Pounding the global pavement

Williston business sells nanotechnology

March 31, 2011

By Adam White
Observer correspondent
John Arnott, chairman of Ladd Research Industries, examines the effects of a vacuum evaporator on fragments of silicon monoxide at his company’s facility in Williston. (Observer photo by Adam White)

The thrusters fire on an unmanned communications satellite, changing the direction of its orbit around the Earth. A near-non-existent tissue sample is magnified a million times under the beam of an electron microscope. A proton zips through a mile-long, underground particle accelerator, helping scientists unlock the very nature of matter.
And the man whose Williston company makes it all possible closes yet another deal with nothing more complex than his word and a handshake.

“I’ve been a salesman all my life,” said John Arnott, chairman of Ladd Research Industries. “I’m the last remaining Willy Loman, from the old school. We’re in a technology market, but I am by no means a technical guy. I’m just a traveling salesman.”
Arnott estimates that he and his wife Rita spend up to 100 nights a year on the road – and that they logged close to 50,000 miles of travel last November and December alone. That dogged persistence helped Ladd become a world leader in nanotechnology, particularly the kind of specialized aperture discs used to regulate the fuel in a satellite thruster and focus the beam in an electron microscope.

“Because we have a specific ability that no one else has, we’ve carved out a place for ourselves in the global market,” Arnott said. “Basically, we make little holes in things.”
Margaret and Bill Ladd, who worked on the first electron microscope built in North America at the University of Toronto in the 1930s, founded Ladd Research Industries in 1954. Arnott began working at the company as a salesman in 1974.

Bill Ladd recognized the role aperture technology would play in many rapidly advancing areas of science, as well as ways to market other equipment and supplies to laboratories.
But the Ladds’ ambition eventually got the best of them, as the demands for their company’s technology simply could not support a staff that ballooned to close to 40 people. The company went under in the late 1980s, and the Arnotts bought it out of bankruptcy in 1991 with a new personnel vision that has proved ideal.

“We do more today with nine people than they did back then with 38,” Arnott said. “Their problem was that they had no versatility; they had way too many specialists. The secret to how we survive is that everyone’s willing – and able – to do everything.”

Some of Ladd’s staff came from backgrounds far removed from nanotechnology.

Production manager Casey O’Connor was a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician before coming to Ladd 16 years ago, when he followed in the footsteps of his mother Pauline, a 20-year veteran of the company.

“I think it’s in my blood,” said O’Connor. “I picked it up rather quickly.”

O’Connor uses a drill with a miniscule spade bit to make aperture holes, typically one-tenth the diameter of a single human hair, in tiny discs of metal such as platinum and molybdenum. O’Connor said that Ladd has a serious need for more production help to keep up with the orders that keep pouring in, and that the skill set necessary for success at the job does not include any formal scientific training.

“You need good hand/eye coordination, manual dexterity and an eye for detail,” O’Connor said, “but probably, the biggest thing (you need) is patience. You can’t do this job if you’re frustrated or distracted; you need a clear mind.”

While O’Connor, fellow production manager Michael Bouchard and the rest of the Ladd team work hard to keep the company’s products on the cutting edge of technology, Arnott will stick to what he knows best: the road. Though he claims that he “hasn’t had a vacation in years,” his eyes light up when he recounts sales trips that took him into the jungle in Africa and caves outside Hanoi in Vietnam.

His son, J.D. – the president of Ladd and “brains behind the operation,” according to his father – has suggested using business technologies such as Internet conferencing to cut down on travel mileage, but he admits there is still a need for pounding the global pavement.

“Personal contacts are important in this business, and I’m not sure if you get that with computers and Skype,” J.D. Arnott said. “John’s role is one that we will continue to have; we might retire it with him, but I think he’ll fill it for many years.”