Rotork innovation

Bath’s biggest company is one you may not have heard of before. Founded over 60 years ago, Rotork is a global company listed on the FTSE-250, headquartered in Bath and actively supporting the local community. Emma Clegg talks to CEO Kevin Hostetler

Kevin Hostetler

Who knows a thing or two about valves? Let me introduce Kevin Hostetler. Before I do, don’t turn the page in search of something less valve-y, because we just couldn’t manage without valves and actuation (more of this later). These things make a big difference to our lives – controlling the flow of liquids and gases like water and oil – but we just take them for granted. That proves that somebody’s doing them really well then? Why yes, and that’s Rotork, a Bath-based company with the defined purpose of “keeping the world flowing for future generations”, who are part of the Bath Unlimited collective of world-class businesses right on our doorstep.

You know when you are at a gathering and you meet someone and ask what they do? And they give you a job title that sets your head all in a spin? I suggested to Kevin Hostetler – who relocated to Bath from Chicago three years ago – that this might be a challenge for him, as the CEO of Rotork, the global provider of mission-critical flow control and instrumentation solutions for the industrial actuation and flow control markets.

He shared his approach: “There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about what actuation actually does. The first thing I say is that I work for a world-class traditional engineering company. That’s a good starting point because they are well known. Then I explain that products help the control of fluids and gases. And I ask them to think of any fluid and gas. And to imagine that at some point gas moves through pipelines. And somewhere along those pipelines there are valves used to control the flows of those. And then I say that Rotork is all about the brains and the muscle that sits on top of the valve. We are the ones that open, close and modulate those valves at any point in the process.”

The valves and pipes that Rotork deal with range in size from very small to enormous. “We operate in many different industries and with so many pipes. If you think about those pipes, there are products that we are actuating that you could stack three men on top of vertically inside that water intake valve, in Shanghai, for example. Or we might be dealing with 1⁄4 inch diameter pipelines.”

Having started this with valves, I should clarify that Rotork don’t make valves, they specialise in the actuators that control the valves. “The biggest misconception that people have is that Rotork is a valve company,” Kevin explains. “To differentiate we try to be clear that we don’t make valves. We are the world-leading provider of actuators that stand on top of valves and make them work. That’s a big distinction.”

Rotork might have its HQ in Bath, but it’s an impressive multi-national company. “We have 3500 staff in total, 450 in Bath and around 850 in the UK. We are active in 173 countries and our brand is really widely recognised globally, particularly in the markets we participate in.”

What are typical Rotork projects? “The majority of our sales are engineered solutions. So there is a high degree of innovation and customisation for our customers. If you were to sit in our Bath assembly lines, for example, you would see 200 of the same product going down the assembly line, five in one permutation, followed by seven in another, then one, and three, and so on, all highly customised for the individual application.”

Bespoke challenges are another area. “We have a separate research and innovation team who integrate emerging technology into our products to solve customers’ challenges. For example how to integrate solar power as the main power supply to power valves on a remote pipeline. So it’s taking other pieces of technology and integrating them into a product set to solve customer problems.”

Another significant part of Rotork’s revenue is providing upgrades and retrofits. “Our customers are looking for a higher degree of efficiency to operate what were previously manual valves. Companies trying to automate and to control remotely with greater operating efficiency drive 70% of our revenues. We may work on a site with 300 valves for three years, gradually automating that site. Other sites might just have five valves that need upgrading and we will do that very quickly. It is no longer efficient to manually open a valve and then call back in and tell someone at a control centre it’s open or closed.”

Another typical project is where a new facility is being built, such as a water treatment facility. “Here we will work with a valve company and we will fully engineer their solution and actuation of the entire site. There is one large refinery where work has been taking place over 15 years.”

An example of the work of the Pump Aid charity supported by Rotork

The company operates in 173 countries and Kevin explains why: “One of the strongest elements of our business is the service business. And we have technicians within three hours of any installation of a Rotork product. If you can’t control your process you are losing lots of money per hour so they need to know that we can get there quickly. That’s why we operate in so many countries.”

The changes in technology since Rotork set up in Bath in 1957 have been dramatic. “Rotork started over 60 years ago as a largely electric actuated company, which means you took a mechanical piece of equipment and you put an electric motor on it. What has changed over the years is that now you are talking about a very sophisticated piece of digital equipment; the mechanical parts of it probably haven’t changed a whole lot. But now you are talking about communications for power supplies, LCD displays and data recorders. You’d hire an automobile mechanic to do that kind of work 20–30 years ago. Today those technicians are electrical software engineers – so that profile has dramatically changed.”

“If you are in a water treatment facility the likelihood is that you are using our network and using all our actuators on the entire spike so that you can open and close all those valves from your control room. And you are doing it as you receive direct feedback of what is coming into the system. So you are proactively managing the process.

“One of the most exciting changes in our products is all about preventative maintenance. So we’ve had digital recorders in our products since the mid-nineties and so every time that valve is open and closed, we’re recording all the data about how much force did it take, how much time did it take, all the time mapping that data. And now this can be done through the Cloud, uploading all their data, we can analyse it and predict exactly when a valve is about to fail. That is just a whole new generation of technology.”

Environmental efficiency is another big factor: “What is increasingly important is our ability to help our customers increase their environmental efficiency in their use of oil, gas and water. So our solutions give our customers a more energy-efficient solution and one that reduces their emissions. Electrical actuation is one of those key technologies that really help them do that.

The engineering experts at Rotork also have a mission to improve people’s lives all around the world, supporting global charities whose work aligns with their industry. “We love to have a tangible impact on the lives of people. Pump Aid is a great example – there are over 1,600 people now who didn’t have access to clean and safe water and sanitation two years ago.” Pump Aid aims to achieve lasting positive change in poor and rural communities by improving the quality, availability and use of water, with simple but effective pumps providing access to safe water, child-friendly toilets and handwashing stations. Kevin is also proud of the company’s direct engagement with the community – over the last year they have been printing facemasks. “Every site of Rotork around the world was coming together and supporting the Covid effort with food and time. I’ve told our Board that I’m immensely proud to be Rotork’s CEO.”

The company has introduced wellbeing initiatives such as desktop pilates, meditation and Zoomba as their staff worked from home, and it’s clear that their people matter. “These are all things to keep people better engaged through this pandemic and through our new virtual world,” says Kevin.

Rotork offer an apprentice programme, and Kevin explains that one of the benefits of being around Bath in that there is a strong engineering pedigree in the local universities.

Kevin says that Bath Unlimited has certainly showcased some of the better companies in the south west: “We’re proud to have been included. It does help put us back in the map in terms of business and potential employees.”

Now that you are all experts in actuation, there is no need for me to point out that even though they are hidden, Rotork products are everywhere, wherever fluid or gases are being transported in your home. “We like that, we like being a critical element,” says Kevin.

Rotork’s company values: 
• Stronger Together
• Always Innovating
• Trusted Partner

Main image: this on site photo includes the GP, a pneumatic scotch yoke actuator and instrumentation products