Oregon's small manufacturers grow under the radar

| Print |  Email
Articles - October 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013

STORY BY CHRISTINA COOKE

1013 Manufacturing 02
1013 Manufacturing 03
On a recent morning, Portland Bolt employees produced steel fasteners for the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, a light-rail system in Southern California and the new World Trade Center in New York. 
// Photos by Adam Wickham

Steel bolts produced at the Portland Bolt & Manufacturing Co. shore up numerous landmarks in the Rose City — the Convention Center, the U.S. Bank Tower and the canopy at the Timbers’ soccer stadium included. In fact, bolts produced at the company’s Northwest Portland factory do serious work all over the world, anchoring everything from roller coasters at Disneyland to a power plant in Egypt and a copper mine in Peru.

Although Portland Bolt has been in business for 101 years — and turned out a whopping 5.75 million pounds of bolts for projects in 50 states and 31 countries last year — it’s not a company most people have heard of.

“We’re an under-the-radar type of business,” says president and CEO Jonathan Todd, who has been in charge since 2005. “Most of the time people don’t think about our product, because it’s underground or in the concrete or covered up by wood.”

In a state known mostly for its large high-tech and apparel manufacturers, the smaller, grittier manufacturers often get overlooked. After all, it’s far sexier to talk about the company developing mobile technologies or sponsoring Olympic athletes than the one manufacturing PVC pipe for under your sink.

Yet the manufacturers working in metal, wood, plastic and other basic materials drive a significant portion of the Oregon economy. In addition to providing thousands of people with stable employment, they produce essential components for larger industries. Behind the scenes, they make the scuff boards, the brake pins, the conveyer belts, the power-line transmission anchors — and the countless other nonglamorous pieces — that keep the construction, transportation, food-processing and power-production fields running smoothly.

“Small manufacturers are a fundamental part of the economic makeup of the state,” says Jay Clemens, president and CEO of Associated Oregon Industries, a private nonprofit that advocates for Oregon businesses. “They’re all part of a highly integrated industrial base, and collectively, they have a huge impact on Oregon.”

Though manufacturing has declined significantly across the country over the past few decades, the Portland metro area has managed to maintain a surprisingly strong manufacturing base. As of 2012, manufacturing workers comprised 11% of the metro area’s workforce, compared with 8.5% in other major metro areas, according to a study compiled by ECONorthwest for the Value of Jobs Coalition. Of the 100 largest metro areas in the country, in fact, Portland’s manufacturing sector ranks 17th in size.

In addition, according to the Oregon Employment Department, a vast majority of the state’s manufacturing firms — 87% — are small, employing fewer than 50 people.

Chris Scherer, president of the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership (OMEP), a nonprofit that works with businesses to improve their ability to compete in the global economy, says small manufacturers in core industries make up the bulk of his clientele.

“The overall intelligence level of the companies that survived the recession is way higher than it was,” he says. “Folks are looking over the horizon and are far more interested in things that will result in growth: new business ideas, expanding products and taking advantage of the new technologies available.”

We need to recognize the small firms, Clemens says, because their well-being affects the state’s ability to sell outside its borders and generate wealth. “The more their role in the economy is recognized,” he says, “the smarter we all get in public life about how we legislate and how we make an environment that allows Oregon’s small manufacturing base to be competitive in the larger economy.”

With this in mind, we ventured into oft-overlooked industrial districts across the state to talk with the people producing the nuts and bolts we rely on but rarely see. In addition to understanding the role these manufacturers play in the Oregon economy, we wanted to know what global and local forces these small business are up against and how they’re adapting in response.



 

Comments   

 
Guest
+1 #1 VP of Marketing and Business DevelopmentGuest 2013-10-08 21:12:25
Thanks for the terrific article. As a manufacturer of trade show displays and retail environments (Classic Exhibits), I couldn't agree more with the folks interviewed. It's a tough market with lots of overseas competitors, but if you are nimble and creative and rely on a talented workforce, it's possible to thrive as a smaller manufacturer. There are no freebees.
Quote | Report to administrator
 

More Articles

Oregon needs a Grand Bargain energy plan

Linda Baker
Monday, June 22, 2015
0622-gastaxblogthumbBY LINDA BAKER

The Clean Fuels/gas tax trade off will go down in history as another disjointed, on-again off-again approach to city and state lawmaking.


Read more...

6 things to know about the Amtrak Cascades route

The Latest
Friday, May 22, 2015
thumb3BY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

The recent tragedy in Philadelphia has called attention to Amtrak and the nation's woefully underfunded rail service. Here are six facts about the Amtrak Cascades corridor between Eugene and Vancouver B.C. 


Read more...

Cherry Raincoat

June 2015
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER

Spring rains are the bane of an Oregon cherry farmer’s existence. Even a few sprinkles can crack the fruit so badly it’s not worth picking. Science to the rescue: Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a spray-on film that cuts rain-related cracking in half, potentially saving a season’s crop. The coating, patented as SureSeal, is made from natural chemicals similar to those found in the skins of cherries: cellulose, palm oil-based wax and calcium.


Read more...

Undersea Power

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER

Mike Morrow and Mike Delos-Reyes first came up with the idea of an ocean power device 23 years ago, when they were students at Oregon State University. They realized a long-held vision last summer, when their startup, M3 Wave, successfully launched the first ocean power device that works underwater.


Read more...

An uncertain future

Guest Blog
Thursday, May 21, 2015
norristhumbBY JASON NORRIS | GUEST BLOGGER

Uncertainty is a part of doing business, whether in through the lens of investment opportunities and risks or the business of running an enterprise.


Read more...

5 stats about Oregon fireworks

The Latest
Thursday, June 18, 2015
fireworksthumb001BY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

Fireworks are a booming industry, even if the pyrotechnics have turned July 4th into a day fire marshals, and many residents, love to hate.


Read more...

Hall of Flame

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER

A Power Lunch at Oswego Grill.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS