Of Family Trees and Brand Patriotism

Keith Larson talks about the results of or May survey. We asked Control subscribers to identify the current parent companies of different process automation brands. See the results.

By Keith Larson

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By Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

Keith LarsonVeteran Control staffers have a favorite exercise in nostalgia. We’ll pour a favorite beverage and leaf through one of the earliest editions of the magazine—vintage 1987—reminiscing about all the process automation companies represented in those pages that have come—mostly gone—during this seemingly brief period.

Indeed, the past two decades have marked an era of tremendous consolidation of process automation market presence into fewer and fewer large, global players. And, it’s not over yet, as demonstrated just last week by Rockwell Automation’s acquisition of European process safety supplier ICS Triplex. Some specialists do remain, but the major platform players continue to increase the scope of their offerings and global market reach—most often through acquisition.

This got me thinking about our collective memory as an industry. The typical end user would seem to have a necessarily deeper, but narrower view of the supplier community than a journalist based primarily on direct experience. And, given that the long anticipated retirement of baby-boomers has already begun, I was curious to benchmark the collective consciousness of the process automation end user today. Does the typical user know that the Bailey INFI 90 control system that’s been in place since before he joined the company is now supported by ABB? That for tech support on all those Milltronics level gauges, she should turn to Siemens?

So, like any conscientious engineer-turned-journalist, I set up a survey to find out. In May we surveyed a randomly selected group of Control subscribers, asking them to try to identify—without Googling!—the current parent companies of some 20 different process automation brands that currently belong to one of the nine largest automation platform providers—ABB, Emerson, GE, Honeywell, Invensys, Rockwell, Schneider, Siemens and Yokogawa. (Yokogawa was the red herring in the list, as they’ve mostly shunned acquisitions in favor of organic growth.)

Not surprisingly, awareness of each brand’s parental heritage turned out to depend on a number of factors. (See the full survey results at controlglobal.com/brandsurvey.) The most prominent factor was whether the company brand was marketed post-acquisition or was fully subsumed by the acquirer’s brand identity. Emerson and Invensys are prominent members of the former group; ABB, Honeywell and Siemens, the latter. Emerson’s an interesting case in that for the one system supplier acquisition for which the brand was not continued, Westinghouse’s Process Control Division, only 21% were able to correctly identify the current parent. (Indeed, in the only aggregate misperception of the study, a full 22% incorrectly named GE as the current parent!)

Time elapsed since the acquisition also played a role in awareness of parental linkage, but whether for good or ill depended on whether the brand’s market presence was continued. For example, time favored the 83% of respondents who identified Allen-Bradley’s long-standing Rockwell ownership. In contrast, only 21% recalled Honeywell’s 10-years-on purchase of Measurex (whose branding was abandoned).

Because the acquisitions in the process automation business have frequently crossed the pond between North America and Europe, I also asked our readers—who are still predominantly North American—whether the location of a supplier’s parent company headquarters in North America, Europe or Asia/Pacific had any bearing on their perception of the company as a technology leader, and whether that location would influence its consideration for purchase. 

A surprising 44% said they were more likely to consider a supplier based in North America as a technology leader; Europe and Asia/Pacific received an affirmative nod by only 9% and 5% on the same scale, respectively. Conversely, only 3% considered a North American HQ as a likely indicator of technology laggardness, whereas 22% and 44% felt that way about European and Asia/Pacific companies. A full 69% said they viewed North American ownership as a positive purchase consideration. On the other hand, a European or Asia/Pacific HQ made 49% and 61% of respondents, respectively, less likely to consider a supplier for their process automation needs.

Frankly, the results surprised me. They show an aggregate industry outlook that is reassuringly patriotic, alarmingly xenophobic or simply naïve to the global interconnectedness of the process automation supplier community—or, perhaps a combination of all three.

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