Harvey company keeps Statue of Liberty cool

statue of liberty lighting
New light-emitting diodes or LEDs illuminate the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island after the new system was turned on in New York, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. The system comes from Musco Lighting of Oskaloosa, Iowa. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Computrols Inc. is perhaps one of the biggest New Orleans technology firms you’ve never heard of. Its list of customers, on the other hand, is anything but low profile.

Take the Statue of Liberty in New York. Computrols designs manufacture and install automation systems for office towers, hotels and other buildings. Its products keep the Lady Liberty’s air conditioning and other systems working efficiently when droves of tourists pack the monument in hot summer months.

Remember when a partial blackout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome stopped play during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013? Computrols was hired to set up redundant lighting systems to help prevent future mishaps.

Harrah’s Casino and Hotel. One Shell Square. Children’s Hospital. Name a big building in the New Orleans area, and Computrols has likely played a role in how it is automated.

Harrah's Casino at the foot of Canal Street on Sept. 2, 2015. (Katherine Sayre, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal Street on Sept. 2, 2015. (Katherine Sayre, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

“It’s not the sexiest thing to talk about, but it is software and hardware development going on right here in New Orleans,” said Scott Holstein, digital marketing manager for the firm.

Computrols has spent three decades quietly building its global automation business from a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Harvey. In a few months, the company will move to a larger complex in Gretna, quadrupling its physical footprint. Upgrades planned for the new facility are expected to triple its manufacturing capacity. The company has added 10 new employees so far this year and plans to hire more as it expands.

Global growth

Brothers Roy and Kevin Lynch started Computrols in 1983. Companies such as Honeywell and Johnson Controls dominated the building automation space, selling large complex systems and cashing in on long-term service contracts. The Lynch brothers offered an alternative to hotels, office buildings and other facilities — quality maintenance without being handcuffed to an extended contract.

The model was a success. Computrols began developing its own custom building automation software to get more control over the systems it was working on. Building managers who had been struggling with more complicated versions liked the company’s simple, easy-to-use interface.

In 1993, the company started building its own control boards, keypads, screens and other equipment to go with its software. It offered a lifetime warranty on everything it made. It still does today.

“That’s essentially unheard of in the industry,” Holstein said. “The competition is too busy making money on long-term service plans.”

Computrols now has 57 employees, including 44 workers based in New Orleans where all of its manufacturing takes place. The company also has branches in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, Washington D.C. and Tampa, Fla.

It sells its products as far away as Panama, Russia, Vietnam and Malaysia through distributor partnerships. One of Moscow’s largest shopping malls uses a Computrols automation system. Other large clients include the 375 Park Avenue office tower in New York and the Williams Tower in Houston.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island project is one of its oldest. Twenty years ago, the national park sought a company to maintain the ageing Johnson Controls automation system. Computrols was small but had an interface system that met their needs. It bid on the project and won.

“We got it and over time we’ve been able to convert their entire system over to Computrols equipment,” said Drew Mire, vice president of operations.

Closer to home, Computrols will be installing its automation software and hardware at Southeastern Louisiana University’s new $24.4 million science and technology building. The building is slated to open in fall 2017.

New headquarters

Computrols spent $1.4 million in late March to purchase a 43,000-square-foot office and warehouse space at 2520 Belle Chasse Highway in Gretna. The facility once housed the former West Bank bureau for The Times-Picayune.

The company is in the process of renovating the property, which will house all of its offices and manufacturing operations once complete in a few months. In the meantime, it is struggling to find desks and space for new employees at its office in Rathborne Business and Industrial Park in Harvey.

“We’ve 100 percent outgrown this space,” Holstein said.

Computrols hopes to add new machinery in the move. The company uses so-called “pick and place” machines to manufacture its control boards. Robotic arms assemble the small electronic components on fibreglass boards at high speeds.

Computrols ‘pick and place’ machine build a control board in seconds “pick and place” machine at Computrols Inc. places the electronics for a control board at high speeds Wednesday, May 4, 2016. The Harvey-based building automation systems firm is expanding to a new location in Gretna where it plans to boost its manufacturing capacity and add employees. The company plans to add a third “pick and place” machine like the one shown in this video to manufacture more complex control boards. (Video by Computrols Inc.)

Mire said the new, larger facility has space to add a third machine to the company’s manufacturing line. The new machine will be able to handle dozens of electronic parts, including some components so tiny they are hard to see with the naked eye, he said. The goal is to go after more — and more complex — work with the new capacity, he said.

Mire said the company is looking to hire for a number of positions in coming months. The new headquarters will need a network administrator.  The company is looking for a customer service representative and purchasing agent in New Orleans as well as technicians and sales representatives across the country.

“Anybody with an electronics or a computer science background is someone we’re interested in working with,” Mire said. “At the end of the day, though, they have the right personality fit for us. That’s what we look for.”

It took a few decades, but Holstein and Mire said Computrols is emerging from the shadows and seeks a bigger presence in the local business scene. The company upgraded its website this year and is boosting its marketing.

We’ve been automating buildings for 30 years, but nobody really knew that” Mire said. “Now we have a lot of new guys who are motivated and eager to really kick things off.