sherman & Reilly's job is to make power line operators safer.

The company even commissioned a tribute song about what linemen do to keep the electricity on, with all proceeds going to the families of those killed in their work, S&R's chief executive said Tuesday.

"Our staff, trying to make their jobs safer, is what it's all about," Dunn said.

The Chattanooga-based maker of power line installation and maintenance equipment on Tuesday won the Spirit of Innovation Award from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce for the company's Safe Zone Cab System. The enclosure for power line operators includes a suite of features to protect workers from danger, according to the company.

Dunn said 50 linemen die on the job every year and the post is ranked as the ninth-most dangerous job by the federal government.

He said the 85-year-old business is "pushing the envelope in trying to do things in new ways and save lives."

Dunn, who with a partner bought the business about two years ago from its longtime owners, said S&R is undergoing a transformation aimed at recharging the company.

Revenues likely will finish the year more than 40 percent higher than 2011 at over $35 million, he said.

Dunn, in an interview at the convention center, said S&R won the award because it had "a focused energy to change something that needed changing ... to understand the value of a human life in an industry that had been good to us for 85 years."

He said that the same attitude behind innovation is helping to change and evolve the business.

"Many times companies want to do incremental improvement to a product. That never gets you there. You can incrementalize yourself into obscurity," Dunn said, citing the book "The Innovators Dilemma."

He said S&R, which employs about 110 people, took the approach of "let's blow up everything we thought was fact ... and start from scratch."

Dunn said S&R used "observational science and technology" to help the company's officials understand what the operators of its equipment faced on the job.

"Then, it was just getting it done," he said, adding the company nearly doubled its engineering staff in the last year. "When you're willing to invest and take a risk, the dividends can be wonderful."

Dunn said country music recording artist Dale Watson wrote and sang the tune "I Make It Right," which can be downloaded off of iTunes.

The goal is to garner 1 million downloads this year globally and raise up to $800,000 for the families of linemen who died on the job, Dunn said.

Early Innovator

Also Tuesday, Variable Technologies, creator of the Node smart sensor device, received the eighth annual Early Innovator Award from the Chattanooga Technology Council.

Node was called "a Swiss army knife of seemingly infinite smart sensor applications." The handheld device can function as a remote flashlight, monitor the immediate climate, measure motion, and detect temperature at a distance.

Company founder and CEO Dr. George Yu was in California for meetings with investors and his wife, Dr. Mina Sartipi, a professor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, accepted the award.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.