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Since 1997, Triton Industries, LLC has covered the globe with innovative, original designs and developments in the industrial cleaning industry. Years of modifying and improving a variety of vacuum systems led to the development of today's Triton vacuum - a system that is recognized as truly premier within the industry. Triton vacuum systems are working on six continents, including industrial installations in the United States, the Arctic Circle, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, as well as being mentioned in many articles and receiving many awards. 

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Big idea, small package

Big idea, small package

From its home in rural Pointe Coupee Parish, Triton Industries receives state and national acclaim for its portable industrial vacuums.

By Steve Sanoski
Published Sep 6, 2011 at 6:00 am (Updated Sep 12, 2011)

When William Smith was appointed postmaster around 1900 for a new post office to be located about five miles west of Livonia, residents needed to come up with a name for this rural part of Pointe Coupee Parish.

No consensus could be reached, and it was suggested that a drawing be held. Lottie Raby's name was picked, and the post office has shared it ever since.

There are no traffic lights in Lottie, population 450. There's no reduction in the speed limit on U.S. Highway 190, along which horses graze in the front yards of houses and small towns dot the landscape heading west from Baton Rouge. Yet it's here that a family-owned company with just 17 employees, Triton Industries, is piling up state and national awards for its portable industrial vacuums, which are used to clean tanks and barges, recover oil and decontaminate space shuttles.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's office called Triton's vacuums more effective in helping clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill than all the skimmer barges combined, and they're currently being used in more than 15 countries.

Mike James started Triton in 1997 as more of an experiment than a business. While working for an industrial vacuum truck company, it appeared to him that there were a lot of unnecessary components in the typical method of using trailer-mounted vacuums on 18-wheelers. He wanted to develop a simpler version with scrap metal from a friend's garage.

The slow process of trial and error nearly drove James to bankruptcy, but he always believed he was on to something. Eventually, he developed a portable device that had the power of a trailer-mounted industrial vacuum but weighed 60,000 pounds lighter and required much less manpower.

There are no complicated gadgets on Triton's vacuums, just a fuel tank and an on-off switch. By James' own description, the vacuums are "basically a giant Shop-Vac." He credits his lack of an engineering background for his ability to create such a simple machine.

"It tends to take simple minds to figure stuff like this out," he says, "and I think that's a big part of it."

This year alone, Triton Industries has received the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Louisiana's Small Manufacturing Award as well as Louisiana Economic Development's Lantern Award, which honors outstanding manufacturers from each of the state's eight Regional Planning and Development Districts on the basis of contributions over a period of time to the betterment of their communities, growth in the number of employees and expansion of their facilities.

Triton also has received the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Excellence in Innovation Award, beating out the Pennsylvania company that developed a special drill to free 33 Chilean miners who in 2010 were trapped underground for 69 days.

"I felt like giving it to the guys with the drill," James says. "I never thought we'd ever win. I just thought we'd go to Orlando for a vacation. So I was shocked. I've been shocked about all the attention and awards, really. I never dreamed we'd reach this kind of success."

During the Deepwater Horizon cleanup in 2010, James found himself on a barge in the Gulf of Mexico alongside Jindal, who was showing a group of national media how the Triton vacuum works; the vacuum wasn't turned on, James says, because Jindal's aides didn't want the governor to be in any danger.

"All I was really thinking was, 'The guy standing next to me sure looks an awful lot like Anderson Cooper,'" James says. "The whole thing caught my company off guard. I could not believe the governor was there, using our equipment and talking about it the way he was."

Jindal's office credited Triton's vacuums with retrieving nearly 19,000 gallons of oil, which was more than 200 skimmer barges combined collected on their best day.

But the exposure initially failed to bring in additional orders.

"But a year later," he says, "the doors have just come off. We're on pace to have another record year."

From 2008-10, General Manager Mike O'Rourke says, Triton Industries doubled its employees and tripled its revenues to about $17 million.

O'Rourke is James' right-hand man. The men work together as if they've known each other for years, even though they only met several years ago when O'Rourke purchased a camper from James. O'Rourke had retired from the petrochemical industry, but came back to work with James after they hit it off and after the economy hit the skids.

"Coming from a big corporate background to this small family business has really been refreshing," O'Rourke says. "I've always admired people like Mike and [his wife] Lisa, who start with nothing, take the risk to put everything they have behind something they believe in and are willing to live and die by their decisions."

Because of the rapid growth in sales and rentals, O'Rourke says, Triton likely will have to establish a satellite office in Houston in the next few years. The first Triton franchise opened recently in Philadelphia to meet the demand created by the natural gas rush along the nearby Marcellus Shale. James says the franchise concept still is being refined, but it's possible more will open in other natural gas-rich states.

Not to stand pat, James has been expanding into other businesses that are meeting with national and international success. His family lives on a ranch, Triton Farms, raising beef-bred Brahman bulls. They show the bulls for competition and sell the bulls' semen to breeders around the world.

James started a new company, Brahman Systems, about a year ago. After seeing businesses of all sizes using makeshift methods to protect utility lines, cables and hoses that typically are run over by large trucks, he designed a product from heavy gauge steel.

With the slogan, "Strong as a Brahman Bull," it's another simple idea that's taking off. James calls it "the future" of his company, though he's also optimistic about a patent pending for a unique method of cleaning industrial tanks.

"It was just another one of those epiphanies-another one of those ideas you get from asking yourself, Man, has anybody done this before?" James says. "It's really catching on. We're getting a lot of calls from places like Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Dallas and Pittsburgh. And it's all being delivered from little ol' Lottie."

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