Workers at Schonstedt Instrument Co. have been making world-class products for more than half a century, but only in recent years have their creations become lifesavers across the globe.
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“It does seem unlikely – a little company in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia working with the United Nations to make a difference,” explains Bob Ebberson, the company’s director of business development since 2006.
So far, the company’s humanitarian de-mining program has shipped overseas some 400 of the company’s top-quality metal location devices.
The locators, identical to the Schonstedt detectors used by professional surveyors, are credited with saving thousands of lives in Lebanon, Libya, Laos, Tajikistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Armenia and other war-torn nations by finding unexploded cluster bombs and other deadly remnants of conflict.
The company’s humanitarian de-mining work got a major boost five years ago after professional surveyor Frank Lenik saw a “Buy a Schonstedt, Save a Life” display during a trade show in St. Louis.
The New Jersey resident had served in the Peace Corps in Africa and immediately knew what a difference such devices could mean in the lives of people living in post-conflict areas where unexploded ordnance made farming, walking to school and other aspects of everyday life a dangerous undertaking.
At the time, the company’s initiative involved it donating one of the devices for use in worldwide humanitarian de-mining each time someone purchased one of the company’s newest products, a pipe-and-cable locator that can locate underground utilities such as power cables and gas, water and sewer lines.
Lenik, who didn’t need a pipe-and-cable locator, asked if could buy a detector and then simply donate it.
“We hadn’t thought simply accepting donations, but the important thing was to get these devices into places where they’re most needed,” Ebberson said. “In reaction to Frank’s inquiry, we retooled the program and began to match donations one for one. Our program began to morph into what we have in place today.”
Lenik, a leader with his Quaker church, began collecting donations of $10 here, $20 there.
In late 2007, the effort became major news with coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the article, Lenik explained the appeal of the work: “From one small corner of New Jersey, we can reach around the world and send some good, positive energy,” he said. “[It’s] a small amount of money to do so much good.”
As news of the Schonstedt matching program spread, Lenik soon was able to raise $10,000 in donations.
These days, his congregation remains heavily involved in the work, with members holding church suppers and other fundraisers to raise money to buy more detectors, which today sell for $1,041 each.
He’s been joined by fellow Quakers around the world, United Methodist youth groups in West Virginia and elsewhere, other groups from various church denominations, professional surveyor organizations, school groups and individual contributors.
Today, Lenik’s church, the Woodstown Monthly Meeting of Friends, serves as a clearinghouse for anyone interested in making the world safer through donations, big or small. The church’s website, www.woodstownfriends.org, has a tab labeled, “Humanitarian Demining.”
“There’s been such a serendipity to this, from the initial idea to Frank Lenik seeing our poster that day at the trade show,” Ebberson said. “So far, we’ve shipped detectors to 23 different countries all over the world.
“It’s become quite a significant contribution to humanitarian de-mining.”
Roots in Reston
Schonstedt wasn’t always based here.
Magnetic science pioneer Erick O. Schonstedt founded the company in 1953 in Reston, Va., where it became a preeminent subcontractor to the aerospace industry thanks to its patented HeliFlux magnetic senser.
The senser remains at the core of the company’s line of magnetic locating products. Known as rugged and reliable, it originally was used for producing magnetometers for satellites in deep space where repair is impossible. It’s still in use in more than 400 satellites, including the Hubble telescope.
Over the years, Schonstedt even became a personal friend of author Clive Cussler, who appreciated his magnetic detectors as well as his scientific mind. Cussler’s National Underwater Marine Agency is a nonprofit organization that searches for historic shipwrecks.
Schonstedt remained firmly at the helm of his company until 1993, when the 76-year-old suffered a fatal heart attack while attending a funeral.
His death was one shock, but so were the terms of his will. In a move that came as a surprise to Schonstedt’s work force, the company was left to Augustana College, a small Lutheran liberal arts school in Rock Island, Ill.
Schonstedt himself wasn’t even a Augustana alum – he’d earned his degree at the University of Minnesota.
A 1995 New York Times article described Schonstedt’s ensuing challenges with this headline: “College in Illinois Inherits a Business, and a Problem.”
Donating the company offered significant tax benefits, allowing Schonstedt to avoid estate taxes of up to $3 million that would have been levied had the business been left to anyone other than his spouse or a charity.
But officials at the school, with no experience or preparation in operating a scientific instruments company, found themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the task of steering Schonstedt from afar.
Within a few years, the company had been sold to investors who refocused Schonstedt on its core business, trimmed excess staff and made the decision to move the company to West Virginia.
Selling Schonstedt’s original site allowed it to capitalize on a sought-after piece of Reston real estate. In 1998, the company’s workers either relocated to the Panhandle or began commuting to Schonstedt’s new, custom-built 25,000-square-foot facility in Jefferson County.
Today, 25 people work at the unassuming assembly plant at 100 Edmond Road in the Burr Industrial Park here just off W.Va. 9 near the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Mark Pugh, a Winchester, Va., native who had served as plant manager of 3M’s Middleway facility for 20 years, has been part of the Schonstedt team since 1998. Last year, he took over as president of Schonstedt with the retirement of Mike Head.
Despite offering tours of its facility to school groups, Leadership Jefferson, government officials and others since its move to the Panhandle more than a decade ago, the employee-owned company still operates largely under the public’s radar, but that all may be changing.
With the 60th anniversary of its founding coming up next year, Pugh, Ebberson and other Schonstedt officials have begun to talk about just how to mark the milestone.
There’s much to take pride in at Schonstedt. It’s an employee-owned company that relies on component manufactured only in the United States, Ebberson said.
“We’re kind of invisible here, but we’re happy to see more people know about us and what we do,” Ebberson said. “We take enormous pride in helping with humanitarian demining and in all our work. We’d love to see more people get involved and help in countries where humanitarian demining is needed most.”
Pugh agrees. “The humanitarian demining initiative has been an ideal fit with our company’s culture,” he said. “Here we are, this small company in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, but we’re doing good business and we’re working with the United Nations to do good, too.”
Want to help?
What: Schonstedt Instrument Co.
Where: 100 Edmond Road, Kearneysville
To help with Schonstedt’s initiative for humanitiarian demining: Connect with Schonstedt’s Bob Ebberson (800-999-8280 or firstname.lastname@example.org) or go to the company’s website, www.schonstedt.com.[/cleeng_content]