By Dan Sadowsky
From his desk, Phil Jensen can look out across the Columbia River to the very spot where he and his father cast for salmon in the 1940s. Behind him sit bookshelves chock full of random bric-a-brac: a plastic Mr. Peanut figurine, a 1950s Yashica camera, a cigarette lighter adorned with the image of Mao Tse Tung.
Each item, says the nostalgic president of fishing-gear manufacturer Luhr Jensen & Sons, holds a cherished memory. Soon his family’s 74- year-old Hood River company will be but a memory, too.
In a blow to Hood River’s improving economy — and, to a certain extent, its pride — Jensen last fall sold his fishing-lure business and its brand names to the world’s leading luremaker, the Finnish company Rapala, which in June will start making Luhr Jensen lures in a four-story concrete factory in southern China.
Hood River will lose about 140 jobs, roughly one-tenth of the region’s manufacturing positions and the most layoffs by any local company since Golden Northwest Aluminum shuttered two smelters in 2001. For the first time since 1932, when a 45-year-old angler started handstamping metal lures in a backyard chicken coop, a brand synonymous with Hood River will no longer be produced here.
Phil Jensen, a spry, athletic-looking man with the garrulity of a salesman, says he sold the $9 million company because he’s turning 70 in July and didn’t have the stomach to do what he says is required to stay competitive: make his products overseas.
“To see Luhr Jensen products made in China would be an abdication of what Luhr Jensen is: an American fishing-tackle manufacturing company,” he says. In fact, a quarter of the company’s lures have been fabricated in Mexico since 1990 and Jensen has visited China several times since 1998 to explore possible manufacturing partnerships. But, ultimately, he says, “I really didn’t want to be the architect of just another marketing company of offshore product.”
Instead, he will let another company move jobs to China and continue a trend that has swept through the U.S. fishing-tackle industry over the past 15 years, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Jensen gets worked up over the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China — he calls it “a national disaster” — and over the federal excise tax on fishing equipment, which he says is applied in a way that unfairly disadvantages domestic manufacturers.
“Every day, everything I’ve accomplished in my life is at risk. Essentially, I’ve taken two-thirds of that off the table by cashing out,” says Jensen, who still owns several properties and a $3.5-million-ayear electric-smoker business in Hood River County. “At my age, it’s not fun to be out there playing high-stakes with everything you’ve got.”
How many other Oregon manufacturers will face a similar dilemma is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to say how offshoring has affected the state economy so far, says Art Ayre, an Oregon Employment Department economist who has studied the issue. But he expects competitive pressures on Oregon manufacturers to remain strong. State forecasters project a net loss of nearly 9,000 manufacturing jobs in the next six years, mostly in wood products, computers and electronics.
Hood River’s job loss is more immediate. Federal dislocatedworker funding currently pays for two full-time job counselors to assist Luhr Jensen employees, most of whom earn between $8 and $10 an hour, plus benefits, and don’t have a lot of transferable skills. “It’s a significant impact on the county,” says Bill Fashing, the county’s economic development director.
Yet, Fashing and other local development officials don’t see Luhr Jensen’s closure as part of any worrisome trend. In fact, they say, the region’s overall jobs picture looks bright. New boutiques and restaurants continue to open downtown, insulating-glass fabricator Cardinal Glass has hired 170 local workers since January 2004, and small industry clusters such as software companies and high-tech engineering firms are growing steadily.
What’s more, notes regional economist Dallas Fridley, the 60,000-square-foot riverfront plant that Luhr Jensen will vacate presents an opportunity to recruit a light-manufacturing business to a city short on industrial property. “Hood River has, frankly, turned away some small manufacturers because they did not have something ready to offer,” he says.
Yet no newcomer is likely to match the local Horatio Alger-like tale of Luhr Jensen, an enterprising Hood River millworker and traveling salesman who began hand-stamping spinners during the Depression using dies made from old truck parts. Word of the wellcrafted lures he produced for himself and his fishing buddies soon spread and his business grew along with sportfishing’s post-war popularity.
When the elder Jensen died in 1972, he left the company to his three sons. Phil, the youngest, had become sales manager after graduating from the University of Oregon with an economics degree in 1960 and took over as president when brother Dave retired in 1978. Phil helped grow Luhr Jensen & Sons into one of the leading lure manufacturers in the country by acquiring smaller luremakers and developing a strong following among salmon, trout and steelhead fishermen.
“A lot of people knew of Hood River because of Luhr Jensen,” says John Alley, owner of Mid Valley Family Foods in Odell and a past president of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce. “It hurts to see a long-term company known throughout the world go away.”
Jensen skims over his own hurt, saying he feels sadder for the workers he must let go than for himself. For a man who revels in the past, he is most animated when discussing his own future: learning Spanish and Portuguese to better enjoy his regular Amazon River fishing jaunts, restoring one of his dad’s old buildings to house his sundry collections and expanding the only part of the business he didn’t sell — the 20-person smoker-products division, based in nearby Oak Grove.
He concedes that were he two or three decades younger, he’d relish the challenge of piloting Luhr Jensen along the hazardous shoals of the global manufacturing economy. But at 69, Phil Jensen’s ready to let go of the wheel.