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Cover Story Sam Turnbull
10 September 2008
What A flippin’ success!
Invention 101: how do you take an innovative new invention from the drawing board to the markets of the world? Sam Turnbull, Managing Director of Flip Screen Australia and inventor of the amazing Flip Screen explains how.
First off, what on earth is a Flip Screen? This was the question I asked myself as I waited for Sam Turnbull to microwave his lunch. I asked Sam to describe his invention in a single sentence. He stood up excitedly, and instead of answering with words, brought over a small screen like contraption from the counter, together with a plastic tray filled with walnuts, macadamias, and lupins.
Wordlessly, he lifted the handle of the cylindrical screen device and, from its open end, used it to scoop up the entire contents of the plastic tray. He rotated the device counter-clockwise on its handle. The mesh acted as a sieve which screened out the smaller lupins from the bigger walnuts and macadamias.
After one turn, the remaining contents were stopped by a baffle, which held the contents until Sam turned the device again. After all the lupins had dropped on the plastic tray, he rotated the device once clockwise, pouring the remaining nuts on a separate tray. It took about 5 seconds to completely sift the smaller nuts and completely separate them from the bigger nuts. Amazing.
But this was just a model demonstration, something that Sam used to show people how the Flip Screen worked. The real Flip Screen attaches to skid steers, excavators, backhoes and wheel loaders, and is ideal for any type of recycling or recovery process where materials must be separated and screened to different sizes. This makes it perfect for industries such as civil works, construction, demolition, earthmoving, landscaping, waste transfer and steel recycling.
I didn’t know that there was such a big need to screen and separate materials that would normally be thrown away. “That’s a very fair comment,” Sam says. “In Wagga, for instance, it’s not a very big deal because you get a truckload of rubble, and you can tip it in a gully or whatever.
But in Sydney, you get a truckload of rubble, it could cost you eight hundred dollars to tip it. But if you split it up into your concrete component and your dirt component, your dirt you get rid of for nothing, the concrete may cost you three dollars to get rid of. So you can save an absolute fortune.”
Sam further explained that the segregated dirt becomes clean fill and the concrete goes to recyclers to be crushed made into roadbase. “They can’t do that if it’s all full of rubbish,” Sam adds. Now I was beginning to see just how important the Flip Screen can be. How did Sam come up with the idea in the first place?
“I had a demolition excavation business in Sydney for 10 years,” Sam explains. “One of the jobs I was on, we had an excavator putting sand through one of those big screening plants, and I remember thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could just do away with all that?’”
Before the Flip Screen came along, companies that needed to segregate materials from excavation or construction sites would get their loader buckets and bore holes straight through them using acetylene torches. The perforated buckets were then used to pick up loads. “It starts leaking out of it straight away,” Sam says. “You move (the loader) to where you want to screen it, and you just shake the machine backwards and forwards, like that, like ‘jijijijiji’!”
Sam makes a funny chugging, jiggling, churning sound accompanied by an equally funny arm-shaking motion. “It’s the worst thing you can do (to a loader). It destroys everything, including the light switch,” he says aghast. But people still do this because of the huge difference in cost. “If you got a truck that’s going to cost you $800 dollars to tip it, who cares if you damage your machine for 10 minutes?”
Seeing first hand the horrific damage suffered by loaders screening materials, Sam recalls one day standing in front of a bucket and feeling frustrated. “There must be a way I can do it. It’s got to be doable,” he thought to himself.
Turning his frustration into focus, Sam employed extraordinary persistence and perseverance, toiling on the Flip Screen concept for 16 years. The first few prototypes were built using such makeshift materials as a 44-gallon drum, a couple of truck rims and some bits of scratch steel.
To see how materials were churned around in the drums, Sam put video cameras inside them to actually watch them work. By 2003, Sam had already painstakingly built a proper working model, which he entered in various shows including the ‘New Inventors’ TV Show on ABS in 2004.
Public reaction was fantastic. “I won the competition on the night as well as the People’s Choice and the phone went absolutely ballistic.” Sam recalls. “I got like about half an inch thick of print out emails. The memory of my phone jammed up, like there were too many calls in it. It just bogged out and said, ‘I’m not taking any more calls!’” An order for a medium-sized loader even literally came through fax the very next day. By then, Sam knew that he was onto something big.
“Basically, when you’ve got something that people want, and you’ve just got to make it, well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (to sell it),” Sam explains.
Indeed, it doesn’t. Since the Flip Screen was sold, the Company has soared higher and higher, growing by 797% last year. The Flip Screen has collected a string accolades, including “Most Innovative Product” at CivEnEx 2007 and the Australian Technology Showcases’ 2007 Patrons’ Award for Achievement in Commercialising New Technology.
Flip Screen is now being sold in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Italy, New Zealand and Australia. This year, the Company will make a proper onslaught in Lisbon, the United Arab Emirates and California.
Flip Screen will soon move to a massive factory located just down the road from the current Jones Office facility. The Company has also grown from just one employee – Sam – to its current complement of 21 employees. Sam praises his staff, believing that that their business is good because he has good professional people around him and everyone has their role. “As long as everyone is playing out their role, it will work,” Sam says.
All this expansion is impressive for a company that’s only three and a half years old. Sam has indeed achieved much since that time 21 years ago when he first dreamt of the possibility of the Flip Screen. Not only has he hurdled the difficult challenge of translating his idea into a real, sellable product but is now marketing it throughout the world. No mean feat for someone without any formal business training.
“I didn’t go to university, so I didn’t have any formal training,” Sam says. “But really I wanted to go a long way and so I knew I had to work very hard…because I knew I want to get somewhere.”
Sam considers his own business experience, gained through 10 years of running his own demolition company in Sydney and 10 years of running his successful farming enterprise, as valuable training. But he is quick to also emphasize the importance of academic business training, “In those first years if I had the training then, life would have been easy. But really, there’s no training like experience,” Sam says.
Flip Screen has overcome a lot of challenges to grow. The initial challenge was proving to both potential investors and customers that a new invention would work and was sellable. “When you try to sell an invention, it’s only an invention,” Sam explains.
“From a negotiation point of view. You’re in a very weak position because you haven’t got the market that you can show. You can’t say, ‘hey look, there’s a company making $5 million dollars a year profit because they’re selling these things. Because it’s a new thing.” Sam overcame this challenge by just going out, making the Flip Screens and selling them himself – a strategy that has worked effectively for his company.
Finding the right staff and having enough equipment to build the Flip Screens were other crucial challenges. “You’ve got to have people to do it, and enough equipment…you’ve got to have a critical mass to afford a critical mass. So you really have to take big jumps…you do have to have a bit of intestinal fortitude to say, ‘yes we’re going to the next stage, and yes it’s going to work.’”
Establishing his business in Wagga Wagga has helped a lot. Geographically, Wagga Wagga is strategically located in between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. “This is crucial because you’re getting supplies from those areas and you’re supplying those areas. So as a manufacturer, the geography (of Wagga Wagga) is good,” Sam says.
Sam and his wife have now lived in Wagga Wagga for 14 years. They enjoy the relaxed lifestyle the city affords and live in their own farm.
From an early age, Sam always knew that he had a passion to succeed, and this has been the driving force behind the Company’s solid growth. Sam also attributes his business success to spotting opportunities and seizing them.
“I’m sure everybody gets opportunities everyday of the week. But it’s just a matter of saying, ‘do I do it or not?’”
Faced with this dilemma, Sam says “just bloody do it. What’s to lose?” Do it because there’s a good chance you could succeed. “Ok let’s go 10 years forward…and let’s look back on what’s happened,” he elaborates. “One road we take is we don’t do anything. The other road we take is we do something and it succeeds.
Or it fails. So when you look back on that, what are you going to regret most? And to my mind the one you’ll regret most is the one where you look back and you say, ‘I really should have done something.’ Because if you succeed, that’s great. If you had a go and failed, you can say, ‘I had a go, it didn’t work out.’”
This is valuable advice that Sam himself has lived by. Years from now, when Sam looks back on the company he has built, he definitely won’t have any regrets. In fact, now that Flip Screen is fast-becoming a by-word in the construction and excavation industries, it’s certain that he’ll have a lot to be happy about.
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