When Bob Berman started Instrumart in his kitchen 32 years ago, he wasn’t thinking about needing legal representation. He had a garage full of factory automation equipment, and he was just trying to get a new business off the ground.
As the company grew, so did Berman’s legal needs. “When you get to a certain point beyond being in your kitchen or your basement and you move into becoming a real company, you have to grapple with things you didn’t have to before.”
And that—25 years ago—is when he hired Gravel & Shea.
Instrumart now employs 65 people at its South Burlington facility. The company supplies industrial instrumentation to power plants, hospitals, research facilities—basically any structure with settings like temperature level, pressure flow, or air flow that need to be controlled.
Instrumart’s efficiency and its workplace culture bring Berman a great deal of pride. “A couple of our engineers were actually on the loading dock and said they wanted to become engineers. We said we’d pay for engineering school if they were willing to go at night. And they did. Now they’re engineers with us. There’s total mobility within the company,” says Berman—perhaps in part why Instrumart has repeatedly been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Vermont.
If a career in industrial instrumentation sounds uninspiring, keep in mind that Instrumart supplies and services some of the equipment on the International Space Station. NASA is one of its biggest clients.
The instruments they sell are complicated parts with very specific applications. When a customer calls to purchase a product or troubleshoot, they’re talking to a 4-year engineer. “We’re actually consulting engineers that happen to sell things,” says Berman.
That role has become particularly relevant during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of Instrumart’s customers have had to let go of a lot of tech staff, leaving others to do jobs they may not be prepared for. Because of the necessity of its products in many facilities, Instrumart is deemed an essential business. “They call us for help, saying ‘I’ve got this machine and I need temperature controls and pressure controls and motor drives.’ We dig up the schematics of the machine. We find what they need, what the tolerances are. There’s a lot of interplay with the customers,” says Berman.
That connection to their customers is critical. Some of the products Instrumart sells handle massive amounts of electricity and must be managed carefully and correctly within a facility.
Berman remembers getting a phone call from a very angry customer. “They’d bought these controls from us. And the set point was 320 degrees,” says Berman. “There was a flaw in the processor of a controller that multiplied it by a factor of 10. So his oven wasn’t at 320 degrees—it was at 3200 degrees. The whole thing was glowing cherry red.”
Berman immediately apologized, replaced all the components, and took care of any problems the customer had. He thought they should also issue a recall, but the manufacturer didn’t want to. So Berman talked with Peter Erly, a partner at Gravel & Shea and his attorney for the last 25 years. Erly agreed that a recall was necessary. They went ahead without the manufacturer and got back every single control. “They were all over the world,” says Berman. “It was pretty hard, but we managed to get them all back.”
The incident stands out because Instrumart has had so few serious issues in its 32 years. Whether dealing with the rare litigation or with the hundreds of vendor contracts Instrumart enters into, “Peter’s common sense, non-confrontational approach has always been helpful,” says Berman.
“We’ve worked with a lot of lawyers at Gravel & Shea over the years, and they’re always focused on getting through the process as smoothly as possible. They’ve been by my side every step of the way. They’re really an unbelievable bunch.”