ERL Celebrates 50 Years Of Success
With more than 40 patents, ERL Commercial Marine takes pride in innovating and solving issues for customers.
“It’s one of the things that sets us apart,” said Stephen Wilkins, president of the company, based in New Albany, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, ERL evolved from a company selling satellite dishes and specialized gauges to America’s leading tank barge equipment provider.
Larry Wilkins, Stephen’s father, worked on the race to the moon for NASA in the 1960s. In 1970, he founded ERL. In the early years, ERL was mainly a job shop that made high precision parts for jet engines, paint mixers, forklifts and mining equipment. In the ‘80s, ERL grew into fabrication with a line of chairs for the rail industry and its own design of satellite dishes. Along the way, Wilkins kept designing his own products and engineering specialized quality control equipment for General Electric, knowing that one day he wanted to manufacture his own products, Stephen Wilkins recalled. For about 10 years running, the company was the preferred gauging vendor for General Electric.
In 1990, with the passage of the federal Oil Pollution Act, ERL began specializing in developing products for the tank barge industry. In 2005, the company purchased Law Valve of Texas in Houston, allowing it to reach a wider customer base for distribution and repairs. With the purchase, Law Valve expanded from seven to 37 employees.
“We’ve always been a company that thinks out of the box,” said Todd Marshall, vice president. “Larry was gifted at that.”
ERL’s product lineup now includes equipment for cargo gauging, overfill protection, venting, pumping and barge connection, all manufactured at the company’s 50,000-square-foot facility in New Albany, Ind.
The development of the SGM-1 Marine Sight Glass has proven to be one of its top products. The sight glass seals vapors while providing visual level indication on a tank. ERL also developed an alarm system and pressure vacuum valve, all allowing closed loading of tank barges. Its 6-inch high-velocity PV valve is also highly sought as its weight-operated system does not use springs, making it better sealing and thus safer, more effective and more accurate.
“We’ve taken over the market with that,” Marshall said.
A newer product is ERL’s line of deep well vertical turbine barge pumps, developed at a customer’s request and with a patented design to optimize flow rate and efficiency of pumps removing liquid cargo from a tank barge.
“We can discharge a barge faster and with less fuel than our competitors,” Wilkins said.
Each piece of equipment in ERL’s product line is designed with safety in mind, for the customer, its employees and the environment. That goes along with the Golden Rule posted prominently throughout the buildings at its company headquarters: “Simply stated, it is to treat others in the way that we want to be treated,” the rule states. “This simple rule continuously guides our behavior toward our customers, our employees and our vendors.”
The company also wants to make sure every product is exactly what customers need. That’s why their catalog not only references the Coast Guard regulations each is designed to meet, but also includes a text description of exactly how the product meets it.
“But by the same token, we have to make sure it’s effective,” Marshall said, stressing the company’s strict quality standards.
ERL keeps costs low for its customers by doing work in-house, from research and development, to manufacturing, sales, delivery and installation. “We cut the stock, machine it, weld it, whatever we have to do,” Marshall said.
They also stand behind their products. Every product is tested on site before it ships. Additionally, “When you have an issue, you’re calling the person who made it,” Marshall said. With stock in New Orleans, Houston and New Albany, new parts can be delivered anywhere in the country, typically within 24 hours.
Sometimes, Wilkins said, customers already reliant on ERL products call the company when they discover the need for a new product to meet their demands. “We work alongside them,” Wilkins said. “We feel like they’re partners with us.”
Marshall called it service-led growth.
“Almost every product we’ve developed is because a customer says we have a need for this,” he said.
In the last 10 years, ERL has tripled in size, Wilkins said. That hasn’t just benefitted the company, but also its close to 100 employees because of its business model. Forty percent of the business is employee-owned.
In the end, ERL’s commitment to innovative, thoroughly tested, quality American-made products at a fair price backed by efficient service has kept customers coming back again and again for 50 years, Wilkins said. With its current success and a plan for the future, employees and managers are confident that growth will continue for many more years to come.