When looking at push camera companies, the majority are headquartered in the United States with some headquartered in Europe. One specialist manufacturer in this sector has been gaining market share — despite the pandemic — and is headquartered in Markham, Ontario.
To say Hathorn Inspection Cameras is new to the industry would be a misnomer. The company’s original ownership group incorporated Hathorn in 2003 with a focus on manufacturing camera heads for one of the market leaders in the space. From there, through word of mouth and with limited tradeshow and marketing exposure, the company began growing its clientele. This allowed them to branch out over a decade ago to manufacture its own line of push camera systems, in addition to being a private label manufacturer for other well-known brands.
As is often the case with companies, Hathorn’s original owners got to a point where they wanted to try new adventures in life and decided it was time to sell the company. In 2019, they did just that, selling Hathorn Inspection Cameras to a North American consortium of private investors. That’s also when Rob Luck joined the company as president.
“It is a great story of entrepreneurship,” says Luck. “Starting a business with no real business experience in a sector and growing a great company, with a great suite of products, in Canada and selling into the U.S. and across the world. They focused on what Hathorn did well rather than getting distracted over the years to do other things. We make one thing and we do it well.”
Push Camera Focus
That one thing they do well is push camera systems — the sole focus of Hathorn, which ceased its private label camera head manufacturing in 2021. Manufacturing is completed at the Markham headquarters with some assembly and service done at Hathorn’s U.S. headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
“We offer nine different camera heads, five rod thicknesses, five rod lengths from 100 to 500 ft, five different sizes of reels, two different sizes of monitors and there is also the Wi-Fi option,” he says. “When you put all of that together, and because we can custom build for our clients, that essentially means we can dial it into what the client actually needs. Hathorn offers them the tool they actually need for their job rather than being forced to buy a standard setup produced by one of the household names, which may or may not fit what they do daily. That saves the money up front on the purchase, saves them money on repair through the life cycle of the tool and saves them money because the tool performs better on site therefore saving them time.”
That focus on push cameras reflects the bulk of Hathorn’s client base of residential and commercial plumbers and general contractors who focus on the private side of the drainage industry and on pipes 1 to 12 in. in diameter. That’s not to say that this sector comprises all Hathorn’s customers.
Luck notes that municipalities or sewer system owners will often have a couple of push cameras to assess smaller diameter pipes in their network or to address residential lateral concerns. The company has also sold cameras to the mining and food processing industries. It also has a line of cameras for the local gas distribution industry in the United States. For the latter, the cameras are used to do inspections and detect joints and defects in live, pressurized gas mains.
“Hathorn is able to compete with the large companies by offering people old world service and client attention combined with a world class product. I think that is something that is missing from a lot of the big tool houses and tool brands across many industries,” Luck says.
“To stay on the leading edge, we listen to our distributors and our customers,” he adds. “We take a lot of feedback of what they would like to see or where the issues are to refine our product. Because we only make cameras, we can keep our ears to the ground and listen to what the customer genuinely needs and wants. This is where our focus on customization for the customer comes from.”
Manufacturing a quality product in North America is key to getting the customers in the door, but it’s the after-sales support that makes Hathorn standout. By manufacturing most of its components in-house — a rarity in an industry where most companies outsource parts manufacturing or import products from Asia — and keeping an inventory of all parts on the shelves, Hathorn has quick repair turnaround times through its 15 authorized repair centers.
“We focus on getting our customers back in the ground as soon as possible. A tool only makes money when it’s in the ground. Nothing else matters,” Luck says. “It’s that service and support that is growing our reputation and we are growing exponentially year over year.”
After the ownership transfer in 2019, the company looked to strengthen its management team and change the way the company approached the outside world. As part of that, Hathorn brought on Chris Luttrell — who has spent a decade in the trenchless industry — as sales and marketing director. This allowed Hathorn to reimagine its evolving brand and set the stage for sustainable growth.
Marketing and product improvement efforts have paid off, as Luck notes the company has seen exceptional growth each year despite the pandemic.
Because Hathorn was deemed an essential business, it did not shut down its manufacturing operations. Many manufacturers have talked of supply chain problems. While not immune to those issues, the company did not face significant disruptions because it makes most of its components in-house.
As for components that it does not make in-house, it stocks those items and has them readily available. Hathorn’s size has also allowed it to be nimbler in terms of finding another supplier if one fell short.
“When you make things for yourself, you have a bit more control over what you do and how you do it,” Luck says. “If you rely on the guy down the street to do all of your wiring and he gets shut down because of COVID or goes out of business, then you have a bit of the problem. Being more insular has helped us. We’ve picked up the slack of our competitors who have stumbled. I can imagine this problem has become even more acute for those other companies that import their product from overseas and slap their own label on it.”
He adds that to some extent Hathorn, and other companies also have to “muddle” through it. Whether it be the pandemic or a cargo ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal, companies need to be able to pivot and work with their suppliers and customers.
“You can’t foresee this stuff, so you have to say to customers it might be another month so you can have the yellow component instead of the purple one,” Luck says. “I’m not saying that it has been perfect, but we’ve done a pretty good job, either by selling customers something else that is equivalent, going into a short backlog or finding another supplier on the fly. A little bit of luck always helps as well, which I think you kind of need to have these days…a little bit of luck.”
Eyes on the Future
Looking at the industry overall, Luck sees a bright future for the sector.
“We are moving to a world of asset management. The Western world has always been reactive to infrastructure problems. The problem with that is we are being slowly overwhelmed with dug-up streets and burst pipes and people waiting,” he says. “The only way to get ahead of that is to know what you have and what condition it is in. Our tools play an important part in that story, which is to be able to visually inspect pipes that are underground, locate them and store that information.”
In addition to storing that data — in the form of high-resolution video files — video information can be passed through computer programs with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to identify problems and put them on a path to repair or replacement, Luck notes. That’s where the future is taking the industry. The hope is that asset owners will get to a point where all the underground piping and service laterals will get mapped, leading to improved overall health and safety for residents.
“These tools help people understand where and what the condition of the underground infrastructure is,” Luck says.