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Lumencor shines a transcendent light on a sustainable path to success

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Back in 2007, a fledgling company took the leap and relocated to Oregon from California, bringing with them a revolutionary product idea and a desire to live and work in a state that could provide them with the best chance to see that idea blossom and thrive.

Today, nine years later that company Lumencor Inc. manufactures its innovative light engine in a 30,000 square foot facility in Beaverton, turning the long dominant, mercury-based lamp world on its head, with not only a superior light source, but one that is significantly more energy efficient and better for the environment, because it doesn’t use mercury (or a bunch of other toxic materials) at all.

To fully conceptualize this you need to erase the image of a traditional light bulb out of your mind, because this light engine is not remotely like a bulb. The light engine features “instant on/off excitation” via electronic control so that energy is consumed (and this is the really cool part) only when illumination is needed.

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Recently we visited Lumencor for a chat with one of its co-founders, Claudia Jaffe, to find out more about the company, its technology, and its exciting potential as an enabler for even more impactful discoveries and breakthroughs in the bio-tech and manufacturing arenas.

Jaffe, who earned her doctorate in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh, is an inventor in nearly all of Lumencor’s patents. She is Lumencor’s Executive Vice President and oversees new business development as well as sales and marketing.

Her husband Steve Jaffe is her fellow co-founder and CEO, so the company retains many of the close knit and humanized characteristics of a family-run business, despite its growth to 60 employees (and still growing) scattered around this large facility.

A better match of business, place and capital

We started by asking Jaffe about their move from California to Oregon in 2007, and their subsequent investment by the Oregon Angel Fund (OAF). It was the very first investment by the then fledgling fund.

“We made a conscious decision to leave California and move to Portland. It is recognized as one of three or four top optics centers in the country and it was an entrée to a whole network of talent in the technical community as well as in finance, legal, marketing, all kinds of services that you need to foster and grow your business. (It’s) a place where we could develop hardware with access to optics, electronics, software and mechanics expertise.

(In Oregon) there’s a desire to build the biotech industry and that’s the market we serve. The investment community was a better match for our initial need than in Silicon Valley. That’s how we found Oregon Angel Fund, and Eric Rosenfeld (the co-founder and manager) has been a tremendous supporter since day one, since we first came scouting and met with him.”

Armed with that initial financing, Jaffe and her team went about developing and selling the technology in suburban Portland. But as with any startup and with any new technology, there had to be an underlying problem they were trying to solve. How did they approach this question, and the even more intriguing question – why hadn’t it been solved before?

“We build lighting that solves certain problems that are just fundamental to LEDs (Light-emitting diodes), but we came to this problem with an integrator’s approach to a solution. We said, ‘We’ll build a modular product so that if the customer needs only red and green light, we can satisfy that. Essentially we have a tool box and can pick and choose aspects of the lighting that specifically suit a given application.’

As a business proposition, there has been a big obstacle to solving this problem. Lighting manufacturers like to build a single product, for example a lamp based on a bulb. Then they just find many, many wall sockets in which to plug. That’s not our approach; we’re integrators.

What we do is talk to the customer, typically an equipment manufacturer, like a microscope company. We ask, ‘What are you trying to solve? What is the technical obstacle? What does the instrument look like? What does it need in terms of the color spectrum, spectral purity, brightness, fast switching time?’ It’s all of these technical performance traits that go into tailoring the light to suit the need. We call it “Tailored Illumination” because we offer control over the spectral, spatial and temporal aspects of the light. In the past lighting couldn’t be so carefully controlled in large part because it was mostly in the form of a simple bulb.

87725-5506057So when you say, ‘Why wasn’t this problem solved before?’, I have to answer because there were so many different aspects, both business and technical, that needed a customized solution, one tailored to the equipment manufacturers’ needs; and those needs vary. Today we have over 100 customers – equipment manufacturers, many individual researchers, labs, hospitals, universities. We offer off-the-shelf products for a larger group of customers but for the smaller group with large volume needs, like the equipment manufacturers, we build a unique product for every one of them. Not a lot of manufacturers of hardware want to do that.”

That begged the question – why don’t they?

“They want to build one kind of lamp. Again, I think our novelty is that we’re very solutions-oriented. You hear it all the time, but we truly are. We tailor our products for the equipment needs, the equipment specifications, and we’re very nimble in manufacturing, very modular in manufacturing and we’ve always had that posture. It’s one thing to impose that after you’ve built the first product, but it’s another thing to envision product with that in mind first.”

Jaffe then spoke about this “old” technology, the good old light bulb, and why Lumencor’s solution is better.

“Lamp manufacturers think about a bulb, and that bulb provides white light. It provides a lot of light in spectral regions that aren’t useful.

(So we said), let’s build white light not from one bulb, one source, but from six different colors as six unique sources, as an example. And if you only need three different colors, we’ll just give you those. There’s no wasted light, because the spectrum that is provided is based on the instrument need or the analysis need as the customer defines it.

Further, it’s electronically controlled so it runs off a DC power supply, not (traditional) AC, much quieter. And it’s electronically pulsed, so you can trigger it on or gate it on and off. When it’s off, it’s because the lights are truly off, not because it’s blocked. All that savings in energy and heat and spectral purity, it’s just a completely different posture for how to provide the light.”

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An enabler of transformative discoveries and inventions

With this better light source, Lumencor becomes an enabler of some grander discoveries and inventions. Jaffe elaborated on this, and those things that have made her sit back in her chair and say, “If it wasn’t for us, this wouldn’t have happened”.

“Well, if it wasn’t for us, some of the kinds of experiments that you can do today wouldn’t be happening. We are truly enabling drug discovery, as one example. Let’s say you want to identify drugs that interact with cells in a certain way. What’s the best way to do that? Watch the cells. But for the most part, the biology hasn’t been done that way – historically you would have a sample of tissue and put it on a microscope slide or create a milkshake literally of cells and add things to it and then test that.

But with our products, the light is kinder, gentler, less disruptive to actual real-time cellular function. Because the light can actually probe at video rates, real-time events in cells, you can literally watch cellular events that you didn’t use to be able to. Tumors are cells gone wild, and with our lighting, you can actually watch the cells replicate in real time and do so in the presence and absence of some potential drug. You cannot do that with a simple lamp.

It’s really interrogating the cell of a tissue in a way that allows you to optically discriminate what you couldn’t see just with the naked eye. This is enabled by the process of fluorescence. Its possible to impose fluorescence in cells or in tissues, to label them if you will with light reactive tags, that allow you to discriminate at a molecular level what’s happening to that biology. The quality of the light very much influences how well you can detect those cellular events.”

A commitment to sustainability

The other side benefit of the technology is its sustainability and environmental friendliness, attributes that Jaffe and Lumencor have leveraged into an overall “green” approach that extends all the way to the packing materials and the building it occupies. Jaffe explains,

lumencor“We built this company, used solid-state components and never used mercury in anything that we ever built. We’re lucky, in that our light engines are relatively low power consuming, they don’t generate heat, and they’re all clean tech. We’ve only ever shipped in recyclable materials and it’s a green kind of process and philosophy we use throughout our organization. It’s a value that we have, a value that the whole organization has, and we just are always thinking about that when we start new processes, ‘How can we do it in a way that is consistent with that value?’

But what about the higher costs to live up to this philosophy?

“The money proposition is very short-sighted. I don’t think there’s any question that, in the long term, it is cheaper to do with a “green” solution. Yes, for the initial investment it may be a little more expensive to buy “sustainable” product. But the overall impact has to include costly waste disposal, long term energy consumption, instrument down-time during maintenance, replacement parts. Plus it goes back to how passionate are you about (being green) – is it really a value for you? I have to believe the scientific community that supports life sciences values this too.“

Following your passion

Lastly, nine years on in Oregon, Jaffe offered advice to those folks that that are thinking about taking the kind of big technological leaps that they took, but perhaps are reluctant because it just seems too hard, even though they have a great idea.

“Isn’t that where all the joy and value comes from, doing something that’s hard? And I also think you have got to follow your passion. I have two little girls, they’re 12 and 14, and I tell them that all the time. ‘Figure out what you love to do and then just do a lot of it. Whether it’s mathematics, arts, music or history, whatever it is, if you have passion and volume, you just discover things more deeply and do them more thoroughly. Do it intensely for a long period of time and expertise will come.’ And that’s what brings you to good work, right?

Before this job, I hadn’t worked for any organization, (I had many different jobs), for longer than two years. I’ve been here nine years and I can’t wait to get to work. We have a very respectful work environment, the people are all great and we know we’re doing valuable work. That makes it much easier to be committed.”

The story of Lumencor epitomizes the promise of Oregon entrepreneurship and its unique take on the role of people, place and the environment, as well as the important role of angel funds like OAF, and the other Oregonians who are willing to invest risk capital to help turn that promise into many successes.

It’s a story that shines an altogether different light than what comes out of their Beaverton factory, but it’s a very bright and illuminating light nonetheless.

To learn more about Lumencor, visit its website at lumencor.com.

When chemistry meets creativity: Bullseye Glass’ quest to balance business with a higher purpose

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Dan Schwoerer moved to Portland from his native Wisconsin in 1969 to make glass art, and with a partner he rented an old tire warehouse on the southwest side for $25 a month.

He had recently been in a graduate art program at the University of Wisconsin working with renowned glass artist and educator Harvey Littleton, who was driven to take the manufacturing of glass out of its industrial setting and put it within the reach of the studio artist.

As Schwoerer recalls, “We lived upstairs, my partner and I, and built a glass blowing studio underneath. We went to art fairs all around the west coast and the Midwest.

“That’s how we ran into people who were trying to make leaded stained glass and they couldn’t get the glass. There were only three manufacturers of colored glass at the time, and they were all over 100 years old, and they weren’t about to gear up for a bunch of hippies.

“So we said hey, here’s an opportunity to start a business where we could actually make some money and that can support our glass blowing habit.

And he says with a smile, “I’m still waiting to make that money”.

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Lani McGregor & Dan Schwoerer in front of Bullseye Projects in the PDX Pearl

Its been a 46 year quest for Schwoerer and the company he eventually co-founded in 1974 to make that colored glass, Bullseye Glass Company, to achieve a delicate balance of art, education and commerce.

While he and his partner for the last 31 years Lani McGregor say they’re still looking for that equilibrium, the company’s longevity and resilience speaks for itself, a testament to their passion for glass, chemistry and creativity.

Learning, teaching, nurturing, and innovating

The company has always taught and nurtured the artists who shared their love of glass, informally at first, and then more formally in 1990, when it created a department of research and education, led by McGregor.

Since then they have opened galleries (most notably in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, now named Bullseye Projects), research centers in Santa Fe, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, and a research and education center adjacent to their glass factory in SE Portland.

Says Schwoerer, “We always had an educational element, because the 3 of us (Schwoerer and his original partners, who both exited early on), came from a graduate art program – so we ran it that way. It was about that whole concept, learning and dispensing that knowledge to friends and cohorts as quick as you could.

“You would literally be learning things on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and teaching them on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There was such a lack of knowledge, especially in glass. It was industrialized, and it wasn’t a craft media. Glass was always a mystery – its forming, its making – the Venetians kept it a secret.

“Glass compositions haven’t changed in hundreds of years, but when it comes to colored glass, then it gets very complicated and very sophisticated.”

All that learning led to Bullseye’s major technical innovation in the early 80s – the first company in the world to develop a glass specifically designed for the process called kiln forming.

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

Two of the furnaces in the Bullseye factory in SE Portland

McGregor notes “That’s not putting glasses together with lead as is done with stained glass, but actually fusing disparate pieces of colored glass together, so that they fuse together.”

And, adds Schwoerer, “What we were able to do was to come up with a very simple method to test whether the glass was compatible or not. Because initially you had to send stuff to a laboratory, which would take 2 or 3 weeks before you’d get the results.”

From these innovations came the first line of “tested compatible” glasses ever developed by any factory in the world. It turned out to be quite a mixed blessing for the company.

Giving it all away…for a higher purpose

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

Inventory in the Bullseye Factory

“In one way it put Bullseye on the map, but in another way, it almost bankrupted it.” McGregor recalls. “It was something that came very, very close to bringing this company down, but it also was the thing that made everything in this gallery possible, everything in our educational programs, and it is now the thing that is sustaining our entire industry, because we’ve been followed by companies that can’t make a living making glass or stained glass any more, so we’re chased by other manufacturers.”

It was a chase for a relatively small market, since the users of this glass were mostly artisans – Schwoerer estimates the whole industry size is “maybe” $10 Million.

And then there was Schwoerer’s impulse, impassioned by this idea and his educational bent, to share the innovation.

Remarks McGregor, “Now if you had gone to business school you would have taken this and created a product and put it out there and not told anybody how you were making this magic product, but if you were art school graduates, you would write a book telling everyone exactly how it was done.”

That’s exactly what Schwoerer the art school graduate did, in co-authoring and publishing “Glass Fusing Book One”, still considered an essential reference book on the subject. They also went around the country and around the world, personally teaching the process. In effect, they gave it all away, for the good of the craft.

Because they really never wanted to be a business in the first place.

As McGregor succinctly points out, “It ain’t the money” that drives them forward. Schwoerer notes, “We’re totally impassioned. Our goal really is to make sure glass stays up at a very high plateau, so it doesn’t just become a hobby craft.”

McGregor quickly adds “There’s nothing wrong with the hobby craft market, it just that it’s that kind of activity that killed stained glass, frankly – that it went at some point to a hobby craft level. Everything was being chased at the entry level. All the creativity and exploration was taken out of it.

“Our biggest concern is that this doesn’t happen to this (kiln forming) method, that we’re very tied to, and hence, our involvement with the Portland Art Museum, other museums (for example, their recent participation in a Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibit in Portland this summer), and going to international caliber art fairs, to show this work at this level.

“So we’re in this odd conundrum of trying to support the upper end, where there is no money, but at the same time to not lose the income from the marketplace where the money is, and it’s a very delicate balancing point.”

The quest for balance

Has Bullseye achieved this balance, more than 30 years after the innovation that set them apart?

Says Schwoerer, “We’re still searching for it. We have spurts and fits and starts of it, things where we get a project or two that is high end”.

A great example of this higher end work is the beautiful 9 by 15 foot kiln glass panel behind the registration desk at the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland, designed by Portland artist Ellen George.

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

The glass panel at the Nines Hotel in Portland

Nevertheless, according to McGregor, “The major part of our income comes from selling to distributors, dealers, and resellers who sell to people doing this at a hobby level”.

It’s the art studio level that Schwoerer and McGregor are still working to develop, especially locally. Specifically, McGregor notes “Studios that are creating both their individual art work and craft work, and also working as fabrication studios for others not in glass. We’ve worked with and helped to grow a few studios along those lines, here in Portland- there are more here because of our presence and the presence of another glass manufacturer.”

A great example of where glass art and commerce can mesh in the studio world would be for architectural elements, like backsplash tiles in a kitchen, for example.

Schwoerer notes “Every city should have a half dozen of those studios, working with the Ann Sacks level of tile outlets and others where they can make something unique. Glass is a perfect material for it because it cleans easily – it’s a material that belongs in architecture, in homes.

“And with us as the primary manufacturer of the feed stock, the raw material, you can buy a kiln for $1,000 and start producing tile in your basement, in your garage, or even in your kitchen. Every day you can be making some tile.”

Photo Aug 26, 10 30 16 AMAdds McGregor, “We all think that customization is what is really increasingly in demand. People want something that is personal – they don’t want to buy the latest thing out of West Elm or Crate & Barrel where you’re going to walk in and see your neighbors.

“What small craft studios can do is to supplement – they may not get the entire job, but they can do the accent pieces.”

Cultivating, selling to, and continuing to educate the maker community directly will be the key to not only growing Bullseye’s revenues to keep the business sustainable for another 46 years, but to keep this beautiful and hand crafted colored glass at the same artistic level as other mediums found in high end galleries and museums.

Because for Schwoerer and McGregor, it’s still about the love of the craft, the educators need to teach, and the chemistry of glass. That’s what has sustained them, through all the ups and downs, for all these years, and will keep driving them forward, to whatever future the business may deliver in their quest.

You can find out more about Bullseye Glass Company at their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook

FCC gets lean to compete on global stage

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Though a prominent player in the fast-food industry, FCC Commercial Furniture in Roseburg, Oregon, is anything but quick and disposable. The company enjoy decades-long relationships turning blank spaces into restaurants for industry leaders like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King. Before a burger or taco is served, FCC has transformed the space into its signature and efficient look.

“We provide the entire design package, from concept to idea, all the way through manufacturing and install,” said Preston O’Hara, FCC general manager. “It’s a turnkey operation.”

For nearly fifty years, FCC has provided the ever-changing look of notable operations, like southern California-based In-N-Out Burgers. O’Hara estimates the company does close to twenty percent of all new Burger Kings and 15 percent of all new McDonald’s.

“We take that building shell and we fill it with products, a lot of which is custom designed,” O’Hara said. “We manufacture everything here.”

FCC began in Oxnard, California. Founded by Robert Crowe, FCC continues to be a family-owned business with sons Scott, Mick and Gary Crowe. The Crowes moved FCC to rural Roseburg in 1993, largely for the quality of life. The business continued to thrive.

Gary Crowe is currently the CEO and Scott is head of research and development.

DSC_0499-a1On site the company has an upholstery shop, a fiberglass shop, a metal shop, and others all under one roof covering 150,000 square feet of operations.

“We have a lot of cool machinery,” O’Hara said.

When O’Hara mentions “turnkey” he means it, stressing every detail is made right there in Roseburg.

“Right down to the garbage can with the ‘thank you’ door and the trey catch… it’s all built here,” he said.

Despite the similarity of say a McDonald’s in Hartford and a McDonald’s in Honolulu, each store has its unique needs and design. FCC caters to franchise owners with urgent needs of budgets, timelines and stresses.

“It’s an interesting business to be in with a constant state of change in design,” O’Hara said.

Diversification and competition

Despite a bucolic lifestyle in southern Oregon, global economic pressures and manufacturing competition demand vigilance, O’Hara says.

“Being in this industry there’s a lot of pressure to buy things in China and outside of the U.S. We fight to stay competitive despite the price pressures we have seen.”

The company currently has 115 employees that includes a large design department of college educated professionals, recruited from around the nation.

“Expectations are also high. It’s not a company where you can go through the motions,” he says.1795520_10152360075928515_2487356907202713326_n

Despite its longstanding relationships with global corporations, FCC had to weather and evolve during The Great Recession. It was not immune to cataclysmic changes in the economy.

After “record years” in 2007 and 2008, “everything changed,” O’Hara said. “We saw a huge decline over 2009 and 2010. Access to investment dollars for our customers went away despite their excellent credit. That was certainly something we didn’t expect to see, because this is an industry that is fairly resilient to downturns in the economy. That wasn’t the case this time around.”

Though the business has rebounded in recent years, it remains highly volatile. After another record year in 2012, O’Hara said the company has seen revenue slide over the past three.

“But we’re looking towards a recovery in the year ahead and next year,” he says.

The volatility of the market has helped the second-generation family-owned business retain its competitive edge.

fcc6“Diversity makes you stronger and gives you perspective,” says O’Hara, who was promoted to general manager after rising through FCC’s human resources department. “If you survived through ‘The Recession’ you gained perspective that you need to plan a whole lot better and strive that you stay away from that spot again. For us, we’ve been resilient, we’ve been around for a while, but we’re even more resolved toward diversifying.”

Diversification includes expanding into retail markets outside of the fast-food industry. The company is close to finalizing a large contract with a major retail vendor that will significantly help 2015’s revenue. O’Hara said the company has begun to court and provides retail fixtures and displays for the likes of Nike, North Face and Columbia.

And a silver lining of the recession has been the slow shift of manufacturing back to the United States.

“I wouldn’t say that the price pressure ever goes away,” O’Hara says, “but people are frustrated by Chinese-made products. There are reasons for that. We won’t deviate from producing quality products and providing outstanding quality service. That’s what we are founded on. At the same time we have to drive down our prices.”

Concentrating on culture

Price pressure, diversification, competition. All common phrases in the business economy, but another go-to-point of emphasis sets FCC apart in O’Hara’s mind: culture.

“The thing you will hear us talk about more often than not has to do with our culture and our people. It’s something we hold near and dear. It’s special. It’s amazing how much you can get from people when you promote excellence. We don’t tolerate negativity. We believe in having fun at work. It’s one of our core values.”pics (11)

If you can have fun during a recession while facing stiff competition from Chinese manufactures, that’s saying something, but O’Hara says despite the challenges, the company’s optimism and workplace environment has remained the gold standard of how it operates.

“Most companies have to have the basic benefits, wages, retirement, but what separates you from others is your culture. We have flexible work schedules, free gym memberships, we have a lot of company parties and barbecues. We stock free ice cream and soda all year long.”

Owners are hands-on and approachable. The management team works together and set a tone of allowing employees to be creative. An entrepreneurial culture is encouraged.

“So even though it’s a manufacturing facility we don’t micromanage,” O’Hara says. “Be unique and do it different. That’s what we’ve tried to do. Create things that separate you from others. It’s a relationship. If you know you are valued and appreciated as a person, you generally give a hell of a lot more.”

Getting lean

Change is inevitable, O’Hara says, despite the company approaching its 50th anniversary in business. Change is disruptive, which can be both positive and negative. O’Hara understands that, but insists that FCC will remain on the cutting edge.

pics (29)To that end, FCC has invested heavily in shifting its processes to Lean Manufacturing, a new trend that changes the ‘batch and queue” mass production process that has dominated for decades, in favor of product-aligned “one-piece flow” pull production, according to the Environmental Protection Agency website.

“This shift requires highly controlled processes operated in a well maintained, ordered, and clean environment that incorporates principles of employee-involved, system-wide, continual improvement,” the EPA writes.

O’Hara says the shift is a significant investment in both machinery and employee training, but one that will help the company be more efficient, greener, and more cost-effective.

“Any time you implement change it is not easy,” he says, “and it comes at a little bit of a disruption at first. But at the same time it will be productive at the end. Any time you empower your workforce to make things better it’s positive.”

The bottom line for both FCC and for its customers is that they will benefit, he insists, by the company’s relentless pursuit of reducing cost.

“That’s how you deal with the price pressure, because it’s always going to be there,” he says. “You meet it head on through efficiency, engineering, and creativity.”

In short, you never stop changing. FCC will continue to evolve in order to compete, O’Hara says, while reaching outside of its core business model to diversify revenue.

“This place needs to look different. It better look a heck of a lot different in ten years,” he says. “If you aren’t changing and growing you’re probably not going to be around.”

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For more information, please visit www.fccfurn.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter

 

Brand defines Tucker Sno-Cat’s edge

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Few businesses so dominate a segment of the market that their brand becomes synonymous with the product. Think Kleenex. Or Coke, which is often used in place of terms like soda or pop. Sno-cat is one such brand and its unique place in large equipment is secured both in the brand and the fourth-generation-owned company’s place in history.

Just as hockey fans call all ice resurfacing machines “Zambonis,” skiers and snowboarders charging down groomed slopes refer to Sno-Cats – not track-driven snow vehicles – that cleared the way and prepared the hill the night before. The comparisons are deserved. Both the Zamboni Company and Medford, Oregon’s Tucker Sno-Cat invented the technology that still dominates their slice of winter service today.

Everyone at Tucker Sno-Cat understands the importance of that unique brand, said Sales Manager John Meilicke.

“It’s an advantage because when people talk about an over-snow vehicle, they do use that Sno-Cat phrase. It points them toward us because that’s who we are,” Meilicke said.

The company is ever-vigilant in protecting it.

“It’s an ongoing battle for us to maintain that trademark,” Meilicke said. “We are constantly finding where other manufacturers are using it.”

Company attorneys are quick to send “a nice, well-written letter,” to cease and desist.

The term Sno-Cat may be ubiquitous, but it still belongs solely to the family of the man who first invented track-driven snow vehicles nearly 70 years ago.

Historic technology

In the early 19th century, Lewis and Clark used canoes as a primary mode of transportation during their historic trek to the Pacific Ocean. Fuchs and Hillary, a 20th-century exploration team, used track-driven snow vehicles – Sno-cats – built by the Medford, Oregon-based Tucker Sno-Cat company for their transantarctic crossing, and securing the company’s place in history.Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 9.18.17 AM

Company founder Emmitt Tucker Sr. trademarked the term “snowcat” in 1946.

“The Sno-Cat was his mastermind,” Meilicke said. “He was always thinking about flotation and ways to propel the vehicle. Some of the early experiments used an auger. But then he figured out the track-driven system.”

The first vehicles had two tracks in back and skis in the front.

“It evolved into the four-track, articulated steering you see today,” explained Meilicke.

The historic nature of this legacy company is a decidedly “made in Oregon” story. Emmitt Tucker hailed from Jump Off Joe Creek (which still has a sign on Interstate Five) and moved his company back from California to Medford before it truly took off.

“Southern Oregon was their home,” Meilicke said. “They went to Grass Valley, Calif. to get closer to San Francisco and machine shops that could help with manufacturing. But when it came right to it, they missed home and moved back.”

10986621_875074185885072_1035368990889115755_nWith their return, an Oregon institution was born. Now it remains a privately owned, fourth-generation, family operated business. Tucker’s namesake, Jim Tucker, is its current president. Meilicke said he doubts the family has any plans to sell any time soon.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “You see the passion and the drive they have. This is their future.”

Weather related

Meilicke’s winter is anything but hibernation, where sales and delivery of Sno-Cat machines to customers dominates his time. His rest, if there is any, comes in spring where he can test prototypes and plan for the coming sales cycle in a fiercely deadline-driven marketplace.

“Everybody wants their machine delivered before the first snowflake falls and you never know when that’s going to be,” he said.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 9.17.58 AMOrders can be cancelled if not received by a certain date. Any cancelled order can mean a huge hit to the bottom line for machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Used Tucker Sno-Cats cost $100,000 and up.

“It can get a little hectic,” commented Meilicke.

Despite back-to-back years of dismal snowfall in the West, the East has endured brutal cold and snow. Demand for Sno-cats remains high.

“That’s why … I wasn’t able to stay right here in Oregon,” he said.

Even test-driving the prototype demands a drive over to Bend, Oregon, this year where the snow remains. Indeed, like all weather-driven companies, Tucker Sno-Cat remains somewhat dependent in the mercurial temperament of Mother Nature. At a time when global warming and climate change is a significant focus of global and political concern, Tucker Sno-Cat simply goes where the snow is falling.Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 11.54.41 AM

The climate is one of the business challenges, Meilicke said.

“Everybody has their own opinion. Is it a trend, a cycle or global warming? For us it’s trying to find the areas that do require over-snow vehicles. We might not got a lot of snow here in the West, but in the East they had a lot of snow.”

Still nobody in the business of snow dares ignore changing weather patterns and the looming threat of global warming. The historic company recognizes its need for summer business. It has a separate sales cycle for agricultural machines. The vehicles have potential military use in desert sands.

“For sure, we’re definitely trying to diversify. That’s what stimulated the ag field,” Meilicke said.

Alaska in summer also presents fertile sales soil.

“Alaska has ultra-sensitive ground they don’t want to disturb,” he said. “We are one of the few that are certified to operate there.”

The Tucker Sno-Cat was part of an Alaska-based promotion, when a buyer painted the machine with the Seattle Seahawks logo to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl appearance in 2015. The colorful machine is used on Alaska’s North Slope to ferry people to and from the remote places they need to go, according to published reports.

Ironically, diversification proved problematic for a company so closely associated with snow. Again the Zamboni comparison seems appropriate. Imagine Zambonis that could level pavement. It’s a jarring image, just as the presence of Sno-Cat was at agriculture sales shows.

“Originally, they kept the Sno-Cat label, but in the end it proved an obstacle,” Meileke said. “Tucker Terra-Ag emerged just to get away from that Sno-Cat name, though the machines are the same and the principles of maneuverability on soft ground remains.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 9.20.59 AMThe Terra-Ag machine benefits farmers applying crop protection products that are worried about delicate soil being crushed by heavy machinery. The same technology that allows a massive machine to maneuver in deep powder works well on tilled soil.

The Model 1600 Ag Tucker Terra uses the same four track steering as the Sno-Cat. It comes with a three-ton capacity granular fertilizer tank and spinner spreaders. A 500-gal. spray tank with spray booms up to 90 ft. long is also available, according to sales distributor Track, Inc. The machine sells for roughly $250,000.

“The Tucker Terra has a very light footprint and really shines in soft ground conditions,” Rick Keith of Track, Inc said. “It … has been widely used in the grass and sod farming industry.”

Rising costs of regulation

In the end, the threats to this family-owned business really aren’t found in technology or climate control, but in old fashioned government regulation, Meilicke says, where Tucker’s problems are common to many large industrial machine manufacturers like Caterpillar or John Deere.

“The challenging thing for us right now is the EPA requirements,” Meilicke said. “In the future it’s only going to get more difficult. We’ve been able to meet those requirements. But you see those coming in the future and they are getting more strict. It costs a lot of money and that gets passed on to the customer.”

Tucker Sno-Cat employs 48 people. It enjoys modest growth. In the 14 years Meilicke has been with the company he believes it has only added 10 new positions.

“We are definitely producing more vehicles,” he said in a nod to increasing efficiency in the face of rising costs because, in part, of those EPA regulations and an ongoing investment in innovation.

Innovations, he said, revolve around uses, creature comforts and modernization.

“We’re constantly improving our equipment and upgrading with different kind of tracks and improved electronics. If you climb into the cab you’re going to see how we keep up with the times.” But, the basic four-track invention of company founder Emmitt Tucker remains largely unchanged, a proverbial wheel nobody sees the need to re-invent.

As Meilicke says,  “He got it done right the first time.”

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