NH’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year
BY JOHN PIKE
MILFORD, NH—Last June, the New Hampshire High Technology Council named Steve Boucher of Amherst, NH its “Entrepreneur of the Year.” Boucher is chairman and CEO of Airmar Technology Corp., a Milford, NH-based sensor manufacturer. Airmar’s products are used in the boating industry for locating fish, measuring water depth and temperature, wind speed and direction, and barometric pressure. Airmar also manufactures Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors and electronic compasses.
Boucher is on the board of directors of Northway Financial, Inc. of North Conway. He also serves as vice president of the Milford Industrial Development Corp., and assists other organizations in southern NH. Boucher received the award because he successfully built a company with a demonstrated track record. Other factors include his volunteer work and efforts to encourage his employees to accept greater responsibility, offer suggestions and succeed.
With his two Cornell University engineering degrees (and a Harvard MBA), he has conducted his own research, resulting in 18 patents both individually and collaboratively, and authored several technical papers. Two of his family members work for Airmar, including his wife Arda, a technical writer, and daughter, Erin, who works in maintenance.
ITN: What has the Entrepreneur of the Year award done for you?
SB: I see it as recognition for what we as a company have accomplished.
ITN: How did you get the idea to start the company?
SB: I grew up in a family that had a sawmill in Berlin. I got into the sensor business sort of by accident. I didn’t really have a good plan. I was helping a friend, acting as a sales representative selling transducers (sensors) for his company. I obtained a very large order of 10,000 transducers, and soon after, the company went bankrupt. To fill the order, I started Airmar in 1981 with an initial investment of $80,000. We now gross upwards of $20 million annually.
The success of Airmar was partly due to luck, with the introduction of our innovative sensors coinciding with the development of other new technologies, namely small cathode ray tubes (CRTs). It was vital for displaying our sensor data on small boats.
ITN: Have you considered moving manufacturing operations offshore?
SB: Yes, we have. Instead of moving our assembly operations to Asia, we believe we can stay competitive by purchasing components manufactured offshore such as castings and labor-intensive cable assemblies. We complete the manufacturing process in Milford.
ITN: Is there any government legislation, either at the federal or state level, which would help the technology industry in New Hampshire?
SB: I believe they should make the federal research and development tax credit permanent because it has been a huge benefit for our company in advancing our technology and providing jobs.
In addition, the annual very high increases in health care premiums are unsustainable. For us, it increased 20 percent in 2006. For our 200 employees, it now costs upwards of $1 million annually. Airmar defrays 70 percent of the total, with the employees paying the rest. Much of their annual raise goes to paying for health care. You can see where these rising health care premiums are going. Since we spend much more on heath care per capita than any other country, it is damaging U.S. competitiveness.
ITN: How do you see the current climate of the technology industry in New Hampshire?
SB: The climate is actually very good and vibrant. We have access to a good labor force and educational infrastructure, along with low taxes and crime.
It helps the state is not dominated by large employers. Most firms are small to midsize. New Hampshire is an incubator of new technology companies. What also makes New Hampshire good is its proximity to Massachusetts. We are part of the Greater Boston economic zone and benefit from the world-class educational institutions, cultural and sports opportunities, while avoiding the downside of expensive housing and higher taxes. Another benefit to operating in New Hampshire is its small size. Firms and individuals thus have relatively easy access to state government. In California, small firms are anonymous.
One downside to operating in New Hampshire is the availability of hourly workers is very tight. Openings in our hourly labor force, where wages start at $9.50, are being filled partly by immigrants who often do not speak English. As part of their training, we give courses in English on company time. It’s getting to be a big deal.
ITN: What are your goals?
SB: To grow the company by 50 percent within five years. To also develop a younger generation of managers who can run the company without me. Additionally, I am obsessed with maintaining our leadership in our core markets. But we have to work at that, because there is a tendency among all leading companies to become complacent.
NH’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year