|Legends of Flow|
G.F. Fischer - Instromet Group founder still lives for gas
Interview with Jesse Yoder and Belinda Burum, Flow Research
While at Gastech 2011 in Amsterdam, Flow Research had the opportunity to interview G.F. Fischer for our Pioneer of Instrumentation series. The Instromet Group founded by Fischer is now part of the Elster Gas North America business unit and the Gas International business unit (in Europe). An abridged version of this article appeared in the June issue of Flow Control.
“I’m a hobbyist of gas measurement. Even my wife says the only thing that interests me is gas.”
So says Ge F. Fischer, a legend in gas measurement, who as a key figure at Instromet for 30 years, built the company into the Instromet Group, one of the largest and most influential flowmeter manufacturers in the world. Fischer is now semi-retired, but his love of turbine meters and his distaste for “bean counters” driving business are still going strong. When he sold Instromet 10 years ago, Fischer started investigating a system for continuous online checking of specific turbine meters to eliminate the cumbersome need to pull a meter offline except when there is a negative indication. Today, he is still passionate about the need for easier methods of calibration, and says he is about to come out with something new involving turbine meters as inline verification of calibration values. His son, Roger Fischer, works with Elster Amco de Sudamerica in Latin America promoting the Instromet product line.
Turbine meters still shine
“Turbine meters are still the new technology!” maintains Fischer. “Turbine meters have built-in precision and the capability to remain accurate even with flow disturbance. Ultrasonic meters are excellent except you may not know what will deform the flow—you can’t correct for that. You can do the straightening thing [provide a straight run], but once you do that, you’re back to a turbine meter configuration.
“Ultrasonic meters become of interest specifically in larger pipelines where there is no flow perturbation. If you have any flow disturbance up front of the meter, then you really don’t know what’s going to hit your ultrasonic meter, and you can’t completely neutralize or stop that influence. In order to be sure of the accuracy of an ultrasonic meter you really have to calibrate the meter together with the upstream and downstream pipeline. Now you have pipelines you have to transport to TCC or Euroloop system, which are almost their own Bible, and cost becomes a handicap.”
Technology and ideas now starting to drive business
“Since bean counters have been running the world [for about 10 years], companies haven’t been spending any money. But they’re finding out that unless they create more beans, they can no longer count. Now companies are starting to be more technology and idea driven. It’s very strange; you can see this kind of cycle happening.
“Bookkeepers want to protect the future five years ahead. In the meantime they try to save money. That is counterproductive. Ideally, the bookkeepers should spend the money after it’s been made, and not try to precut it before it’s even been made.
“This is what the problem is today with all these leveraged buyouts. Purely financial companies overpaid for what they wanted, and then started sucking the liquids out of the companies.
Anybody can do that for a short cycle.
“Now GE has bought Dresser, but nobody is going to tell those farmers from Houston how to improve their turbine and other gas meters.
“The president of a company like GE has maybe three to five years to do something spectacular in that time. But you have to realize something – if they can raise the share value by a few percent they have already paid for the acquisition.”
Pitching turbine meters to the bean counters
Ironically, it was Fischer’s strategy of aiming his pitch at the bean counters that contributed to his early success selling turbine meters.
One of Fischer’s jobs as the new sole owner of Instromet in the early to mid 1980s was to move the mentality of major gas companies from orifice plates to turbine meters to measure large volumes of gas.
“Gas companies are very conservative and don’t like to change anything unless you can convince them it’s a good move financially. They were holding on to the orifice meters. That’s what they learned,” says Fischer. “I always requested to talk to the CFIO. I’d ask, ‘How good are your financial figures? Can we go over the details? How good is your accuracy? Are you plus or minus .1 or .5? Because honestly, .5 accuracy when you’re talking about couple of million dollars is a lot of money. The turbine meter’s accuracy can’t be beat – you’ll see for yourself.’
“As soon as the financial people are aware that things can be done better, that’s what they want, because they want to cover their so-called backsides.”
‘Rockwellizing’ the turbine meter
After starting his career as an engineer in the Navy, Fischer joined Rockwell Manufacturing (now Rockwell International) in 1968. Rockwell started Fischer off in the Rotterdam and Brussels facilities, with training in the U.S. Fischer set up a plant for Rockwell in Essen, Belgium that still stands today as an Elster-Instromet facility
Rockwell was investigating gas production, sales, and marketing in The Netherlands and Europe after some gas finds a few years earlier in the North Sea near Groningen, The Netherlands. As a result of the gas finds, American Meter also developed a presence in The Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the owners of Instromet had a dispute and decided to offer the company for sale in 1971. Rockwell asked Fischer to investigate the possibility of buying the company.
“As I had set up a plant for Rockwell in Belgium, they instructed me to go and have a look,” says Fischer. “Then, when they bought it, they said, the distance is only 2.5 hours by car, why don’t you do this as well. So they put me in charge of the Instromet operation. On April 26, 1971 they said, ‘Here, Fischer, you have your little toy.’ And they flew back to Pittsburgh. At that time, the world wasn’t run by the bookkeepers yet. It was not run by the bean counters; it was run by qualified people.
“So now I had the Belgium plant and a Dutch plant in Silvolde. I split my time between them on a weekly basis.
“We ‘Rockwellized’ the technology of the turbine meter and we became suddenly the #1 turbine meter in the world.
“Rockwell’s turbine meter made it possible to measure gas under elevated pressures and at a far advanced accuracy range. The available European gas turbine meters were not designed for elevated gas pressures and therefore lacked the required accuracy. Today everyone is making copies of the old turbine meters.”
Fischer designed the turbine flowmeters with Howard Evans, vice president of engineering for the gas flow division, and his assistant, Joe Bonner.
“Being in European Rockwell, one time you had to be engineer or salesman, another time the bookkeeper. And I’ve broken a lot of rules. One time in Belgium we were 700% over budget. Then you’ve shot all the bean counters.
“Doing business isn’t that difficult if you just remain pragmatic. So many companies have a lot of money and spend a lot of money, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work right.”
Rockwell chooses B1 bomber over turbine meters
In the mid 70s Rockwell’s focus shifted and the company asked Fischer if he’d like to buy Instromet. Fischer explains: “Rockwell had a defense contract for the B1 bomber, so nobody in Pittsburgh was really interested in a $5 million product when they had a $5 billion product,” “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I became a minority shareholder in the European Instromet, and Rockwell departed.
“I started with Rockwell when everybody was driving cars. Later they were in the military and space businesses and there weren’t any more cars left in Pittsburgh. Everybody was riding in helicopters to the various manufacturing plants.”
Fischer had two backers, banking shareholders who “had just bought an airplane at 40,000 feet and didn’t know how to fly the plane.” He also had an outspoken interest serving as a second guarantee from customer Gasunie, a Dutch natural gas infrastructure and transportation company operating in The Netherlands and Germany that had an ongoing need for Instromet’s turbine meters.
After a year, one of the shareholders wanted out. Fischer and the other partner divided the shares. About six years later, that remaining partner suffered a seizure that left him paralyzed on one side and agreed to sell his majority shares to Fischer.
“The funny part was, Rockwell wanted to buy the company back again because things had changed. I was handicapped because they were offering real money and I had to meet it. Anyway, that was all said and done, and I became the single majority owner of the group.”
Growing the business with parties, an airplane, and an acquisition
As owner, Fischer began forming the Instromet Group and building up the customer base, starting in Spain, Italy, and France and expanding in Germany and the UK.
“The gas industry was very conservative, but the U.S. was a lot more aggressive and open. I used the knowledge and training I’d gotten in the U.S. in Europe,” Fischer explains. “The Rockwell parties were famous and I used that again to get Gasunie and others on board. We grew the business.
“At that time because of my relationship with Rockwell, I bought a Rockwell airplane and used it as one of the biggest sales tools in Europe. I’d tell the director of a large company in Spain or Italy, ‘Really, your wife should go shopping in Amsterdam.’ The major reason they bought, though, was the reputation of the turbine meter and its proven accuracy. It was so interesting to all these major gas companies who had been measuring large volumes with orifice plates. “
“Later we bought the ultrasonic company from Stork. Stork had been developing an ultrasonic meter for many years but never had the reputation, so I bought it from them. They were in Dordrecht, Holland.
“They had done a good job technically but the owner wasn’t willing to commit sufficient effort. Marketing, developing a reputation, and seeking meteorological approvals is expensive. Stork decided it wasn’t in their interest to keep the ultrasonic meter.
“The difficulty with companies like Stork is that the success of such markets is highly dependent on individuals, and large companies don’t like to be dependent on individuals.
“You can take any large company, if someone comes up with a bright idea and it’s too dependent on individuals, they don’t want it – bookkeepers will feel very unhappy. The bean counters ultimately like to run the world. This is where the sickness comes from.”
Around that time Instromet also obtained one of the biggest measurement contracts in Russia – $100 million – which it won over Daniel. Instromet also became a 25 percent shareholder in TransCanada Calibrations Ltd. (TCC), not with cash, but with the measuring standards as Tmeters and US meters that they would deliver.
The end of an era
“Around 1998 I was approached by Ruhrgas, owner of AMCO and Elster. Dr. Eschenroder – a bean counter with very good ideas – was heading up Ruhrgas-Industries.
“They started talking about the possibility of acquiring the Instromet group. First, I started laughing about it. I said, ‘Why don’t you invest 10-15m DM and get yourself up the line?’”
“They said, ‘We would like to, but we don’t have the ideas’.”
Ruhrgas bought Instromet in 2001 and internally transferred the essence to Elster. Then E.ON acquired Ruhrgas.
“At the time, Ruhrgas was doing about €16 billion and E.ON was doing €42 billion. Part of E.ON was Elster, which was doing €1.3-1.5 billion.”
“E.ON said, ‘What are we going to do with this little hobby shop called Elster?’ Ultimately they sold it to CVC. After CVC acquired the Elster-Group Dr. Eschenroder left.”
“You know, when Rockwell sold out 40 years ago, they offered me a job in the States. I liked the money but they were going to send me to Anaheim, plus it’s a financially oriented company. If someone says – can I interest you in something else? My answer is ‘Maybe, but I know what I’m doing in gas measurement because that’s where I’ve devoted my time and my interest.”
History of the Elster Group
1836: American Meter Company (AMCO) was founded in New York after producing the first gas meter in the U.S.
1848: Elster formed in Berlin as a gas lamp maker
1853: Elster begins production of large station gas meters
1936: Elster launches first horizontal turbine
1965: Instromet founded in The Netherlands; named from the Dutch “instroming metingstechnologie” (instream measurement technology)
1966: Instromet B.V., Silvolde, The Netherlands founded to design and manufacture measurement equipment for the rapidly expanding Dutch gas industry; now the manufacturing site for Elster-Instromet’s turbine meters and rotary meters
1970: Rockwell employee Ge Fischer establishes a facility in Essen, Belgium to build mounted measurement and control stations for the rapidly expanding European gas industry; later became Instromet International NV, Instromet’s headquarters, and stands today as an Elster-Instromet facility manufacturing ultrasonic meters
1971: Rockwell buys Instromet
Mid 70s: Ge F. Fischer buys Instromet with two partners
~1983: Ge F. Fischer becomes sole shareholder of Instromet
1985: Ruhrgas acquires Elster Gas Metering
1988: Ruhrgas acquires AMCO
1995: Instromet acquires Stork Servex’s ultrasonic technology
2001: Ruhrgas acquires Instromet and internally transfers the essence to Elster
2002: Ruhrgas acquires ABB Electric and Water Metering to create Ruhrgas Industries, a world leader in metering technology
2003: E.ON acquires Ruhrgas Industries
2005: CVC Capital Partners acquires Ruhrgas Industries and renames it the Elster Group
2010: First public offering of some of CVC’s Elster Group shares
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