Like so many of the people involved in the valve industry, 40-year-veteran Richard Coffman can trace much of his success to being in the right place at the right time, and being confident enough to take advantage of an opportunity.
Coffman received his Bachelors of Science in Electrical Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and began his career as a mechanical designer at GE in the Specialty Controls Department. There he worked in the value engineering department where he designed GE-printed circuit boards used to drive servovalves, which controlled the turbine speed on many GE turbine control systems.
After a time, he became an engineer for Moog Aerospace and worked on servovalves and hydraulics for projects ranging from the space shuttle main engine, solid rocket booster and thrust vector control systems, to the AIM 7 F (Sparrow missile), Trident missile, MX missile guidance control systems and high-energy laser pointing and tracking Gimbal systems used on orbiting space platforms and aircraft such as the F15 and F18.
“While all of this sounds very glamorous and exciting,” Coffman said, “Aerospace was also very stressful. I worked on some very difficult problems associated with sealing the hydraulic controls and some of the very sophisticated thrust-vector shuttle main engine controls. In the early days the plane was built without the control systems and Moog was the only company that could fill those holes in the thrust vector controls for both of those rocket motors. Because of the technical capability we needed to meet the schedules on shooting the shuttle, there was always one delay after another, and I realized very quickly that the stress associated with that kind of engineering was not for me.”
Coffman worked in the aerospace division for about three years, then transferred to Moog Industrial Controls Division and worked on the servo control systems for assembly and welding robots in automotive production and on GE and Westinghouse steam and gas turbine generators.
Planting the Seed
“I was at General Tire Corporation one day and they had a lot of servovalves on their grinding machines. An engineer showed me 50-gallon drums full of servovalves worth $3,000 a piece,” said Coffman. “He said he needed someone who could fix those valves. They were grinding automobile tires, and the paraphernalia from the grinding process was getting into the valves and clogging them up.”
And so an idea—and a business—was born. “I developed a method to clean and calibrate those valves and bring them to a near new condition without a lot of expense,” he recalled. Then, in 1979, Coffman assembled the prototype of his first flow stand in the garage of his North Carolina home. “It was an X-Y positioning system used in the textile industry. I’d purchased it from a textile company that went belly up, and actually pulled it out of their scrap pile. Using that, I manufactured a very accurate control system that could test all the parameters of the servo control valves.”
Another fortuitous circumstance made it possible for Coffman to acquire another piece of the puzzle that would ultimately end up being his business. “A friend of mine had decided to retire, and I ended up buying out his company, which had machinery and equipment, and in that inventory were some good controls that I could put into a new design for a more accurate and dependable test emulator for a control system for both static and dynamic testing.”
This allowed Coffman to precisely control hydraulic pressure and flow to fully test servovalves used in industrial applications. Later that year, using his perfected flow stand test design, Richard founded ServoCon.
Coffman is very grateful for every opportunity that came his way, and says each one of them was a gift, as are every one of the people who become part of his company and his life. “We couldn’t do near the things we are doing without the good people that work with us. We only have 20 people, but with computers and parametric modeling, they probably do things that companies with several hundred people can’t do.”
Education, Humor and Fun
But it’s not just about technical capabilities, according to Coffman. He is a firm believer in the importance of nurturing everyone in an organization. “People are the lifeblood of your business. Of course I’m very proud of our people, and they must be treated with respect and care. But it’s not just our people. That applies no matter what business, no matter what job within that business.”
Coffman said that often his employees are dealing with power plants and short time outages and schedules, so the stress can be very high. There is a lot of pressure to get to the end result very quickly. “If you do a final assembly on a valve and the parts aren’t made accurately, then when you do the final test and it’s not right, you have a situation that impacts schedule,” he said. “Then you have to remake everything and it gets very costly so you can’t be competitive. To avoid that, you have to have your people in top notch form.”
He stressed the importance of proper rest. “Don’t overwork people, they will burn out,” he said. “Sure, there are times when schedules get pushy and sometimes you have to work 16 hours a day. But that’s for a short term and once the job is done, people need to take the time off to get the rest they need and to recuperate. You have to allow the freedom to do that sort of thing.”
Coffman is also a firm believer in the power of laughter. “You know, it’s important to have fun. What’s the point if you don’t have fun? Now, not all kidding is appreciated, and you have to be respectful, but a good sense of humor is very important in business.
“I also believe you have to help people get the education they need,” said Coffman. “If someone wants to go to and learn something specific, then we send them! It’s important to nurture that desire to learn. Everyone needs to have joy in what they do, and if learning something contributes to that, then so be it!”
With his family now working right beside him, and no plans to retire, Coffman seems a contented man. And while many might attribute his success to luck and good timing, Richard Coffman believes there is a bit more involved. “I probably never would have gotten any of the wonderful things I have, my business, my family, without spending time in quiet contemplation. I found out early, especially as I got deeper into the valve business, I’m just not smart enough to do all these things. I had to seek help to get to the place where I could get the solutions.”
Coffman said this is something that he would suggest to anyone as a way to gain more wisdom and have more faith in oneself because, according to him, in this business you can get fearful really quick about whether or not you can do a thing. “In order to do whatever you need to do, you need a unifying principle in your life.”
It certainly seems to have worked for Richard Coffman.