Justin Harvey knows he has an industrial-sized pair of shoes to fill as he takes the helm at A+ Corporation, a family-owned and operated gas sample conditioning system service company in Gonzales, LA.
The 30-year-old Harvey was just a toddler when his legendary grandfather Donald Mayeaux founded the company in 1989. Mayeaux earned his reputation for developing product concepts that changed the manner in which natural gas was sampled.
He pioneered the use of membranes for removing liquids to protect analyzers in both gas and liquid streams with the Genie® Membrane Separators™. They were able to apply the technology in sample extraction probes for high-pressure natural gas pipelines that can be installed under pipeline pressure. This patented technology is the only one of its kind written into and accepted by industry standards. The company now holds 32 patents with eight more pending, having sold nine additional patents, according to A+’s website. A+ also has developed a network of distributors in over 20 countries.
At the same time he was building his company, Mayeaux was also concerned about keeping the company within the family, and transitioned ownership and control of the company to his children, hoping that one of his heirs would pick up the reins and build upon the scientific principles he had established.
Mayeaux died in 2012, and last July Justin was named president of the company. But it’s not like he was ever a stranger, having been formally employed by the company for 11 years. His most recent positions were Vice President and North American Sales Manager.
Said his mother, Sheila Harvey, company co-owner, when the promotion was announced, “Justin exhibits the same passion for his work that my father did. We are confident in his leadership and excited both for him and A+.”
In this interview with P&GJ, Harvey talks about his grandfather’s legacy, his plans for A+ and the challenges of maintaining a family-owned business in today’s increasingly competitive environment.
P&GJ: Justin, what prompted your grandfather to start A+ Corporation?
Harvey: My grandfather was involved in several businesses before A+ but it was all large, capital-intensive products with long sales cycles. After surviving the crash of 1983, he wanted to sell less expensive products at higher volumes. He found his niche when he invented the Genie® Membrane Separator™.
P&GJ: How was he involved in the natural gas business prior to this?
Harvey: He was very familiar with analyzers from his time working for Bordon Chemical Co. Additionally, he designed and developed, commercialized and sold a process mass spec controller, a digital static gas blender, an ethylene oxide analyzer and a moisture analyzer for the natural gas industry.
P&GJ: What was his educational background, and how did he develop such expertise in gas sampling?
Harvey: My grandfather had a high school education (was valedictorian of his class) from a small Louisiana town. Most people dread studying but he had a true passion and desire to learn. He learned by reading and self-study and by applying what he learned. He was so successful in this that many times he would have to explain the practical application of physics and chemistry to engineers with BS, MS and Ph.Ds. At Borden Chemical, he was the “go-to problem solver,” saying that “99% of solving a problem was to correctly identify it.” He started his first business because he could no longer be promoted at Borden Chemical without a formal college degree.
P&GJ: From what you’ve learned, what were some of the challenges he faced in started and growing the company, and how was he able to surmount them?
Harvey: He started the business with a small amount of savings. He told my grandmother that they only had that amount to start the business and it was either going to be successful or it wasn’t. He would make several trips a week to Houston from Prairieville, LA and make four sales calls a day. He would leave most mornings at 3 a.m.
P&GJ: How do you remember your grandfather, and what were his greatest contributions to the industry?
Harvey: He was a source of joy and happiness for me, and he always had a smile on his face. He taught me everything I know and I cherish the time on the road with him. His greatest contributions to the industry would be the introduction of the phase-separation membrane and his introduction of application-driven product selection, based on his practical application of physics and chemistry to the sample analysis segment of the natural gas industry. He was the first in this industry to realize the importance of sample conditioning because most people focused solely on the analyzer. To this end, he founded NGSTech.
P&GJ: The Genie® Membrane Separator™ is the company’s best-known product and is based on proprietary research & development. What is unique about this technology and what is its importance to the gas industry?
Harvey: The Genie® Membrane is the original phase separation membrane protection specifically designed for natural gas analysis. It was a simple solution for a complex problem. We started with this membrane technology used to protect natural gas analyzers near the analyzers with many OEMs incorporating it into their analyzers. Later, Don realized that the most analytically correct method of sample conditioning was to make the phase separation inside the natural gas pipeline at the flowing gas conditions. The patented Genie® Membrane Probe™ technology was born and thousands are in service around the world today.
P&GJ: Where did you grow up, what were your interests, and when did you first get involved in the business?
Harvey: I grew up in Prairieville and was interested in my grandfather’s products from a very early age. I used to bring demo cases to school for show-and-tell and he even came to my school several times to show off the products (in truth, I had no idea what was happening, I only saw colored liquid flowing through tubes). I first got involved when I managed the website when I was in tenth grade. I worked here on and off until starting fulltime when I was 19. My first job here was as a parts washer.
P&GJ: What was the chronological leadership of A+ from 1989 to now?
Harvey: My grandfather from 1989-2005, my uncle Keith Mayeaux from 2005-2013, my mother Sheila Mayeaux Harvey from 2013-2015 and then me in 2015.
P&GJ: When and why did you decide you’d like to follow in his footsteps?
Harvey: I had a passion for what we do initially because they were his inventions. There is something truly special about selling products that you truly believe in. Even though he is gone, this company still feels like a part of him and a part of the family. Additionally, I had the opportunity to travel with and be in business with my grandfather. Most people do not get to have an adult relationship like this with their parents or grandparents, so it made us a lot closer. Once I really got into it, I found that I enjoyed organizational behavior, management theory, change management and many other topics.
P&GJ: Moving forward, what is your business strategy? Where do you see room for improvement and future growth? Will you continue to invest in developing new technologies?
Harvey: We will continue to grow by innovation and expansion of current markets. Additionally, the current business climate may allow us to grow by acquisition.
P&GJ: What are the challenges today in maintaining and growing a family-owned business?
Harvey: The challenges of maintaining and growing a family-owned business can be paralyzing if the next generation isn’t prepared or if the employees aren’t prepared for the next-gen leader. I was lucky that we had an excellent succession plan in place, and a business coach to guide me through the rough patches. I have worked in every aspect of my business, except accounting, so I feel I have gained the respect of my people. Additionally, decisions can be made more difficult because emotion may be involved. This doesn’t mean that I don’t make the correct decision, it just makes it harder.
P&GJ: As the designated heir, so to speak, do you feel a certain amount of pressure to prove yourself?
Harvey: Not anymore. I have been in this business for 11 years now, and feel confident in my position, both inside and outside of A+. I know who I am as a person and as a leader and am quite comfortable in my style, my morals and my capabilities. Hopefully, my actions speak for themselves now.
P&GJ: With outlets in over 20 countries, how difficult is to deal in regions that might be new to the gas- sampling technology where industry standards may be lacking?
Harvey: It can be very difficult dealing with the paperwork needed to sell into other countries. Also, marketing materials need to be translated and unique laws need to be followed. We are lucky to have a seasoned international sales manager who is well-versed in dealing with these issues.
P&GJ: How many other members of your family work for A+?
Harvey: I am lucky to work with the two most important women in my life: my wife, Shannon, and my mother. So far we have not driven each other crazy (or maybe we have driven each other so crazy that it works).
P&GJ: What do you think will be the next significant advance in gas sampling?
Harvey: Continuing the spirit of innovation, the company currently has eight patent applications on file. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one of those changing our industry in the same tradition that my grandfather started.
P&GJ: Is it difficult to find millennials who want to work in this industry?
Harvey: So far, we haven’t had difficulty in recruiting or retaining millennials. I’ve found they are hungry to learn, hardworking and excellent with technology utilization. The interesting challenge is to integrate millennials and baby boomers (the majority of the current millennial workforce I’ve encountered are those that graduated on/around 2000, which gives them more Gen X traits than perhaps those who were born in the early-mid ’90s). Boomers tend to be defensive of their knowledge and processes, more close-minded to new techniques, but significantly more experienced than the millennials. These two sets of traits can be dichotomous. What has worked for me is to go slowly, reward small wins and slowly lead them together in the direction you want to head. This is what’s fun for me.
P&GJ: How would you describe your leadership style?
Harvey: I aspire to be a servant leader, though I doubt I will ever be able to call myself a servant leader (it’s like trying to be a gentleman, you can never really call yourself a gentleman). Being in a family business, there is no reason for me to take the glory, so deferring kudos is easy and appreciated by my employees. Ultimately, I’d like to be the dumbest guy in the room because then I’ll know I’ve done my job properly. I want employees who have high learning agility, who love to devour new info. I want the guy that wins at Trivial Pursuit because he’ll give you the idea you haven’t thought of.