Author: 89N Admin

On Monday, June 29, John Boutin, publisher of Vermont Business Magazine, and Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, traveled to Bellows Falls to confer the 2019 Deane C. Davis Outstanding Vermont Business of the Year Award on Chroma Technology Corp. Chroma CEO Newell Lessell and COO Janette Bombardier accepted the award on behalf of the 150 employees of the 29-year-old employee-owned optical filter manufacturer.

“It’s a tremendous honor for Chroma to be designated Vermont’s outstanding business of the year,” said Lessell, who was recently named CEO. “As a 100% employee-owned company, we strive to be not only a world-class supplier of optical filters but also a model employer and corporate citizen. We believe it’s possible to do well by doing good, and our 29-year history of consistent growth and profitability bears that out.” Chroma’s filter products are used in diverse applications across many industries, including the life sciences and medicine, agriculture, and manufacturing.

Bombardier noted, “Many are aware of Chroma’s technology and business growth success, but the company is also committed to the community through corporate giving, employee giving, and volunteerism. And our level of employee engagement is unique, given the employee board of directors’ structure, as well as actions to continuously improve our business and the sense of responsibility to our customers by the entire team.”

According to Boutin, the selection committee was unanimous in its decision to honor Chroma with this year’s award. The committee cited Chroma’s strong, continuous growth in revenue and employees, its commitment to community, its recognition of the environment as a natural and economic resource for Vermont, and its supportive work environment. Previous winners include Green Mountain Power (2018), Vermont Mutual Insurance Group (2017), and Marathon Health (2016).

When announcing the award earlier this month, Boutin said, “Chroma has shown great merit for the Deane C. Davis Award. Like Davis himself — former governor, CEO, and environmentalist — Chroma reflects Vermont’s diverse nature and radiates a savvy business sense.” Bishop noted, “Chroma’s designation as the winner of the award is a culmination of many years of success as a leading advanced manufacturer in Vermont.”

While most companies have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chroma’s growth has increased. Its filters are in high demand from manufacturers of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) instruments, which detect the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and also from researchers working on treatments for the disease.

About the Award
The Deane C. Davis Outstanding Vermont Business of the Year Award is presented annually by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Vermont Business Magazine. It is named in honor of Governor Deane C. Davis (1900–1990). In 1968, at the age of 68, when most people look forward to retirement, Davis was elected governor of Vermont. He brought considerable experience to the governor’s office (1969–1973), gleaned over many years as a lawyer, corporate officer, and company president. He was a strong advocate of a sound economy based in a protected environment. Governor Davis was known as the “environmental governor” because of his strong support for Act 250, which was enacted during his administration. He also championed vigorous economic development.

[Published in the VT Digger by Anne Wallace Allen]

Like many companies, Chroma Technology Corp. in late March asked all employees who could do their jobs remotely to do so in an attempt to minimize the spread of the Covid-19 virus. But the company still has more than 70 people working in production in Bellows Falls and a subsidiary in Williston, said Chief Financial Officer Newell Lessell, who is due to take over as CEO on May 1.

Lessell said orders for the company’s optical filters – which are made in the Bellows Falls production facility – have been pouring in since the scale of the Covid-19 virus pandemic started to become apparent in February. The filters are widely used in testing for the virus.

“This initial surge is customers primarily with whom we have done business at some point in the past, who now need far more of these filters by orders of magnitude than they have previously,” Lessell said. And “we have people approaching us now for whom we have not produced before, so we need to work with them to design filters to meet their needs.”

Where a few years ago, a customer might be looking for 100 filters, now they might be looking for 100,000, he said.

“Frankly at this point, the key thing for us is identifying ways we can increase our output,” Lessell said. “That’s what we are working on.”

Chroma is one of many Vermont companies that have seen demand for their products rise as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Dozens of other Vermont companies have changed course to work on making ventilators or protective equipment.

“Wherever there is change, there are opportunities,” said Michael Metz, the director of the Generator, the Burlington maker space, who has turned his own nonprofit over to the manufacture of face shields for health workers. Creating the masks won’t make the Generator a profit, but it will enable the business space to avoid staff layoffs, said Metz.  “Whether the change is good or bad, there is hardship for sure, but there are opportunities.”

For Lessell, adding staff during the Covid-19 crisis is complicated by a number of factors. Although thousands of Vermonters have lost their jobs as a result of business closings, Lessell said that in order to protect the production staff from the virus, he’s leery of bringing new people into the plant.

With that in mind, Chroma has been reaching out to its own workers and asking them to see if any members of their household would be interested in a temporary position at Chroma. Some positions don’t require much training or experience.

“From an infectious disease perspective, it’s a little less risky because these are folks who are already in the household,” Lessell said.

Some Vermont employers have also expressed worries that workers will choose to take state and federal unemployment insurance – which could top $1,100 per week for several weeks — rather than stay on the job.  Lessell said he didn’t think that would happen at the employee-owned company, which pays 100% of individual workers’ health insurance. Nobody at the company makes less than $40,000, he said, and Chroma‘s profit-sharing plan nearly doubles that salary. Chroma is a certified B Corp.

“We pay quite well,” he said. “Our paradigm is we want to be paying at least a living wage.”

Chroma’s founder and longtime CEO, Paul Millman, recently announced he is stepping down from his position. His official retirement date is April 30, and Millman, who started the company in 1991 with five others, said he has been spending his work days at home. He said orders to Chroma started to increase sharply in the end of February from all over the world. Many high-tech companies like Chroma, even those that haven’t worked in the biomedical field, are now looking for ways to help create testing devices, he said.

“At this point in time, even semiconductor companies are being asked to get involved, because they know how to do large-scale manufacturing,” Millman said. “Someone else designs it. Knowing how to manufacture on a large scale is a skill.”

Chroma‘s filters are made in a clean room setting. The company has changed its shifts to minimize the number of people who are in the building at the same time.

“That said, we’ve had to double down on cleaning,” said Lessell. “It’s a moral imperative, a business imperative that we have to stay healthy in order to keep producing.”

The company has also made accommodations for workers who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, such as those whose immune systems are compromised, by creating an overnight shift on the weekend.

Lessell said he expects the company to continue its rapid production growth over the next few months. He noted that the company has grown all but two years since 1991.

“We’re fortunate that the markets we serve and the larger photonics industry is growing very rapidly anyway, apart from any of this,” he said. “There are a lot of things outside of the biomedical field that drive demand for filters right now,” such as navigation in automobiles, LIDAR, drones, and high-spectral imaging.

“The crisis of the moment, as opposed to crop management or virtual reality — those customers are important to us, but in terms of what feels to us like the moral imperative, it’s the fight against this pandemic right now. There’s a timeliness issue to that.”

And while the surge in business is only expected to last for several weeks, Metz noted that he expects manufacturers to continue seeking more reliable sources of raw materials long after the crisis has passed.

“I think it’s going to change our attitudes about the security of global trade,” said Metz of the pandemic and the supply problems experienced by health facilities and manufacturers nationwide. “If I am making ventilators, I am not going to source 100% of my production out of China. I’m going to take a hit on the price” and obtain materials from a more diverse array of places, including Europe and the U.S., he said.

[Vermont Business Magazine]

Millman will be followed as CEO by current Chief Financial Officer Newell Lessell. Current Chief Technology Officer, Janette Bombardier, will add the role of Chief Operating Officer to her responsibilities.

Headquartered in Rockingham (Bellows Falls), Vermont to serve the international market with high performance optical filters, Chroma was launched by Millman with five others –Wim Auer, Wendy Cross, Frank Kebbell, Jay Reichman and Dick Stewart.

Millman has been in a leadership role since the company started, essentially serving as chief customer officer on a global scale as the company grew to $34.5 million in sales in 2019.

Millman noted that “the next generation of leadership at Chroma is well suited to take Chroma forward. Newell Lessell was brought on with the idea that he would one day take over the leadership of Chroma. He has a long history in the employee-ownership movement. And it was a great day when former IBM executive Janette Bombardier agreed to join Chroma. There are very few with her experience in high tech manufacturing. We’re really lucky that way.”

Social justice is integral to the worker-owned concept at Chroma. Under its distinctive structure, Chroma profits are shared equally by workers in all job categories. That commitment also helped shape Millman’s role in the greater business community in Vermont. He was the 2016 recipient of the Terry Ehrich Award for Socially Responsible Business and served as a director of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and the Vermont Employee Ownership Center.

Millman currently resides in Brattleboro. His future plans include permanent residency in Vermont, which he loves, where he will continue to work on the social issues facing his adopted state.

BELLOWS FALLS—Restaurants may be closed, supermarkets may display empty shelves, and small businesses may be afraid of going bankrupt, but at least one Windham County company is doing well in the heart of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Chroma Technology, which manufactures optical filters for the scientific, biomedical, photonics, and imaging industries, is facing an unprecedented call for its products.

“An optical filter takes light and breaks it into its component colors,” Chroma CEO Paul Millman told The Commons in a March 25 interview. “And there are tests dependent on seeing the fluorescence of something.”

“Sometimes they use our filters at 0 degrees,” Millman continued. “Sometimes they’re tilted. Sometimes they’re bigger, and sometimes they’re smaller. Sometimes they go into a robot. Sometimes they go into a microscope. They’re all optical filters.”

Right now, the world is consumed by science, and the demand for new optical filters — and new kinds of optical filters — is strong and growing stronger. Chroma’s biggest problem could be meeting the onslaught of demands.

Today, in laboratories around the world, scientists are frantically working on tests for and vaccines against the COVID-19 virus that is keeping more than half the world in quarantine.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is “the primary instrument for testing this virus,” Millman said. The technology takes genetic material from a nasal swab and amplifies it, building up enough of a quantity for technicians to get a measurable result.

When DNA and other chromosomes are stained with a material that fluoresces, Chroma’s filters make them visible in color.

“There are variants on the theme, having to do with imaging, quantitativeness and automation, but PCR is the umbrella technology,” he added. “The demand for that instrument has grown dramatically. The demands on the part of the companies that make that instrument has grown dramatically. And the demands on us, by those companies, has increased dramatically just the last three weeks.”

The company, founded in 1991, employs more than 150 people in Bellows Falls. It also has offices in Xiamen City, China and Yokohama, Japan.

“Our first work was with people who were doing genetic testing for cancer and a whole assortment of genetic diseases, including Down syndrome,” Millman said. “And what we were doing is making optics that allowed scientists and clinicians and lab technicians to easily see these things because they are in color.”

Ramping up, distantly

Now, at a time when people need to maintain a 6-foot distance between themselves and the rest of the world’s population, Chroma is ramping up its manufacturing.

“One company we make lenses for got an order last Friday for close to $1 million,” Millman said. “That company needs to build these machines as fast as they possibly can do it.”

He added that the firm fielded a questionnaire from the company: “‘Can you supply us? Can you continue to supply us on time when we increase our volume? When we double our value?’”

“So we are sitting in the position of having to supply these systems, these companies that make these systems, and they have the highest priority. We also have other customers, but these have the highest priority right now.”

How is the company working to deliver these orders?

“We have the most bizarre scheduling I’ve ever imagined,” Millman said. “And [our workers have] done an incredibly good job. In all the departments that we have, we can work at any given moment with half the number of people. We’ll be able to continue manufacturing even with the shutdown. We’re going to put some more people on, but mostly we’re just doing it with creative shifts and creative scheduling. ”

In terms of dollars, Millman estimated that the COVID-19 virus will add about $2 million more to the employee-owned company’s bottom line.

“So, if last year we shipped $34.5 million, this year we’ll ship closer to $38 million, or maybe even $39 million,” he said. “And this has been just in the last two weeks. Our shipments over last year’s are over 10 percent higher. But they will be higher than that in order to meet the demand.”

Millman observed that Chroma is not alone.

“I think that anybody who is in a medical field, with those kind of customers, is experiencing this,” he said.