STORY BY CHRISTINA COOKE
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.