Quick! Think of a successful Ontario-based company that specializes in membrane separation technology. If you said Zenon Environmental Inc., you’d be correct. If you also said Seprotech, you’d also be correct. Seprotech may not be the biggest player in the world, or even Ontario for that matter, but Seprotech, a small Ottawa-based company is doing just fine against bigger competition.
Seprotech is proof that you can win big when you’re small. Incorporated in 1985, it’s a publicly traded company on the Canadian Venture Exchange (CDNX, symbol SET) with 25 employees.
The company specializes in the application of cross-flow membrane separation technology (reverse osmosis, nanofiltration, ultrafiltration, and microfiltration). Membrane separation essentially uses a barrier (membrane) to separate two phases and restricts transport of various chemicals in a selective manner. The technology can be used in a wide variety of industries and for various applications including landfill leachate treatment, oil/water separation, and recovery of water soluble solvents.
The big prize
In April 2002 Seprotech won its biggest prize in its decade of operation — a $6.9-million contract to repair, overhaul, and refurbish the Shipboard Reverse Osmosis Desalinators (SRODs) used by the Department of National Defence.
How did it win the contract despite the fact that it was up against Peacock Inc.(a firm with over 50-years experience in marine engineering) and Zenon (the company that originally designed and the SROD and had the contract for a number of years).
In preparing its bid, Seprotech focused on ensuring it met all the technical requirements of the request for proposal issued by Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). It highlighted its successful design, installation and servicing of similar systems. It ensured that all the accomplishments of Seprotech personnel that were applicable to the contract were showcased.
Secondly, Seprotech focused on the budget. It knew that it had cost advantages as a small, nimble company and worked those to its advantage. It also realized that the winning the contract would add a greater level of credibility to the company so it considered this in preparing its budget.
When the final decision was made by PWGSC, Seprotech won a $6.9-million five-year contract. Unfortunately, the victory was not complete. One of the losing bidders filed a complaint with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal (CITT) over how PWGSC evaluated the proposals. The CITT is an administrative tribunal operating within Canada’s trade remedies system. It’s an independent quasi-judicial body that carries out its statutory responsibilities in an autonomous and impartial manner. The CITT recently ruled that PWGSC re-tender the contract before March 31, 2005. In the meantime, the Tribunal recommended that Seprotech perform the work under the current contract until a new one is awarded.
What lessons can a small company learn from Seprotech’s experience? For starters, it’s important to find a niche. Determine what qualities you have that separate you from your competition. In the case of Seprotech, its niche is membrane separation technologies geared for specific markets.
Secondly, it’s important to focus on client service. Dr. Gilles Turcotte, president and CEO of Seprotech, offers the following suggestion as to why it retains so many clients: “Our clients pride us on our excellent quality of service. When you deal with Seprotech, you know where your systems are being manufactured and you know the people, the engineers, draftsman, customer service personnel and project managers, personally. This is the advantage of dealing with a smaller company.”
Finally, as a small company, it’s important not to spread yourself to thin. Focus on your products or service and ensure you meet or exceed client expectations. Seprotech is realizes that they are not just selling systems, but a total solution. To ensure client satisfaction, Seprotech offers training and ongoing support with its membrane systems.
So it’s possible to win big contracts even if you’re little. Being small also means that you can react quickly and focus. Use these characteristics to your advantage. At the end of the day, it’s the people that make a project or product a success, not just the company name on the door.
John Nicholson is a management consultant with Environmental Business Consultants based in Toronto, Ontario. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org