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Defensive play

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Articles - February 2014
Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wilsonville-headquartered FLIR Systems, while also drawing the bulk of its sales from commercial markets, was not so lucky. The end of the federal fiscal year usually brings a “contract flush” as government agencies spend down their budgets. Not so in 2013. As a result, FLIR’s CEO told analysts, the third quarter was the worst he’d seen in his three decades with the company, which manufactures night vision equipment and other advanced sensors. As a result, FLIR revised its 2013 revenue expectations from between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion to between $1.45 billion and $1.5 billion. It also announced plans to close six locations in the U.S. and Europe, although its Oregon headquarters still employs about 300.

Anticipating smaller defense budgets, the company gradually cut its share of government work from 57% in 2009 to about 40% today. Vice president of corporate development and investor relations Shane Harrison says the 2013 sequestration cuts and the government shutdown were not even the biggest factor in the recent performance of its military business. “The fact that there is no budget impacts us more than the fact that the budget’s going down. It’s the uncertainty that not having a budget creates in our customers that is what’s been slowing our business down over the last two years.”

Meanwhile, a handful of smaller companies have grown their government business in the face of flighty congressional funding by taking a more entrepreneurial approach to winning the military’s business. Hillsboro-based Eid Passport, for example, nearly tripled sales in just three years as a growing roster of military outposts adopted its commercially developed RAPIDGate personnel identification systems. 

0214 DEF5 
On the floor of Leupold & Stevens' Beaverton factory,
giant lathes hone rifle scopes from aluminum tubes.

“One of the big jokes is that we are much better known in Washington, D.C., than we are in Portland,” says James Robell, Eid Passport’s president and COO. Discussing the company’s recent growth, he comes across as confident as he is affable, with a wiry white mustache and an open collar on his striped dress shirt.

Robell, a 19-year Intel veteran, explains how Unicru founder Steve Larson drew from his experience automating human resources tasks to establish Eid Passport in 2001. The company began working for retail clients – including a group of Kmart stores right as that company filed for bankruptcy – but its rapid growth began when the DOD began looking for a low-cost way to track vendors entering and leaving military bases. Most defense acquisitions begin with an exhaustive internal process to develop a detailed request for proposals. Eid Passport, by contrast, effectively cold-called Washington state’s Fort Lewis in 2004 to offer its kiosk system that confirms visitors’ IDs using biometric information like fingerprints. With fees charged to base vendors covering all the costs, acquisition officials were willing to work with the company to bring the technology up to military standards and install it on the base. 

Within six months, Camp Pendleton in California also adopted the system, followed by other bases and government agency headquarters. The DOD now represents 80% of the 300-person company’s $40 million in sales.

“The most challenging part was to convince the people who are responsible for helping protect the forces that, ‘Hey, there’s a new way to do business, and it’s not the same way you’ve been doing it,’” says Robell. “It was unique, because they are used to pushing through, at that time, several layers of carbon copy for a visitor pass or a business pass. And we brought them a completely automated system that included biometrics.”

Sequestration, though, slowed the company down. Fewer off-site workers maintaining Navy ships, for example, means fewer people paying for their credentials to access the shipyard. As a consequence, Eid Passport’s revenues flattened last year, even though the company continued to add customers. To reverse that trend, Robell says he’s placed a greater emphasis on selling to industrial facilities and nonmilitary agencies, like the departments of Energy and Homeland Security.


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