Board Game

It all began at the kitchen table

by Rosie Wolf Williams

eastmanDan Eastman (left) and Karl Benz, the owners of Eastman Benz in Winooski, launched their company building printed circuit board prototypes in 2009.

Dan Eastman and Karl Benz were in the right place at the right time when one of Eastman’s former employers contacted him about building prototypes because it was having a hard time getting them built locally. The seeds for their Winooski enterprise, Eastman Benz, were planted.

The company has evolved into a strategic research and development company that works closely with manufacturing, technology, and medical companies to create printed–circuit board and electromechanical assembly. Its services follow the production line from prototype to order fulfillment, but printed circuit boards are the focus.

The partners are native Vermonters — Eastman from Hardwick, Benz from Waitsfield — who have known each other since they met at Vermont Technical College, where both played soccer and earned associate’s degrees in electrical engineering in 2000.

After graduation, they went their separate ways — Benz joined IBM and Eastman took a job at Pycon, a printed–circuit board company, where he was exposed to the assembly world.

In 2001, he was hired as a development technologist by Microprocessor Designs in Shelburne, an electrical engineering and product design consulting group that was doing work with the Segway Human Transporter. “For about four years, I built prototypes and did a lot of ordering for them. I built a great relationship with Jeff Finklestein and Mark Lyons.”

In 2004, Eastman left Microprocessor Designs to start a business called Wildlife Habitat Consultants with his father, Ken. “It was completely out of the industry,” he says, laughing. “We sold seeds to people for growing products for wildlife: alfalfa, corn, clover, etc. It’s what I grew up doing. My dad used to do property maintenance and brush hogging, and worked on state property. My brother and I used to help him out, reclaiming old land at the direction of the biologist.”

It was Eastman’s first entry into the business world. “When I left [Microprocessor Designs], I wanted to try my hand at my own business. It took off, and I ran that from 2004 to 2007. I didn’t make any money at it, but I learned a ton.”

He returned to the electronics industry, signing on with Murata Machinery, an on-site vendor for IBM. He and Benz worked the night shift and they soon reconnected.

One day in 2008, Microprocessor Designs contacted Eastman about building prototypes, as it was having a hard time getting them built locally. He began making the prototypes on the side, he says, “and it progressed to the point where it was just too much for a side job. Karl expressed interest in doing it, and we both said, ‘What the heck. It could be a car payment. We’ll do it as a nice little hobby.’”

But Benz saw an opportunity. “We had more people ask if we could help them. It kept evolving. We started on Dan’s kitchen table in Williston. We just cleared a spot, and we sat with soldering irons and put together circuit boards.

We were both on night shift, and night shift was really getting to me; I liked the job, but I was not liking nights. There wasn’t a real clear path for me to get to days at IBM. We started talking more and discussed opening a business.” They did, in 2009.

Bryan Randall, with whom Eastman had worked at Microprocessor Designs, had moved on to larger roles in the industry, eventually becoming vice president of operations at Draker Energy, which provides independent monitoring and analysis of energy produced by solar arrays. “We were building circuit boards for our [solar monitoring] product at the time, and our internal team was not qualified for that work. So Dan started building boards for that product on his kitchen table at night, “ says Randall.

“Draker began to sell more systems and it became evident that our small internal team would quickly be overcome with work,” Randall explains. “I asked Dan to take a look at these control boxes and sensors to give me a quote and gauge his interest in growing his side business. Dan and Karl gave us an estimate that was much more attractive than growing our internal team, and they assured me they could deliver those systems on time and at a high level of quality. We asked them to train with us for a few weeks to get up to speed, and they took the assembly of those systems over.”

Within six months, the two men had left the table and set up a small assembly line in the basement. They started hitting their revenue projections and realized that if they continued, Benz could leave his night-shift position at IBM and work full time in their business.

“Draker asked us to commit to being their manufacturing partner,” says Eastman. “We said, ‘Yes.’ Karl was the one that pushed to form the business, He got me to agree — reluctantly. Draker was the catalyst for the business to really fully form.”

Later on, they took over Draker’s inventory functions and some of the programming and testing functions, bringing in other technicians to keep up with growth. “They were nearly a turnkey supplier for us,” says Randall. “The more we asked them to do, the more they took on. The business had grown to the point where Dan was able to leave his full-time employment and convert to a business owner.”

The two men had a small reflow oven and a collection of tools in the basement assembly area, and they were slowly building speed. At that point the company was known as EB Solder Solutions. Customers referred to them as simply “EB,” because the full name “sounded like we were trying to sell solder to people,” says Benz. The name became Eastman Benz.

Growth continued as larger contracts arrived from Draker. In 2010, the company moved to 431 Pine Street at the Maltex Building next to the Draker facility. Within six months, it had outgrown the space and taken over the neighboring suite, using approximately 2,000 square feet.

In December 2011, Eastman Benz secured financing for new printed–circuit board equipment and a larger manufacturing facility. It moved to Weaver Street in Winooski in February of 2012, expanding to more than 5,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. Growth this year is projected to be 67 percent, a healthy figure, but not outstripping 410 percent in year two and 390 percent in year three. Growth for 2014 is projected at 110 percent.

The company primarily manufactures surface-mount printed circuit boards by creating a stencil and applying solder paste to the empty boards using a process similar to T-shirt screen-printing. The board then goes to an automated “pick and place” tool, which places each part in its respective position. “Before, we would take tweezers, pull the part off the tape, and set it down by hand,” says Benz, who is the more hands-on partner in the manufacturing department.

The board then follows a concise process of cleaning, heating, and quality control before being sent to the client.

The number of employees varies according to demand; currently there are two full-timers, although interviews for office help are in process.

When the company purchased a larger oven to handle its expanding orders, the partners decided to donate the older reflow oven to their alma mater, Vermont Technical College. In the spirit of paying it forward, Eastman Benz wanted to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students in electronics. “It was great to give back to them,” says Benz.

They are also working on a project with the owners of Vermont Waterways in East Hardwick to help with rowing machine stimulators for paraplegic therapy at a Massachusetts hospital.

Brent Boerger, director of technology and applications at Advanced Photon Science in Burlington, says, “Their philosophy of going the extra mile to make sure the customer gets what they want and need is what grew their business to what it is today. They both have the old-fashioned Vermonter work ethic, and know that they will only be successful when their customers are successful. In this industry, there are many choices, especially overseas suppliers, but having EB as a solution partner means that my company has an extra player on the field that I can count on to improve my products and reach our goals.”

These men live and breathe their work. Both are single and claim to have no hobbies, although Eastman, who still lives with his brother (and now a sister-in-law) plus his dog, Mira, says he likes to hunt and fish, but hasn’t since the business began. Benz lives in Milton and, like his partner, is less than a half hour’s drive from the facility.

“This is a great example of a true Vermont startup,” says Randall. “Two entrepreneurs starting out on their kitchen table and within three years becoming a solid local supplier with a great reputation for quality and a desire to please their customers. Draker could never have grown from the small startup it was to the enterprise it is today without the teamwork of Eastman Benz.” •