If there is someone who represents the bull's eye of the target market for those new traveller's watches that display the correct time in 23 cities spanning 22 time zones around the globe, it's Tim Gelvin, vice president and general manager of Itron's international business unit. Regardless of where the sun is rising or setting, regardless of what language is spoken, and regardless of whether it's an introductory meeting, a full-scale metering system implementation or a strategic partnership discussion, he takes satisfaction in knowing that Itron never sleeps.
“That's really one of the things I find most exciting and rewarding about this job – no matter what time or what day it is, someone from Itron somewhere in the world is helping one of our customers run their business better,” says Gelvin, who came to Itron last summer to put the company's international business unit back on a track to sustained growth and consistent profitability. “That's exciting, and it's what gets us up early every morning.”
Gelvin likes the foundation he has to build upon. With more than 2,000 electric, gas and water utility clients in 45 countries, Itron is an industry leader among data collection technology companies serving utilities around the world. Itron technology, ranging from handheld computers to wireless fixed networks to software applications for advanced C&I metering, is used to collect data from more than 275 million electric, gas and water meters across 6 continents, and that number is growing every day.
After three years of marginal financial performance, Itron as a whole initiated sweeping restructuring efforts in 1999 and 2000 aimed at returning the company to profitability. Those efforts, which also led to Gelvin's arrival at Itron, have paid off. Itron posted strong earnings in 2000, surpassing Wall Street expectations. Nevertheless, in a diverse global market where customer requirements and operational environments change with every passport stamp, achieving sustained growth and profitability is not something a company can take for granted, Gelvin says. And complacency is a death sentence in today's market.
“Utilities throughout the world are under enormous pressure to increase shareholder value, increase efficiency, improve customer service, optimise distribution operations, prepare for deregulation, and manage energy and water resources more intelligently,” says Gelvin. “In short, utilities must become more competitive. That's precisely the value that Itron delivers to its customers – we collect, analyse and apply data and turn it into knowledge that utilities need to meet their operational and strategic objectives in a fast-changing and competitive marketplace. And to succeed, we need to leverage our knowledge to deliver a higher level of value to our customers than ever before. If we do that, growth and profitability will be the result.”
To achieve these objectives, Gelvin has set in motion a four-point strategy for revitalising and extending Itron's global leadership in meter data collection technologies. That strategy includes new products, improved speed to market, significantly expanded worldwide distribution channels and a carefully targeted alliance strategy aimed at delivering products to meet local market requirements in the most cost-effective and time-effective manner.
One of those new products is the Itron G5 handheld computer, or the TRx as it is known in Japan, where nearly 10,000 of the new high-power handheld units are being used to read more than 25 million meters every month at Hokaido Electric Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company. The development of the G5/TRx was a case study in the power of teamwork and customer focus. Itron, with its Japanese distribution partner Data Tech, partnered with leading Japanese utilities to understand and synthesise their requirements into a new meter reading computer for the 21st century.
The approach paid off. With a 33 MHz 486 processor, the Itron G5 computer raises the bar for handheld meter reading to an entirely new level by delivering better-than-ever meter reading performance and processing speed in a smaller-than-ever package. Launched in the North American market this past fall, the G5 handheld computer is Itron's frontline handheld computer in selected markets for both EMR and AMR applications.
The company's targeted alliance strategy reveals itself in other parts of the world, where Itron is leveraging its industry knowledge and market position by partnering with major players in the international metering industry to provide automatic meter reading (AMR) solutions to utilities in Mexico and on the European continent. These partnerships take on what can only be described as an ‘Itron Inside' development approach, says Gelvin.
In France, initial field deployments of Schlumberger Gallus 2000 gas meters equipped with Itron R400G radio frequency communication modules are underway in the city of Metz for Gaz de France (GDF). The 20,000 meter contract between Schlumberger Resource Management Services and GDF, which is the largest remote meter reading project for gas in France thus far, was the result of an agreement between Itron and Schlumberger to cross-market their meter reading technologies and develop new products for the European utility market. GDF meter readers will be able to read the meters remotely using Itron handheld computers equipped with radios. Partnership projects such as this complement Itron's continuing strong sales of its EMR, RMR (touchpad), strong sales of its EMR, RMR (touchpad), OMR, AMR, and work order systems to utilities in Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as new sales to countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia. Itron RF meter reading technology is the choice of utilities in 15 countries today – and that number is growing.
“One of the challenges facing AMR providers in the international arena is the diverse operational environments and RF standards, that can make it very difficult to develop and deliver a cost-effective AMR solution for a particular market,” says Joe Grant, managing director of Itron's European operations. “That's a key strength for Itron. We've been able to adapt our RF technology to meet customer and market requirements cost-effectively. This gives us a significant competitive advantage in the international market.”
In Mexico, Itron is also expanding its alliance network by partnering with IUSA-GE, a market leader in watt-hour meters supplied to the Mexican utility industry. The two companies are working together to adapt Itron's 45 Series Electric ERT meter module to fit IUSA's AP-85 polyphase meter as an initial step in developing AMR systems and solutions for Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission, or CFE, the national utility responsible for generation, transmission, distribution and sale of electricity to nearly all areas of Mexico apart from the Mexico City area.
The Caribbean has played host to another first for Itron in recent months, with the deployment of our first mobile AMR system outside North America for the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission. A van equipped with an Itron DataCommand Mobile AMR unit automatically collects data from some 15,000 electric meters equipped with Itron ERT meter modules simply by driving down the street. Deployment will continue throughout 2001.
Half a world away in Australia, Itron has maintained its own office for nearly a decade. The Itron-Australasia group serves an area that extends all the way to India and includes Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and New Zealand. The sale and support of Itron meter reading systems for both resi-dential and higher-end commercial and industrial energy and water customers remain the core of Itron-Australasia's business, reports Mike Kenyon, managing director of Itron-Australasia. In addition to meeting continuing demand for handheld electronic meter reading equipment and software throughout the continent, Itron-Australasia has deployed a steadily increasing number of wireless ‘Micro Networks’ to Australian utilities seeking to automate meter data collection from high-rise apartment buildings, Kenyon says.
With high turnover rates and meter access difficulties, high-rise apartment complexes are the bane of many meter reading operations, as they tend to consume an inordinate amount of meter reading time and resources. Utilities in Australia are solving these problems by installing Itron Micro-Networks. The MicroNetwork uses Itron's RF communications technology to gather data from meters equipped with ERT modules, and then employs existing telecommunications networks to send the data from local collection devices to the host processor. Thus far, Itron MicroNetworks have been deployed at 35 high-rise sites in Australia to automate data collection from water meters.
By embracing what Gelvin refers to as a “merchant mentality” to international business, Itron-Australasia has also scored some recent successes by leveraging its core meter reading competency for other markets and applications. In the arid Australian state of New South Wales, for example, where water is at a premium, the Australian Department of Land and Water Conservation wants to make sure that farmers are not extracting more than their allocated share of water from local rivers and streams. The remote location of the irrigation tanks means that monitoring these resources on a frequent basis isn't practical. Itron delivered a monitoring device that can be read by an ORBCOMM satellite every day to make sure the cotton farmers don't deplete the water resources. While in the pilot stage, Itron has already had encouraging interest from other authorities for similar applications.
Although residential metering products and applications account for the greater share of Itron sales worldwide, Itron's software solutions for advanced commercial and industrial meter data collection have made inroads into new global markets over the past two years, particularly in the People's Republic of China. Itron recently announced that Hong Kong Electric Company Ltd. (HEC) is implementing Itron data collection and analysis software to meet the metering needs of its C & I energy customers throughout Hong Kong Island.
Working with Wescon Technology Inc., its distribution partner in China, Itron provided HEC with its industry-leading MV-90 software, which will enable the utility to collect and process interval meter data from its 6,000 ‘Maximum Demand' customers automatically via telecommunications networks. HEC will use the data for billing, rate analysis, load research and system engineering purposes.
Though Itron's handheld meter reading systems have been used by utilities in Asia and the Pacific Rim countries for more than a decade, the past three years have brought increasing demand for its MV-90 software from Chinese utilities seeking improved capabilities for commercial and industrial metering. HEC joins seven other electric utilities in mainland China that have deployed MV-90 software over the past 36 months, says James Spencer, managing director of Pacific Rim and Latin America areas in Itron's international business unit.
For Gelvin, all the energy and work that span five continents, 45 countries, 24 time zones and a diverse array of customers can be distilled into a fairly simple idea that captures Itron's renewed sense of purpose in today's global marketplace: knowledge is critical for success.
“I honestly believe we are in the midst of the most profound changes in the history of the global utility industry, and technology will play a pivotal role in meeting the challenges that lie ahead,” says Gelvin, who sees demand for Itron products and systems in international markets increasing steadily over the next three to five years. “Utilities today need to be smarter than ever, more efficient than ever, and they need to be more responsive to changing customer needs if they're going to be successful. These are the keys to success for the global utility industry of the 21st century. Itron's purpose is to provide our customers with the know-ledge they require to shape their future. The next few years are going to be very exciting, no matter what time zone you're in.”