BW Technologies: The smell of success

Written by Jack Kohane

Cody Slater has a nose for gas. In 1987, while working towards a degree in astrophysics at the University of Alberta, he invented an innovative device: a solar powered, wireless gas monitoring tool. He dropped out of university, started a company and took his first homemade gizmo on the trade show circuit. There, he snagged a fistful of orders, and sales have been wafting in ever since. “I identified a gap in the gas detection market and set about filling that need,” he says.

Fifteen years later, his firm, Calgary-based BW Technologies, is a global leader in the detection of noxious fumes. Slater’s products are used throughout the oil and gas production sector where workers are exposed to potentially hazardous gases. Current customers include British Petroleum, the Paris Fire Brigade and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gas monitoring is a highly competitive industry, but BW continues to thrive. Its revenue has grown from $10.2 million in 1998 to $39 million last year. Having recently been selected as Ernst and Young’s 2002 Prairies Region Entrepreneur of the Year, Slater reveals what has contributed to BW’s success and speedy growth in international markets.

Slater’s core focus is still on developing innovative products. “We’re building products that are smaller, smarter and cheaper — that’s what keeps us ahead of our competition. Customers want safe and reliable equipment with the least amount of maintenance required,” he says. BW spent 6% of its revenue in 2002 on product development.

And whereas most other manufacturers in this specialized sector generally take two to three years to bring a new product to market, Slater’s team of fourteen young, creative engineers do it about every eight months.

That’s why finding and keeping the right people is critical to BW’s success. And once it has them, BW needs to keep them motivated. Slater says that the company’s commitment to individual empowerment fuels the urge for innovation. “In addition to our unstructured corporate approach, we offer rewards and recognition for employees who’ve been with us for years,” he says. “This is how good people who share a vision and the drive to achieve come together.”

Highly qualified sales personnel with knowledge of international markets are another crucial element to BW’s sustained growth. “People with extensive experience in the domestic and foreign markets we target are of paramount importance,” he explains. “It’s these sales people who make our product a brand name known around the world.”

But he cautions that sales and marketing should never oversell a company’s ability to defeat every challenge. “Our approach is to be open and direct with our customers, telling them what we can achieve and what we realistically can do for them,” he says. “You need to set out aggressive goals, but the ends must always be achievable. Never overstate your capabilities.”

Entrepreneurs have a general reputation as being brazen risk-takers, but the victorious ones, Slater believes, are in fact more calculated. “They have a firm understanding of the underlying opportunities that most others can’t see. Then they pursue those opportunities with passion. With the help of the right team, and the right products, they can overcome just about any obstacle to success that confronts them.”

Read about other Winners — promising Canadian businesses or business people.

© 2003 Jack Kohane

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