Skipper spoke with Correctional News during a phone interview from his Greenville, Ala., office.
Correctional News: You have been involved with projects at 1,200 different correctional facilities. What do you think is most critical for the operational success at a facility?
Tim Skipper: The control system plays a major role in the successful operation of a facility. The architectural plan and the layout of a facility are critical also. But, without the control systems to make things function and operate, it doesn’t matter how well you are laid out because nothing works.
There has been a significant change since we started 20 years ago. When we first started, 90 percent of the facilities were using hard graphics panels. Even though there was some integration with all of the different control centers, we have far surpassed that capability with touch-screen control centers and the ability to link everything in the facility together.
What we are doing now versus 20 years ago is a pretty significant leap in technology. The ability now is for an officer to sit in one place and conveniently control everything in an entire facility.
CN: Was the change gradual at your company or did it happen quickly?
TS: It was pretty gradual. When we first started, we did all graphic control panels with a programmable controller base. As we progressed through the years, the machinery and the software became accessible and we began to move toward the touch-screen style control with the rest of the industry.
We still have a few state systems that use the old hardwire systems. But, several years ago we were building 90 percent hard panels and 10 percent touch screens. That percentage has changed and now we are building 90 to 95 percent touch screens.
That is the interchange in the technology, and the result in the change of technology has brought the price down. I can actually produce the touch-screen system for less money than we can produce the hard-panel system.
CN: It seems like it could be difficult for the few jurisdictions that continue to use the hard-panel systems because the technology might not be available in the future.
TS: The technology that they are using is probably going to be available for some time in the future. Even though it is much higher technology than what they are accustomed to, one of the key reasons jurisdictions stay with the old style systems is they don’t believe their maintenance people can maintain the new system, and they perceive that the older systems are easier to maintain. They do need to have a little more training than just an electrician, but with just a little bit of electronics knowledge we can teach them to maintain and work on these systems with very little support from us.
CN: So the learning curve is not as high as people sometimes assume?
TS: Most of these jurisdictions that hold out are behind the times with what they are providing. With the touch screens, we log all the activity in a facility. That provides quality assurance to their operations and integrity. When the officers know that everything they do is being logged, they are much more likely to do the right thing. That feature alone is probably worth a shift in technology from the old style to the new style.
CN: Is there a common mistake that you see at facilities that install operating systems in new construction or retrofit projects?
TS: Yes. A larger portion of our business is retrofits. We have maintained backwards compatibility for everything that we have ever done. We went back and retrofitted some of the original work that we did. We upgraded the facilities from hard panels to touch-screen operations. All of our new products are backwards compatible with the old devices.
We have an upgrade plan. The biggest mistake made in the electronics business today is with many of the systems there is no means of maintaining a system past 10 years. Most industrial controllers have a 10-year life cycle. We encounter facilities that are trapped after just a few years and cannot buy replacement components. The contrast with MTI is we have maintained that backwards compatibility so we can go back in and upgrade a system and bring it up to today’s standards without total system replacement.
CN: What is the most important business lesson you have learned in the 20 years since you co-founded MTI?
TS: Never give up. There were four of us originally — all engineers that started the company — and I’ve been involved with several other companies. It was unique starting the company with a group of engineers, rather than accountants or business majors and those types of guys. It gave us a little bit of a different perspective on the way thing should be done.
There have been days when you could buy this company for really cheap. Today is not one of them, but there have been those days. The main lesson is don’t give up, just keep pushing. That is not to say there are not some pretty tough times when you start a business, but if you have a good idea and a good work ethic, good things happen sooner or later.
CN: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced?
TS: The biggest challenge that we have had has been overcoming the negative marketing of the competition. Most of the bigger companies want to point at us and say we are too small. When we first started they said we would not last very long. Twenty years later, most of the companies that have pointed accusing fingers have been bought and sold, or their employees are working for someone else now.
The biggest problem for us when we started the business was getting our product accepted by the marketplace in general. Because of our size and agility, the bigger companies had a problem competing with us price-wise, so their marketing thrust is to try to keep us from being approved by the owners, architects and engineers. Our whole sales point is we have a better product that is built for a specific task that is well engineered to last into the future, and we are at a lower price. We don’t sell every job we go after, but we get our fair share of projects.
CN: What has been your greatest success?
TS: Our greatest achievement is the introduction of new products and ideas into the marketplace. We are smaller and to some degree we have to be more aggressive than the bigger companies. We have led the industry in innovation in a number of areas. We have used the wireless hand-held devices for control of direct supervision areas for five or six years now. We have a PLC programming language that is so simple that any technician can pick it up and read it and understand it, which gives the owner the ability to read and understand his programs, and actually troubleshoot the system.
We also have some other products that we have brought in the market that are not new to the electronics market, but new to the detention market, such as voice-over IP, and the wireless devices.
Our greatest accomplishment is getting out there and finding new technology and applying that in a marketplace that is really hesitant to use new technology.
CN: Where do you see the technology going in the future?
TS: We look to maintain the position of being first in the marketplace with new ideas. I get new ideas from getting out and talking with customers. I still do a lot of the selling myself, so I’m out with the customers. I wish I could tell you that we came up with them, but our good ideas come from our customers. We try to listen to what their needs are and go back as engineers and develop a solution for that particular problem. Oftentimes we are using the available products on the market and the technology that is available to provide those solutions.
CN: Do you think there will be any dramatic changes in technology?
TS: I think we are going to see more wireless control. The next level of integration is with jail management software and the control system. One of the places where we have integrated that is with the hand-held devices that control doors that are also used to scan wristbands on inmates. Accessibility of data and the ability to control a facility with a portable device is where we see technology headed in the immediate future.
As far as brand-new technology, I’m looking for it, so if you have any ideas I’m willing to hear them.