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Oregon's small manufacturers grow under the radar

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Articles - October 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013
1013 Manufacturing 01
Above: Established in a 6,000-square-foot livery stable in 1912, Portland Bolt now operates out of an 85,000-square-foot facility in Northwest Portland.
Below: Thirty-three of Portland Bolt’s 48 employees work on the factory floor.
// Photos by Adam Wickham
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Though many of Oregon’s bread-and-butter manufacturers operate in hole-in-the-wall spaces most locals don’t know about, the global marketplace pits them against large overseas companies that rely on high-volume transactions and cheap labor.

As the last company in the U.S. producing whisks for restaurant suppliers and kitchen supply stores, 14-employee Best Manufacturers in Portland competes against large distributors importing from China that offer both bulk discounts and a variety of kitchen products along with the wire whippers.

“Stores and restaurant suppliers want to buy 100 different items from the same company, not each item from a different company,” says owner John Merrifield. For Best products to even make it into stores, he says, “at the corporate level, someone has to care whether they’re buying an American-made product.”

Though globalization applies constant pressure to gritty Oregon manufacturers, the forces that work against them — namely, their often diminutive size and Oregon location — can work to their advantage too.

Specializing in the harnesses that hold the engine wires of industrial or military transportation equipment, the 40-employee AmFor Electronics in Portland often finds itself beaten out by larger companies in Mexico. Still, AmFor has been able to leverage its U.S. location to win back clients.

“Our per-piece price is higher, but companies are getting more savvy to looking at the entire process from start to finish,” says Jesse Oliver, president of sales. When they consider the possibility of smaller lots, shorter lead times and quicker fixes to quality issues, they realize the total cost of a stateside manufacturer can actually be cheaper. “The challenge is finding those companies that see the value in the total landed cost methodology,” Oliver says.

Don Riddle of Applied Plastics Machining in Portland also builds his business on advantages farther-flung companies have a hard time achieving. In his 12-person machine shop on a recent afternoon, one employee attached wheels to the base of a clear plastic jeweler’s stool, a second screen-printed a logo onto a gas station snack-food holder, and a third flame-polished the edges of a Plexiglas cake riser that will eventually display Jockey underwear.

Riddle often works 60 to 70 hours a week and, if necessary, tears over to the UPS distribution center at midnight to ensure his clients prompt deliveries. “We’re too flexible for the big guys,” says Riddle. “If you need something at 3 o’clock this afternoon, I can do that. No manufacturer in China can do that.”

Pacific Overhead Door (PACDOOR), just around the corner from Applied Plastics, adjusted its business model to similarly take advantage of its edge. Years ago, the company sold $200 mass-produced garage doors, but realizing that large national corporations were better equipped to satisfy mainstream demand, it began offering $2,000-plus carriage-style doors specifically tailored to customers’ needs.

“We are constantly under assault by outside competition all over the country,” owner Steve Harris says. “They sometimes can sell commodity doors at a cheaper price, but they can’t sell custom doors and provide custom services nearly as competitively as we can sitting in our Portland home base, selling to people in the Portland metropolitan region.”

While outsourcing has long been a no-brainer for companies looking to increase profit margins, Scherer says, that is changing. ”The gap in what the true costs are of producing in the U.S. versus offshore is narrowing. For a while it was such a wide gap: Something that cost a buck here was three cents there.” But as American productivity stays high and Chinese wages increase, “it’s no longer an automatic decision,” he says. “This is affecting even the littlest guys.”



+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.
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