A History of Innovation: A Visit to SECO

A 4.730Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

It’s been 30 years since Paul Ogden decided to use the knowledge handed down from his father, Ivan Ogden, to make his mark in the surveying industry. The result, SECO Manufacturing Co., Inc., today a multi-million dollar company with a worldwide reputation of being on the cutting edge of manufacturing surveying and global positioning equipment accessories. These include telescopic poles, GPS antennae poles, surveying instrument tripods, prism systems and carrying cases.

SECO is a privately-held, family-owned corporation. Third-generation Mike and Mark Ogden grew up with the business. Paul is CEO, Mark is the President of the company and Mike is Special Projects Manager. The Ogdens, along with Vice President Mike Dahl, are all partners in SECO Manufacturing. The operation is housed in a 90,000 square-foot plant in Redding, California which encompasses corporate headquarters, customer service, research and development, and a complete manufacturing facility.

Our equipment reviewer, Al Pepling, once wrote about his experiences as a machinist. If you read the Joe Arnold ProFile in this issue, you’ll learn that Joe’s brother’s works with gauge blocks. Those of you who are older will remember feeler gauges which were used to set the tappet clearances for engine valves–glad those days are gone! My point is that measurement takes many forms, and that a machinist measures and positions just as a surveyor does, except on a smaller scale and with much tighter tolerances. SECO is in the business of making accessories for surveying, and almost all of that involves machining.

For a surveyor like myself, a visit to SECO headquarters is a gadget-lover’s paradise ­ unique little attachments that make it not only possible, but easier to do our work. Over there are brackets to attach a data collector to a tripod or a range pole, and over here are small blocks of machined metal that act as the interface between one piece of equipment and another…

SECO got its start making these items with the introduction of standards-mount EDMs. When EDMs first arrived, they were standalone boxes (like the HP 3800) that mounted on a tripod. After turning the angles, the instrument was removed and replaced with the bulky EDM. As electronics allowed the EDMs to shrink in size, they were eventually mounted on the instrument telescope. Those who used the telescope-mounted EDMs intuitively knew that this placed stress on the telescope bearing. In 1977, Paul Ogden realized that the EDM needed to be mounted in the instrument standards. To keep the EDM aligned with the telescope, a precisely machined interface was needed between the EDM and the instrument, and SECO got its start making these metal interfaces, called yoke adapters.

This year, SECO celebrates it 30th anniversary in the business. But the SECO story really began in 1944 when Ivan Ogden, Paul’s father, developed polio and was confined to a wheelchair. Prior to his illness, Ivan had worked as a civil engineer for the State of California Division of Highways in different parts of Northern California. Before settling in Sacramento, he worked in the Bay Area, including a stint as a surveyor on the Bay Bridge. After his illness, Ivan was unable to return to work, so he began repairing survey transits from the front room of the house where Paul grew up.

Soon thereafter, Ivan and his wife Viola opened a retail surveying business called Ogden Surveying Equipment Company (OSECO) in Sacramento. They offered instruments, equipment, supplies and services to the land surveyor. In 1965 Paul opened his first retail store, Surveying Equipment Company (SECO), in Redding.

In 1977, Ogden established a new corporation, SECO Manufacturing Company, Inc., to focus on manufacturing rather than retail. In 1978, Paul exhibited at the annual ACSM show and displayed several of the aluminum EDM adapters. There were many instruments on the market and each one had a different contour and configuration where the mount attached (usually in the screw holes for the instrument handle). SECO offered adapters for any instrument. In its first year, the company had gross sales of $175,000.

Myriad changes in surveying equipment began with the introduction of the EDM in the 1970s. SECO got out of retail sales, and sold its last retail outlet in 1984. But the introduction of the total station created a need for numerous other accessories, such as poles that would hold the glass prisms for the distance meters, carrying cases, tripods, etc. Since there is no longer a market for the pioneering yoke adapter, it was officially discontinued in 1995.

Vice President Mike Dahl joined the company in 1975 after serving two tours of duty in Viet Nam in the Marine Corps. He has been an integral part of the company’s success. Dahl’s son, Lance Corporal Matt Dahl, currently serves in the infamous Anbar Province in Iraq. Dahl has also been active in the community, having served as Redding’s Mayor for two terms.

Today, SECO serves two kinds of customers, retail and OEM. With its roots in retail, the company is keenly focused on customer service. Their perspective is unique: according to Dahl, when they receive a customer compliant, they view it as a gift. SECO serves the retail dealer network with a combination of tele-servicing and direct contact. Five in-house representatives provide frequent contact and full service to the company’s more than 300 dealers. The country is broken into regions, and each representative is responsible for informing the dealers about new products and providing customer service. SECO also has "on the road" representatives that make direct contact with the dealers by visiting their facilities, attending trade shows and providing on-site training. One of the in-house reps, Penny Ripley, has been with the company for 16 years and is responsible for 75 dealers. Ripley echoed what Dahl said: the company is absorbed in customer service, and thanks those who have the occasional complaint. Ripley said, "We’re here to take care of our customer’s needs and solve problems."

If you attend surveying trade shows, you’ve probably run into another vital component of SECO’s success, Mike Copeland. Copeland is in charge of SECO’s R&D department and is responsible for taking the napkin sketches he develops from customer requests, often at trade shows, and then putting the idea through a very detailed process that includes prototyping and an exhaustive paper trail. As part of our visit, we met with Chris Hunter, Director of Engineering, who is in charge of managing the paper trail for the hundreds of products SECO has developed over the years. These folks have a lot of filing cabinets full of drawings!

In 1993, SECO moved to its current facility which holds all facets of the manufacturing business. In addition to a state-of-the-art machine shop, the building also contains anodizing, electrostatic powder-painting and silk-screening departments, and assembly. Of the more than 130 employees, nearly half work in manufacturing. The company also has a plant in Tecate, Mexico, where all of the soft goods such as vests and bags are made. This 17,000 square-foot plant was opened in 1999. Since 1990, SECO has imported a certain amount of Chinese products and has created strategic alliances with several Chinese companies. Dahl commented, "Some items, such as tripods, simply have to be made in China because some U.S.-made items are no longer competitive." Orders for Chinese components must be placed more than six months in advance to ensure that they will arrive in the U.S. in time.

Providing the U.S. Marine Corps with gear bags is one of the company’s latest steps forward. We also saw another new product ­ a "smart
vest" made from material that helps the wearer maintain a constant body temperature. You can learn more about this unique material by visiting http://www.outlast.com/index.php?id=71.

In order to provide customer service and planning, SECO has implemented a sophisticated software program called "Made2Manage." The Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system encompasses all aspects of the company including payroll, shipping, scheduling, inventory, and sales. Bar codes are used extensively throughout the production process to aid in tracking labor and inventory. The company manages more than 9,000 active parts. Obviously, keeping track of all these various parts would be impossible without the ERP system, and inventory can be checked from any computer terminal.

In addition to the ERP system, SECO’s R&D and Engineering departments use a program called SolidWorks (a 3D mechanical design automation package), which makes rapid prototype creation possible. These technologies have allowed SECO to create innovative new products quickly as well as develop a variety of one-of-a-kind machines used in the production process. Copeland commented that before the company started using the 3D design software, conflicts such as an interfering screw might not be discovered until the prototype had been made. With the design software, conflicts are seen right away.

The company is firmly committed to meeting or exceeding environmental restrictions. Dahl said that even though California doesn’t have laws in place for many of the processes SECO uses, the company has created its own compliance regs, including green packaging and waste management. Additionally, there are NAFTA and EU regulations that impact the company.

I asked Dahl for the secret of SECO’s success. He said, "Never sell a customer something they don’t need, and stay humble and nimble." When we were there, Mark Ogden stressed that the owners are there every day, thereby enabling efficient decision-making.

What a difference a few years makes! I last visited SECO Manufacturing in 1999. Since then the company has grown three-fold. It has quadrupled its revenues with less people, and currently manufactures half OEM and half its own label. Ten percent of revenues come from Chinese imports, ten percent from the Tecate operation, and the rest are generated in Redding. SECO has made a one million dollar investment in machining equipment since 1999. SECO provides a vital service to surveyors by meeting a niche need that makes our work more productive, and to my knowledge, is the only accessories manufacturer that routinely responds to ideas and surveyor input for these marvelous but unsung gizmos. The owners have no plans to sell the company and look forward to many more decades of innovation.

Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.

A 4.730Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE