Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the August 7, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. Minor changes were made on August 8. All
Keeping an Ear Out for Preventable Accidents
Prevention is certainly the best medicine for oil tanks
that can leak, bridges that can collapse, ships that can sink, and
nuclear power plants that can implode. But how to convince the owners
of these facilities to spend money instead of taking chances? Too
often, they take precautions only after disaster strikes.
"Vessels don’t sink instantly, and bridges don’t collapse right
away," says Sotirios Vahaviolos, the 56-year-old founder of
Holdings on Clarksville Road. "The worst thing about our business
is that people try to use us only after an accident. Accidents can
Vahaviolos (pronounced va-ha-vee-o-lows) is in the prevention
Raised on an olive tree farm near Sparta, Greece, he has a zest for
life and an energy for innovation. He emigrated to the United States
to study engineering, worked with leading researchers at Bell Labs,
and, at age 32, started his own firm, Physical Acoustics, to use sound
for monitoring metal fatigue. To accomplish growth, Vahaviolos had
to wrest control of the company from his venture capitalist investors,
restructure the firm to be employee-owned, and gradually add new
and techniques, all while focusing on family and team spirit. For
example: At company meetings in Sparta, Greece, this robust CEO leads
traditional Syrtaki folk dances.
With outposts in Paris, Cambridge, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires,
Delft, Moscow, Athens, and Beijing, Vahaviolos has the one of the
largest companies in the world to do nondestructive testing (as
to stressing, destroying, and then analyzing a sample of the product).
Of his 300 employees, half are engineers who use a variety of
and services to stave off disasters around the world. He recently
bought another company, Vibra-Metrics. Annual revenues are about $30
million. "We never thought locally," says Vahaviolos.
Workers are on duty around the clock on Clarksville Road and around
the globe, monitoring structural integrity in real time via the
to protect bridges, oil tanks, and power plants against damage caused
by time and weather. Just which bridges are being monitored is kept
confidential, so as not to arouse public anxiety. The company also
monitors railroad cars, tank lines, offshore welding platforms, and
"What we are trying to do with all of our systems is to predict
when a piece of machinery or structure will fail, so we can repair
it before it reaches that failure," says Vahaviolos. "Humans
make mistakes, and without monitors we get nervous."
Mistras has a plethora of products and services, too many to explain,
but Vahaviolos summarizes them all with medical metaphors. "It’s
like when the doctor takes your blood pressure," he says,
an imaginary cuff around his arm and squeezing an imaginary pump.
"Materials under stress give abnormal sounds. The doctor uses
a stethoscope to look for the extra beats of your heart. Or, when
you go on a treadmill, you stress your heart, and that shows up on
the echocardiogram. When they inject thallium, and you exercise, the
thallium spreads all over your body." He takes a pencil and tries
to bend it. It doesn’t snap. "But you can bet that fibers have
Each example relates to a Mistras technology. For instance, for butane
tanks, Mistras instruments apply 10 percent more pressure than is
usual under operating conditions. Onsite engineers can note the
or software can transmit the results over the Internet. Proprietary
software, called NOESIS, can look at the signals and make automatic
decisions. "If the applications are difficult, not black and
we use pattern recognition and neural networks to develop expert
to make go/no go decisions," says Vahaviolos. "Some call this
His most recent acquisition, Vibra-Metrics, adds
equipment to an already impressive technology repertoire: acoustic
emission, ultrasonic, and eddy current testing. The acquisition
six people for a total of 100 at Clarksville Road.
Using vibration signals to determine a machine’s condition,
does lower frequency vibration monitoring. For instance, a single
cable can listen to motors in a coal plant and, using the Internet,
inform the operator what is happening, so it can be fixed.
systems are located in hospitals, pharmaceutical research facilities,
and plastic-film manufacturing facilities. One of its larger systems,
located in Illinois, monitors vibration inside containment vessels
of nuclear generating stations. These systems cost from $25,000 to
Another component of Mistras is NDT (Non Destructive Testing), which
contributes PC-based ultrasonic inspection systems to the lineup.
Quality Services Laboratories, based in Trainer, Pennsylvania, offers
an inspection and service component. Physical Acoustics does research
and conducts a full schedule of training classes, both on Clarksville
Road and worldwide. NOESIS is based in Greece.
Greeks are individualistic thinkers, says Vahaviolos, and it may have
been inevitable that, after 15 years, he and the venture capitalists
parted ways. "In 1994 their goals and ours were different,"
he says. It’s not that he does not encourage participatory decision
making, but he does require that his cohorts be steeped in company
knowledge. "At Bell Labs, we made decisions with other people,
but with people who know the industry." He kindly says that the
venture capitalists were working on too many deals at once to be
decision makers. They wanted to dramatically expand instrument sales,
but Vahaviolos wanted to focus on providing service. "It takes
a lot of thinking to decide on one of our applications, and I didn’t
want to be second guessed."
In guaranteeing the buyout, he took a huge risk and credits John
now with PNC Bank, formerly with Nation’s Bank in Baltimore, with
working out the loan. Vahaviolos’ vision proved correct. His chief
clients, the petrochemical companies, are downsizing, and they want
to outsource their inspection business.
"Since 1995 it has been very fun — growing the business and
having our ideas drive the business," says Vahaviolos. In 1996
he bought his current 50,000 square-foot headquarters, formerly
by Zoltan Kiss’s Chronar. Believing that exercising for health is
essential, he equipped an exercise room, installed men’s and women’s
showers, tables for pool and ping pong, and a soccer field. Group
executive meetings in Greece start with a morning climb from the
farm to the Mistras castle and end with Syrtaki dancing at a nightclub
in Sparta, all documented by photos on the company’s website.
A down-to-earth person, Sotirios Vahaviolos stands a
hearty six foot two and brooks no pretension. His second-floor office
is modestly decorated with Greek memorabilia, Byzantine icons, and
company mementos, including the two-headed bird logo of the holding
company, Mistras. It can be found at the 1203 Byzantine castle and
monastery that stand adjacent to the Vahaviolos family’s 300-acre
"I am a farmer at heart," says Vahaviolos. "I have always
loved to grow trees." His late father had been a butcher, but
the family had always had an orchard, and he learned to graft the
young plants when he was young. Now he and his wife live in Princeton,
and they have three daughters and two grandchildren, but his heart
remains in Greece. His older brother owns a hotel there, and his
daughter manages the Athens office of Mistras.
Every Greek should be conversant in the Byzantine music, he believes.
It is inextricably associated with Greek culture and religion.
he sings in the Byzantine choir at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.
He prefers to be called by his full first name, Sotirios, rather than
a shortened version, because the first part of the name represents
the Transfiguration of Christ (celebrated on August 6 in the Greek
Orthodox calendar) and the last part, "ios," means "He
who was saved."
His experience in the United States did not start out well. Though
had won a scholarship to Columbia University, there was a war in
that year, and he could not leave in time to start the semester. He
lost the scholarship. Three months after the semester started, he
was able to enroll at Fairleigh Dickinson instead. "God bless
Fairleigh Dickinson, which allowed me to take an exam to finish in
3 1/2 years," he says. He graduated in 1970, and Bell Labs
his PhD in electrical engineering and a masters in philosophy from
Columbia University, and he worked in the Carter Road labs until 1978.
As a junior engineer he was intrigued by the problem of how to get
asynchronous signals from noise. The telephone company had a problem
when it manufactured semiconductors, because it was able to get only
60 to 70 percent yield. He was the first to use acoustic monitoring
to detect cracks in silicon chips at Bell Labs.
"Every material cries under stress," was the mantra for
mentor, Warren P. Mason, a Bell Labs researcher who did original work
in general acoustics along with Nobel prize winner William Shockley.
The other well-known physical acoustics scientist was R.W. Steffens of
the United Kingdom, who served as the mentor of Adrian Pollock, who
also works at Mistras Holdings.
"Under stress, materials give you warning signals," Vahaviolos
says. One famous case was the fatal highway bridge failure in
in the mid 1980s. "Months before that bridge collapsed, the
were hearing abnormal sounds." Similarly, savvy skiers pay
to deer running downhill because they can hear snow cracking before
an avalanche starts. Some of the latest monitoring techniques involve
ultrasound, which has been developed to a far greater degree in the
engineering world than it has in the medical world.
"The best engineering schools in America are not the Columbias and
he says, "the best schools are Bell Labs and Thomas Watson
Laboratory. Professors at a university are allowed to dream, at Bell
Labs and IBM you learn and practice the difference between reality and
Bell Labs is different now, he admits. "Back in the old days it
was like a campus. You could find an enormous amount of money to do
research if you had a concrete idea."
"Before the breakup the old AT&T was the greatest company ever
created," says Vahaviolos. "It paid for my education and made
me a better person. But you could not survive there if you were a
loner — they wanted team players. I wanted to create a more nimble
Bell Labs — to make decisions more quickly, without all the
and be more market driven."
It wasn’t until Vahaviolos solved a water leak in the olive orchard’s
pipeline that his company gained credibility with Vahaviolos’ late
father, who would have preferred for his son to be a university
His father was even more impressed when Mistras personnel were the
first on the scene after the disaster at Chernobyl. Vahaviolos says
he was not worried about post-event radiation exposure at the site,
though he did warn his mother to destroy or scrub everything in the
garden because of the contaminated rain blowing southwestward.
The reason for the disaster, he explains, was arrogance. Design
refused to build the cement containment walls that were able to
damage at Three Mile Island. And it was not monitored. "If we
were monitoring it, we would have noticed the leakage and would have
fixed it," he says. Now virtually all the nuclear power plants
have installed monitoring equipment that Mistras has made under its
own label or for General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, ABB, or
the French firm Framatome.
Vahaviolos has built his career and his company on analyzing what
sounds a material makes when it is ready to fail. "That worries
the hell out of me when I fly," he says. "I hear all the
of the airplane, and I get nervous."
195 Clarksville Road, Princeton Junction 08550. 609-716-4000; fax,
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