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Company Spotlight: Vocollect Inc.

Maker of wireless tracking devices blossoms after leaving WE fold

Sunday, November 05, 2000

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Michael Gabrin was a young electrical engineer employed at Westinghouse Voice Systems in 1988 when some former colleagues tapped him to join their fledgling start-up.

At 23, Gabrin figured he didn't have much to lose by leaving Westinghouse for a 1-year-old technology venture. But his family didn't see it that way.

At Vocollect Inc., co-founder Roger Byford, center, holds a circuit board from a Talkman, a product that allows humans to talk remotely to computers. At left are Mike Gabrin, chief technology officer, and co-founder Larry Sweeney. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"They were livid. They thought I was leaving nirvana to join three guys in a room." Turns out Gabrin made the right choice.

Westinghouse eventually sold its Voice Systems division, one of dozens of businesses the giant parent conglomerate would divest over the years in a fruitless effort to survive. But the start-up that recruited Gabrin, Vocollect Inc., took the computerized voice technology its founders helped develop for Westinghouse and parlayed it into a thriving business with 100 workers and an estimated $5 million to $10 million in annual sales.

Vocollect makes wireless voice units called Talkmans used by warehouse and industrial workers as they supply and track orders.

The Talkman, which weighs about 1 pound, is attached to the user's belt and includes a headset. When the worker turns it on, its voice provides directions from a central managing software system. In a warehouse, for instance, the voice messages include a list of articles to pick up and where they are located. The user can respond to the orders by voice.

    The Profile: VOCOLLECT Inc.

BUSINESS: Makes wireless voice-recognition systems for warehouse and industrial workers.
HISTORY: Founded in 1987 by employees of Westinghouse Voice Systems.


Vocollect's customers range from Wal-Mart and Edy's Ice Cream to Boeing Co. and Ford Motor Co. In August, the company shipped its 5,000th unit, and, for the last two years has earned a spot on the Pittsburgh Technology 50, a ranking of the region's fastest-growing high-tech firms.

Vocollect's owners are so confident of its potential that they are planning to move to a new headquarters, just across a parking lot from their current Penn Hills facility, that will accommodate 300 workers.

Its roots go back to the mid-1980s when Westinghouse launched several "intrapreneurial" ventures it hoped to build into successful businesses.

But Westinghouse's first crack at a computerized voice system was a large box "that was not very portable .... It became apparent Westinghouse was very unlikely to succeed in it," said Roger Byford, Vocollect's president and a co-founder who became familiar with the technology as a Westinghouse employee.

So Byford and his Westinghouse colleague, Larry Sweeney, began exploring how they could develop a portable voice system. Since Westinghouse wasn't interested, they split off and founded Vocollect in 1987.

The early financing came from Byford and another co-founder, Robert Salicce, who has since left the business.

It didn't take long to attract outside capital -- a couple of hundred thousand dollars -- from several individual investors and with that, Vocollect set up shop in a one-room office above a machine shop in North Versailles and hired its first employee: Gabrin.

The early version of Talkman was targeted for industrial sites, particularly automotive factories. Among the first customers were Ford, Saturn and Mazda.

But in the mid-'90s, Vocollect began eyeing retail warehouses as a rapid growth market.

With technological improvements, they were able to make the Talkman "smaller, lighter and faster," Sweeney said, and won huge customers, including the first company to use the Talkman in its warehouses: Wal-Mart. Others include the giant supermarket chain Kroger, food wholesalers Roundy's, Supervalu and Market Day, which supplies packaged foods for school fund-raisers.

Vocollect estimates the device, which costs about $5,000 per unit, improves worker productivity by 15 percent and reduces errors by 50 percent because workers' hands and eyes are free to focus on filling their orders.

Byford believes Vocollect holds a majority of the voice systems market; its competitors are Voxware Inc., a New Jersey company with $3.8 million in sales; and Syvox, a privately held Colorado firm whose customers include Nabisco.

Byford expects the company to fill its new 80,000-square-foot facility in three to four years.

A native of London who earned a master's degree in engineering from Cambridge University, Byford, 47, worked for British Broadcasting Corp. before joining Westinghouse in Europe and eventually relocating to Pittsburgh.

Sweeney, 42, grew up in Pittsburgh, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and joined Westinghouse in Pittsburgh right out of college.

Even in the early days of business when Vocollect was scraping for cash, Byford, Sweeney and Gabrin say they didn't regret leaving a Fortune 500 company to become entrepreneurs.

"We left the bureaucracy behind us, for sure," said Sweeney.

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