The Bottom Line - Been there. Done that.

Been There. Done That.
If years of accrued knowledge and experience make for a good machine control salesman; The PPI Group’s Jeff Peterson is full of it. (Sorry Jeff; you’ll be hearing that one for a while). After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard for six years as an electronic technician, Jeff joined the family business in 1985 doing instrument repairs while attending college. The company had been established in 1927 and was purchased by Jeff’s mother in 1961. With pride, Jeff points out “My mother was a pioneer in our industry. Over 41 years, she built an A/E/C/S company in the Pacific Northwest, from the very bottom, with minimum revenues, to a company covering a territory of three states and over 30 employees in 2002 doing $6M in annual sales”. After Jeff got his associate’s degree in business, he joined the company full-time. Then, in 2002, Jeff and other family members bought the business and renamed it The PPI Group. Jeff now serves as Senior Vice President and machine control specialist. Jeff’s 27 years of experience in the construction instrumentation industry has provided Jeff with a front-row seat to observe the maturation of the industry and the evolution of machine control technology. As an industry veteran, he is well qualified to comment on the current state of the machine control revolution and the benefits the technology brings to customers, after all, he has seen it first-hand from the beginning.

The Early Years
After serving time as a service technician, Jeff moved into inside sales of construction instruments, primarily optical and laser instruments. Eventually this new sales role led to a full-time position in outside sales of these products. At that time, the company represented Topcon, Sokkia and Laser Alignment products. Jeff sold exclusively to contractors, while others in the company sold the survey products into that space. In 1994, after Topcon purchased AGTEK’s machine control technology, Jeff got his hands on the early 2D machine control products and had great success introducing them to their existing contractor customers. This was a win-win situation for the customer, as many of them were already AGTEK users but preferred The PPI Group’s local presence and commitment to customer service and support. These systems utilized lasers, slope sensors and sonic tracers. As machine control technology and Jeff’s application knowledge grew, his transition into selling 3D machine control systems was also a success and now takes up 90% of his time. With a strong technical background and years of learning on jobsites big and small, Jeff has become a valuable asset to his company and customers.

The PPI Group
Covering Oregon, Washington and Northern Idaho for Topcon and Sokkia, The PPI Group (PPI) has 43 knowledgeable and dedicated employees committed to customer care after the sale. PPI is also an Autodesk dealer, which plays a significant role when teaching contractors the ins and outs of model building and handling electronic files. As many of the design engineers and surveyors are also PPI’s customers, they often play the role of unofficial liaison and advise the various project stakeholders when data looks wrong or there are apparent conflicts. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting everyone on the same page, and getting file formats squared away. Over the years, The PPI Group’s commitment to customer care has reaped many benefits for them including strong customer loyalty. According to Jeff, “Customer care after the sale is our #1 priority.” It shows, as many of PPI’s customers have been with them for over 20 years. The resultant success in sales has earned them one of Topcon’s “Top Ten Dealer “awards every year since they became a Topcon dealer. PPI has additional salesmen separately selling into the surveying or construction markets and covering different geographical regions. The construction segment salesmen are supported by a staff of machine control installers, trainers and technical support personnel. You can learn more about The PPI group on their website at

Changing Roles
Jeff called on all types of contractors until about six years ago when he says 3D machine control “really started taking off”, including home builders, concrete guys and a lot of general contractors who were interested in 2D machine control technology, as well as traditional instrumentation. Once the demand for 3D system started to grow he knew he had to focus more on grading, excavation and transportation contractors who relied more on heavy iron. “There just weren’t enough hours in the day to handle all the demand” Peterson said. Local contractors have also changed due to the advent of machine control. “More and more contractors are hiring licensed surveyors, GPS specialists as well as in-house data prep specialists” Jeff says. Even their local surveying customers are getting involved as with many have expanded their professional services to include data prep work services. This is one benefit of a broad customer base; if one of their contractor customers doesn’t want to do their own data prep, PPI can refer them to one of their surveyor customers who offers that service. With only 50% of their contractor customers choosing to do data prep in-house, PPI’s recommendation of local surveyors becomes a value-added service. For those contractors doing their own data prep work, PPI can support them with their staff of in-house software application engineers

The Maturation of Machine Control
Jeff states” Machine control technology has been advancing at a faster rate than it used to.” Not only have operators become more computer literate, but the user interfaces have improved vastly and application software has gotten more user-friendly (and less intimidating). Jeff says that machine control is no longer a concept that has to be presented to a potential customer (concept-sale), but rather contractors now believe the systems work and bring huge benefits. “Today, the contractor already grasps the concept” Peterson said. He went on to say “Systems now are faster, more feature-rich, more reliable and more robust. The customer requires less training and therefore gets up to speed faster and more quickly realizes their return on investment.”

Adoption Rates and Trends
According to Jeff, the recent years of weak economic construction activity has changed the sales trends a bit. The companies that have already embraced the technology are buying more and more systems, having already seen the benefits and knowing that the technology gives them a competitive edge. Those companies who have not yet adopted machine control are starting to investigate it as they know they are at a competitive disadvantage. Those same companies now see it as a necessity. Yet the weak economy has others still hesitant to buy, so PPI is renting systems more and more frequently. Some of those contractors only rent for a short time as “once they open their eyes” they quickly see the benefits and value of machine control and they then go ahead and buy. Others are still hesitant, unsure of where the next job is coming from, so they rent systems job-by-job. Some sign up for Rental Purchase Agreements which allows them to have some of the rent applied to a future purchase. ”A high percentage of PPI customers start their machine control transition by buying a GPS base and rover. This gets them use to the technology and handling electronic files.” Peterson believes that the biggest factor holding back faster machine control adoption is the recession.

A Look to the Future

Jeff believes future machine control system will be available for smaller machine. He also thinks new series will be introduced that will be offered at lower initial price-point, yet be upgradable to more advanced features. He also thinks that when machine control systems are more commonplace his customers will stop refusing to talk to other contractors about them for fear of losing a secret, competitive, advantage. That will make Jeff’s job a lot easier.

Jeff’s knowledge, skills and experience become quickly evident when he shows up for a product demonstration. He can come to your jobsite for a demo, topo the site, create a design, layout some points , do some volume calculations, create a surface model, transfer the model to your machine and put you in the driver’s seat. You don’t learn that overnight! If something additional is required, the PPI staff has his (and the customer’s) back. Just as the technology has matured and advanced over the years, so have the abilities and capabilities of your local machine control dealers. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you can’t go far wrong by having someone like Jeff come visit you.

I really enjoyed my interview with Jeff Peterson. I was surprised to find that we had many things in common: we both went to the US Coast Guard Boot Camp in Alameda, CA, we both held First Class FCC Licenses, we both love technology. And I, for one, am full of it.

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