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Businesses that adapt can prosper

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

By Jacq Lacy

Three Oregon businesses described their success stories at the Kruse Way Economic Forum on Wednesday, and the common message was that to prosper in this economy you have to be able to adapt. 

Jeane Carver, co-owner of Imperial Stock Ranch, Deek Heykamp, owner of Next Adventure, and Lori Luchak, president of Miles Fiberglass and Composites, each gave a 30-minute presentation at the Lake Oswego event. They discussed the hardships endured and how to overcome difficulties by being creative, focusing on customers and diversifying.

Imperial Stock Ranch

Dan and Jeanne Carver own and operate the Imperial Stock Ranch near Shaniko. The farm hit a rough patch as the American sheep meat industry declined in the late '90s requiring the Carvers to begin retailing raw materials.

“Local and regional supply chains went away and that is unwise from our perspective,” Carver said. “It’s really refreshing for people to say they want to make something in America.”

The ranch’s local products include artisan beef and lamb purchased by Bend, Portland and Columbia River restaurants and handcrafted yarn and clothing. As previously reported in Oregon Business, designer Anna Cohen presented a fashion line made with  Imperial Ranch wool. The apparel has become popular in historically British wool areas in Europe, Carver said. Even so, it has not proved as profitable a business as specialty yarns.

The ranch made five times as much money producing specialty yarn in the first three quarters of this year as in all of 2009.

Carver said her biggest mistake was not listening to her husband as he tried to convince her to specialize in yarn for the past eight years. As more outsiders gave her the same advice, she has decided to move away from fashion to focus on handcrafted yarn in addition to specialty meats.

All of the ranch’s lamb meat is sold and delivered personally by the Carvers to the back doors of restaurants. This is impressive for a 50-square-mile farm run by five people, with little or no automation.

Carver said that it has not all been a bed of roses. She has faced constant criticism from people telling her that her ideas cannot become reality, but that has only motivated her to succeed.

Miles Fiberglass and Composites

A business restructuring plan in 2006 and opportunity knocking allowed Happy Valley-based Miles Fiberglass and Composites, originally a family fiberglass canoe company, to remain afloat. Now the company is diversifying its product and staff, as well as manufacturing components for wind turbines.

In 2006, Luchak became president and updated the business plan to diversify manufacturing.

“75% of sales were in RVs. The goal [was to have] no more than 25% of sales in any one industry,” Luchak said.

Unfortunately, before the company had diversified the economy had crashed and the RV industry was devastated. Miles Fiberglass and Composites had to lay off 72% of its employees, downsizing from 80 to 23. 

The company was severely hurt by the economic downturn, but when a third party approached Luchak about repairing windmills, the timing was right. 

“They wanted 50 people climbing towers and going into the blades and repairing them and we reacted quickly,” Luchak said. “We hired them and put them in training. We did it onsite at our plant and it was all financed by our bank line and then by my father’s bank.” 

Luchak said her biggest mistake was not hiring people fast enough as wind service field repair technicians. She had thought of wind power an interim project for the company, not a long-term investment.

Still, the company has more than recovered under her leadership. Currently Miles Fiberglass and Composites has 90 employees and the RV industry now consumes only 25% of all its manufacturing. The company has also signed its first U.S. military contract to provide 2,250 hood-repair kits for Humvees. Luchak is also manufacturing components for windmills.

Next Adventure

For Deek Heykamp, owner of Next Adventure ("Portland's alternative sporting goods store"), tough times remind him of why he loves business. In his view, difficulties open opportunities to innovate and plan for the future.

In 1996, Heykamp opened an equipment and apparel shop in a 1,600-square-foot location. Now the company has two Portland locations and a seasonal Eugene location, and customers can order online.

Heykamp contributes business growth to remaining true to the initial focus: a funky used store that’s not an intimidating place for people to come shop.

When trying to do something new, Heykamp recommends remembering one's customers. In the middle of the recession in 2008, Next Adventure started running out of space for used equipment due to new inventory, so they opened a bargain basement to regain former customers. That same summer Heykamp opened a seasonal store in Eugene. It continually brought in business.

“You can lose yourselves in the economy,” Heykamp said. “It’s so easy to get stuck up in what you want to do next and you forget the customer that helped you move up.”

Luchak offered similar advice: “Be adaptable. Be creative. And think about what you’re good at,” she said. She also gave credit to peer mentoring: “Some of my connections began in a room just like this one.”

The Kruse Way Economic Forum is held in April and October of each year.

Jacq Lacy is an associate writer with Oregon Business.

 

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