Breakthrough invention fixes dust problem that plagues processing plants.
It was 2am on a weekday when Blair McPheat awoke with a multimillion-dollar brainwave that would help solve a problem that had some of the world's largest processing companies stymied.
He leaped out of bed to scrawl a mock-up and 18 months later had scored a deal with the giant Tetra Pak group for his breakthrough snap-in flexible connector.
Nearly four years later, his company BFM Global employs 11 staff, has distributors in 17 countries and supplies some of the world's largest food, pharmaceutical, plastic and petrochemical processing companies including Nestle, Kraft, Fonterra, global chemical company Basf and pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline.
Named after McPheat's initials, he says the world-first BFM Connector is "ridiculously" easy to sell because it has so many advantages over the old products.
"We liken it to the introduction of Velcro over the zip."
As a sales and marketing executive for his father's industrial filter manufacturer, Filtercorp, McPheat had spent several years mulling over the idea of a flexible connector.
Dairy giant Fonterra was a long-time Filtercorp customer. Over a beer with Filtercorp founder and general manager Forres McPheat, the site manager of one of Fonterra's milk powder-processing plants jokingly requested a dust-free factory.
Milk powder was leaking from the flexible connectors that joined the chutes which carried the powder to various processing machines. Sometimes this created blockages which often ruptured the flexible connectors, spreading milk powder over the factory floor.
This is a common problem in industries where powder is processed or is a by-product.
McPheat reported back to his sales team and his son began to ponder the problem.
Because the machines that sift or process the powder are always moving, in some cases quite violently, it is vital that the material that connects the chutes to the machines is flexible.
Blair McPheat explains: "If your washing machine was bolted to the wall, when it started its spin cycle the wall would start to shake and eventually your house would fall down."
Also, as the machines heat up the chutes expand; flexible connectors attached at regular intervals can allow for that expansion and contraction.
The conventional method of using a hose clip or a metal clamp to attach the connectors to the chutes almost guarantees leaks, says McPheat. The clamps, usually tightened with a screwdriver or a spanner, also burst under pressure from heat and build-up of product.
McPheat's clamp-less connector has a flexible metal band to snap it into place. It expands from the inside, meaning the more pressure it comes under, the tighter it will seal. And there are no crevices in which powder can build up.
Of course, a true inventor can't resist testing their product themselves and McPheat is no different. He was determined to make sure the connector was "bulletproof" - it had to be tested under the most extreme conditions, which included checking its resistance to explosions. But after seeing his son disappearing outside with a petrol can under his arm, Forres McPheat suggested that they invest in proper explosive testing equipment. The job was eventually outsourced to Industrial Research.
Sanitarium, another Filtercorp customer, allowed Blair McPheat to test his product in its Auckland factory.
After a year on the market, McPheat's United States distributors suggested he apply for approval from the American Food and Drug Administration. The connector easily passed the regulatory body's tough 3A Sanitary Standards and was also approved by the US Dairy Association, so when McPheat and his father walked into their meeting with senior Nestle engineers at the global company's head office in Switzerland they had stacks of credibility.
About 95 per cent of the connectors are exported, and though McPheat won't talk about exact profits he says sales have doubled each year since 2008. He has just appointed a distributor in China, where he sees "huge" opportunities with the country's fast-growing number of factories.
He credits New Zealand Trade & Enterprise with helping him make contact with some overseas distributors, and the company received two NZTE grants to help cover the biggest costs - setting up patents and paying for accommodation and travel for on-the-road marketing.
McPheat has spent $350,000 on patents so far.
"We had to decide early on how good this product was and ask ourselves, how much are we going to invest in it? Because the reaction from customers was so positive, we knew the investment was worth it."
A third grant from the Ministry of Science and Innovation has gone towards further product development and another connector, which is even more anti-static than current models and is suited to fine grains such as fine sugar, coal and some explosive materials. It will also be food safe.
McPheat says that until now it has been impossible to find materials which are both anti-static and approved for food.
The connector's materials are made by a multinational Filtercorp customer, which sells them exclusively to BFM Global.
A natural problem-solver, McPheat has also given his name to one of Filtercorp's own patented products.
Even as a schoolboy McPheat was keen to be involved in the family business. His father said that while other 10-year-olds were mucking around during their school holidays, his son was at the factory - sweeping floors, getting staff lunches and helping pack orders. He eventually made it on to the official Filtercorp payroll at 18.
It's clear that business nous runs in the McPheat family.
Forres set up Filtercorp in 1977, manufacturing industrial filters from his garage. The company now has 34 staff in its North Shore office and exports to 40 countries.
Customers include Auckland International Airport, Nestle, Fonterra and Sanitarium. And when Forres became chairman this year, his other son Kevin took over as Filtercorp's general manager.