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From electric vehicles to the internet of herds: The Rogue Rovers story

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Bringing innovations that make sense for farming and ranching is not always an easy thing to do. It’s a market segment that moves on the basis of relationships, as opposed to quick scaling user acquisition platforms and plays.

Rogue Rovers, an Ashland based company, is focused on not only the development of technologies for this massive industry, but also on building solid and long term relationships with the farmers and ranchers whose innate knowledge will be the ultimate driver on how technology can effectively engage and help.p02lfbqp

Connecting the EV market to agriculture

There are two big problems in agriculture today – the ability to gather, and then generate, data. Rogue Rovers was started to address those two big challenges through advanced technology and engineering.

What many people in urban areas take for granted in regards to localized content during their everyday lives, apps for everything and constant connectivity, are not the conditions found in agriculture. Moreover, the specialty farms that are smaller, more specialized and in more varied terrains have an even greater challenge – getting low cost solutions that can help them.

This is where Melissa Brandao, CEO & Founder of Rogue Rovers, saw not only an opportunity, but a way to create a company that focuses on bridging technology with real world agricultural problems.

IMG_7773“ We came together to create an AgTech company that was doing more than just web-based solutions. We wanted to make advanced hardware systems that could solve real world problems, while keeping it simple and low cost.”

Melissa is a self described technologist with a lot of maker mixed in. She started her career at Apple and has spent the past 10 years in the AgTech space. And while a tech evolution from Apple to AgTech may not make sense to some, Melissa’s background is rooted in farm life, as she grew up on one.

This farming background gave her an innate understanding of the challenges and opportunities around farming and agriculture, especially those associated with equipment and processes. Farming is still pretty simple and basic when compared to the fast moving world seen in urban areas.

Enter the development of the FarmDogg, an electric four wheel drive vehicle.

The term “Dogg” is widely used by the Rogue Rovers team and Melissa explains its significance, “ Dogg means Data Generator-Gatherer. We developed our FarmDogg rover as the platform that will replace existing farm equipment because it’s a versatile, fully controllable mobile platform, and can support robotics.”

A data generating electric four wheel drive vehicle.static1.squarespace

If it sounds unique, that is indeed true. But the uniqueness is built on a solid vision about why and how this vehicle will help farmers. Electric propulsion is focused on precision control, which is an essential factor in autonomy and smart vehicles.

The precision control allows for pin-point accuracy in speed control, location and performance, all while having a low decibel level that allows you to hear your surroundings and not spook the animals. The FarmDogg’s data collection is done with delicate sensors and cameras. The smooth motion helps to protect these elements and creates a more stable data collection process. Electric vehicles also have fewer moving parts so the downtime is less than gas powered vehicles, which is an important benefit to farmers in rural areas.

But Melissa didn’t set out to create an EV company in Southern Oregon.

“ I kind of fell into electric vehicles on accident. Up until then I had been working with disruptive technology but it was always software. I spent four years abroad building companies in emerging markets providing market data so capitalism and investor access to markets could work more efficiently in places like Russia and Latin America. Electric vehicles are one of the examples that Chris Christensen sites as a disruptive technology and it was hardware–tangible–I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get into this technology. But as you know the EV industry has had many ups and downs and has yet to gain the market traction to become the norm. I always have been about focusing these technologies on solutions that are a best fit for them. Ag has made sense to me and as I stated earlier there’s a need to move Ag forward in its technology development.”IMG_6723

This need to move Ag technology forward has brought much well deserved attention to what Rogue Rovers is building, including a trip to the White House to participate in the first ever Demo Day at the White House.  From Southern Oregon to the White House. The team at Rogue Rovers had created a product that effectively helped farmers in their day to day work and the pre-orders were coming in.

Everything was going great, so the time was perfect to focus on the next evolution of the company.

Creating a product for the Internet of Herds (IoH)

Rogue Rovers started with the intent to design and manufacture rovers.

But during the process of talking to farmers and ranchers about the FarmDogg, what they began to realize was these folks were struggling to retrieve the most simple ID information off of animals, and that the current retrieval process was both stressful to the rancher as well as the herd. This was especially true on ranches where the animals are free range or pasture raised.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.12 PMThe Rogue Rover’s team saw the opportunity to create a product that could directly address a problem in ranching today, and thus was born the HerdDogg.

“ We developed HerdDogg, which is a wearable device for improved accuracy of livestock traceability and biometrics. The HerdDogg eco-system is made up from three parts: the DoggTag, the DoggBone and HerdDogg.io.The DoggTag is an ear tag designed for generating biometrics from livestock and herd animals. The DoggBone, is a small multi-pairing device that reads data from the DoggTags with an estimated range of 30 feet. It connects, transmits and stores the data using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). When the DoggBone is near a cell phone or laptop it can then transmit the data to the cloud at <HerdDogg.io. HerdDogg.io is your dashboard access to all your herd’s data available from anywhere on mobile or computer. “

One of the key features is that ranchers can put the DoggBone anywhere they want to collect data; the watering trough, a favorite tree, on your own herd dog, or even just in your pocket. The Bone is going to collect data as often as the rancher is near the herd, but because it’s using Bluetooth instead of RF or other more expensive and complex protocols, Rogue Rovers can keep it simple and low cost.

David ‘Duppy’ Proctor, the CTO of Rogue Rovers, explains how the tech is similar to some well-known wearables.doggbone.doggtag.noAGM

“ The Bone is constantly collecting herd data. The data collected includes temperature (ambient and animal), light, activity via an accelerometer and relative location – it’s like a fitbit for cows”

But the data collected goes far beyond the number of steps a cow takes in a day. The data received by the rancher is both beneficial and actionable. Cows that are sick get lethargic, and the via the dashboard, the rancher can identify potential sick cows. How quickly an animal lays down after they eat is relative to the quality of food they ingested.

The Bone’s constant gathering of data is also allowing ranchers to evolve how they breed the cows. The current method is to use tail chalk, which is a process of putting chalk on females and the chalk rubs off once the female is mounted. The Bone allows ranchers to see which cows are fidgety at night, a sign that they are in heat. Once these females are identified, the ranchers know that they have roughly 16 hours to breed them, and once the female is pregnant, this pattern of activity ceases to occur.

The percentage of cows that get pregnant during a breeding season is vital to the profitability of a ranch, and the Bone is helping ranchers increase this percentage via data gathering.Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.50 PM

Engaging farmers and ranchers in a collaborative manner is something that Melissa has focused on from the beginning.

“ The truth is that I just really like working with farmers and ranchers. They are the original makers. They’re clever how about to build something, being independent thinkers. Yet hey have an immense responsibility being the growers of our food and I want to help to support them. What is so exciting is to see how many of our engineers are emerging from rural Oregon and how excited they are about supporting the industry in their backyard. Rogue Rovers supports the eco-system of rural makers and engineers. The farmer’s daughters and sons today are tech savy but when it comes to applying that to the family farm–there’s still a long way to go. That’s where Rogue Rovers wants to operate.”

It is an operation that is looking to make the Rogue Valley home base for a flexible and sustainable business that is internally focused on implementing ideas and processes more similar to Silicon Valley, and putting those to work in rural areas of Oregon.

Melissa is keenly aware that creating a company for the long haul starts with creating a team that can deliver on the initial mission and goals.

IMG_5770 copy“ My team is fantastic collection of people that I have worked with, and people that have come to us. Our CTO David “Duppy” Proctor I have known since I was in elementary school. He’s a brilliant hardware technologist. I knew he was the right guy for the job but it took some convincing for him to consider doing tech outside of the consumer products and gadgets that he was used to. Now he’s completely converted. He just as happy to go out and work on site with our farmers and ranchers and get some dirt on his boots. We all like that–that’s really the best part of the job.  Our firmware engineer was referred to us by one of his partners and our web developer contacted us looking for an internship and on it goes. “

On it goes indeed. Rogue Rovers was recently featured on the show America’s Greatest Makers to pitch HerdDogg. And even though the team still believes in EV’s as a platform, they are just as excited about being the cornerstone technology around the Internet of Herds, which they all really believe is the future of Ag.

And even though the future of Ag may sound like something reserved for farmers and ranchers, there are applications some of us may see and use in the near future. The DoggBone can also generate SMS alerts, and yes, be connected to social media. So if you go in on say ¼ cow with some other folks, you can now keep track of said cow via a mobile device and possibly see some tweets about its daily activities.

Welcome to the future of ag.

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For more information, visit www.roguerovers.com. You can also follow them on twitter and instagram.

 

Crafting from the cauldron: A Q&A with Jim Mills from Caldera Brewing

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Jim Mills is the founder of Caldera Brewing in Ashland, OR. Having been in the business since the late 1990’s, he has been at the forefront of the craft brewing industry’s rise here in Oregon. Jim was nice enough to do a Q&A with Built Oregon on everything from microcanning to sustainability.

What was the original genesis of launching Caldera?

Incorporated in 1996, first brew July 4, 1997, first keg sold August 28, 1997.

Who thought of the name Caldera and what’s the backstory on how it came to be?

I did. It means boiling kettle or cauldron in Spanish. Where all the magic happens in the kettle.

Did you (or any of the other founders)  have a brewery background when you launched the business?

I am the only founder. I have some silent investors that have a small minority share of Caldera. I did learn quite a bit from homebrewing. I honed many of my recipes while homebrewing. I was brewing around 8-10 ten gallon batches per month. When I started working in the brewery at Rogue I learned more commercial techniques (moving liquid with pumps, hooking things up correctly, troubleshooting and fixing broken equipment, yeast management on a much larger scale, etc.). I did glean as much as I could from Rogue as I knew I would start my own brewery someday.

Talk a bit about Ashland – were you all from Ashland originally? Did you always know that Ashland would be home to Caldera?

I moved to Ashland in 1989 to finish college. Knew within 3 weeks that I wanted to live here. Mountains, lakes, rivers, great weather. Outdoor life and a plethora of activities.

What were the first beers you brewed and what were some of the early challenges you faced as you launched a craft brewery?

Pale Ale and Dry hop Red were the first brews I launched. I self distributed for the first 6 years. Was tough doing everything myself. Educated Southern Oregon beer drinkers about craft beers. Was pretty Bud/Coors based back in 97.

What were some of the bumps in the road and early successes as you scaled up your brewery and flagship line of beers?

Ashland Amber was originally trademarked by Rogue. I watched the expiration date like a hawk and when they didn’t renew it, I trademarked it. Only makes sense since Rogue pulled out of Ashland in 1997 before Caldera’s first brew was brewed. Ashland Amber was a hit from the get go. Most bars and restaurants that had draft beer systems put it on tap and soon it became the top selling beer in Ashland. It still is today out of Summit Beverage’s line up of beers they offer. That being said, it seemed like every time I was getting a little ahead, I had to purchase more equipment and take out more loans.

You made the decision in 2005 to can your own beer – what led to the decision to invest in the canning equipment and be a pioneer in the craft beer canning game?

I received a flyer about cans and busted out a calculator and saw they had potential. Numbers made sense. Again educating consumers that good beer could be put in cans was hardest obstacle to overcome. Nobody was canning back then.

How were the cans received both from a public and distributor standpoint?

Everybody thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I knew the benefits of cans outweighed the negatives by a long shot.

The growth you saw led to the new facility being built in Ashland – including a new canning machine. How has the expanded operation allowed you to make more of an impact both to the business itself and also the community from a jobs standpoint?

I had 10 employees before building the new brewery – 18 if you count the Tap House which I started in 2009. I now have 80 employees and a facility where we have some room to breathe. I discouraged the public from visiting the old brewery as it was simply a hazard for people to be walking around with all day fork lift traffic.caldera_new_brewery1

Sustainability seems to be something that is core to your business. How did this become a focus and talk a bit about choosing to do things this way from the start. 

I always laugh that we were green before green was the cool thing to do. It is something dear to my heart. To take care of the planet only makes sense. Growing up I saw how detrimental people treated the planet and it didn’t make sense to me at all. Especially when these people had kids and grandkids. Fresh clean water makes excellent beer (the main reason for choosing Ashland to start Caldera). Also what I didn’t understand growing up was not only the environmental benefit of taking care of the earth, but it also makes huge economic sense. You pay for garbage removal, but do not pay for recycling, so I recycled as much as possible. Also day lighting in any building will cut down on lighting costs. It seems like everything I did that had an environmental impact also had a huge economic impact as well. The two go hand in hand.

Has the massive increase in craft breweries affected your business at all? What are your thoughts on the overall growth of the industry?

It only makes everybody grow. My friends and I that had craft breweries back in the late 90’s always knew we were not competitors, but rather Bud/Coors were our competitors. The massive growth of craft breweries is due to more people discovering/enjoying a good quality beer. This only helps our market share. Plenty to go around for everybody.

In addition to the increased production, the bigger facility also gave you more space to  experiment – talk a bit about how important this is to craft brewers.

We had a small 10 barrel system at our old brewery. I knew that when we built the new brewery, I wanted to set up a 30 barrel system, but also keep the 10 barrel system for one off/pub beers. We brew unique beers for the Tap House and the restaurant at the brewery. Also some distributors get ahold of some of these beers. It keeps the public interested as the public wants new/ experimental beers.IMG_4796

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you see on the horizon?

Consolidation has been happening for a few years now with big breweries buying stakes in craft breweries. Also investment firms are getting into the scene. This can create some challenges as these craft breweries have even more of a presence via their distributors. There are many beers on the shelves these days which is a good thing, but also makes it more difficult to stay relevant to your customer base as there a more choices than ever now. On the flip side, there are mrs opportunities to get store placements because craft is widely accepted by the consumers.

If you could go back in time to when this journey started and tell yourself a piece of advice, what would it be?

My motto has been “Never sacrifice quality”. I would never change this, but I would have started the brewery with more money so I could have been where Caldera needed to be equipment wise rather than cash flowing and taking out multiple loans to get to that point. Then again who knows if I could have afforded the bigger payments. Kind of a catch 22.

How do you come up with the names for all the beers, and do you have a couple favorite names?

I think about new beers and names all the time. A couple of my favorites are:

Vas Deferens Ale

Hopportunity Knocks IPA

Hop Hash IPA (I was the first commercial brewer to ever use hop hash)

Mother Pucker Raspberry Sour

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

Radio Design on cutting edge of high-tech expansion

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Jim Hendershot likes to play with radios, which to techie troglodytes seems as about as economically purposeful as say, Kodak film developer. But Hendershot’s childhood love of radios, as it turned out, perfectly coalesced into Radio Design Group, a Southern Oregon-based tech consulting and manufacturing firm.

“Look around,” Hendershot says with a sweep of his arm around his corner office. “If it’s wireless and doesn’t use Morse code, it’s a radio. See this phone? It’s a radio. See that computer? It’s a radio. If there are no cables and no laser beams, it’s a radio. It’s all over the place. It just is.”

Which more than anything else explains how a small consulting business in Grants Pass, Oregon could become a significant player in the high-tech electronic space that services any number of companies, including the United States government.

slideshow2-techBased in rural Rogue River, Oregon—situated between Grants Pass and Medford with a population of just over 2,000 people— Radio Design Group, Inc. started out as Hendershot’s solo consulting business in the 1990s. It expanded until the peak of the Great Recession when high-debt and expensive innovation conspired against the business.

Just last year Hendershot sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to reorganize the company’s debt, which included a new $5 million, 22,000-square foot facility on the banks of the Rogue River.

“Our commitment to a very forward looking technology took longer to develop than anticipated,” Hendershot said, “coupled with our commitment to the customer to make it happen, even though it put us in a very difficult cash-flow position.”

The company created a wireless intercom system that took its toll on cash flow, according to published reports. Hendershot said the company had to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so it could reorganize its debt and level out the cash flow.

“The product has been immensely successful,” Hendershot said. “So its rollout, coupled with our other business opportunities, has resulted in a better than expected timeline (to come out of bankruptcy protection).”

“Ultimately, I have to give credit to the people who work here,” Hendershot said. “All the way from top to bottom, our staff stood behind us, stuck with it, and made it all happen. Without their substantial efforts, this could have easily been a business failure, rather than a success story.”

Lobby01Radio Design Group employs about 25 with good wage jobs that attract people with highly specialized skills from all over the country. The new facility offers badly needed room and facilities to increase revenue.

Despite the most recent struggles, Hendershot is optimistic.

“We took on a bunch of debt, but it is definitely worth it,” he said. “We have stumbled into a market that’s just huge.”

Again, just look around you to see all the products using radio frequency technology that Radio Design excels in, to grasp just how huge the market is.

Radio aficionado

Jim Hendershot’s professional career starts and ends with his basic childhood love of radios, which is the one thing that makes this otherwise sparsely decorated, modern facility with state-of-the-art equipment unique. Hendershot has old radios in his office and a few more are in the halls. His obvious connection to the basic foundation of his business can be seen in his 1950s German-built radio and a 1939 Zenith.

slideshow2.4In various offices throughout the building, workbenches that look like a child’s erector set or a musician’s sound board show evidence of perpetual tinkering. Hendershot points to various objects that are completely unique to his field, some his company created.

None of this was the plan, according to Hendershot, who simply hoped he could make a living doing what he does best as an engineer who likes to play with radios. After moving from California to Rogue River, Hendershot figured he’d do what a lot of out-of-work engineers would do: start a consulting radio frequency consulting business.

“I thought ‘I gotta do something’,” he said. “I figured there’s not a lot of guys doing RF design, so I hung my shingle out.”

Even then it seemed like an odd twist on the economic shift to high tech. Like many markets excised by the changing of the times, radios were headed toward museums before Hendershot started his business.

“Radio frequency was a disaster for many years,” he says. “That all changed with the cell phone.”

Cellphones, once bulky and hardly mobile (“a brick,” Hendershot says), changed everything about modern communication largely because of radio frequency technology. No matter how sophisticated they become—with new terms like NFC, GPS and Bluetooth to describe them—they rely on the same old receiver and transmitter technology that brought us AM and FM radio dials.

The science reaches back into history, where men like John Forbes Nash, captured in the movie A Beautiful Mind,  developed mathematical theories that developed transmitter technology. Then in 1973, Motorola Vice President Martin Cooper made the first cell phone call in 1973 on the phone he invented. His first call went to Bell Labs, a company also trying to invent the first cell phone.

“Cooper’s call did more than untether people from their fixed phone lines; it opened the door to true mobility and continues to affect virtually every aspect of our lives,” Roger Cheng wrote for CNET.

“As soon as cellphones happened, wireless took off.” Hendershot said. He took off with it and hasn’t slowed down since.

Communication solutions

The business is different from many because it thrives on the temporary nature of a problem. Radio Design Group helps engineer solutions, fix existing problems with technology and/or design products other companies need.

“That was our original market niche. We’ll design your product. You’re going to make it,” Henderson said.

But demand to build the products grew so the company expanded into manufacturing.

The focus is always on the function despite potential higher costs, which is a common problem in high-tech. Hendershot sounds like Apple Founder Steve Jobs with a similar relentless pursuit of exceptional quality with an eye on price, but not the other way around.

“I think Jobs was able to strike a good balance. I try to do that. But there’s a certain part of that which makes me a high-priced option. We’re the higher end, but our products work very, very well,” he said.

He believes that pays off over time, much as it has for Apple, with overall cost-effectiveness and a higher level of performance.

“Systems for the U.S. Navy that are hundreds of thousands of dollars each can be very complicated. But we are very capable,” he said.products-image

Rogue River

Hendershot realizes a rural map dot along Interstate Five, nearly four hours from a major city, is not the most likely venue for a niche-driven tech firm, much less a manufacturing plant. But he says the location isn’t the problem people would think.

“If I was in the Bay Area, I’d still be looking in Boston and Los Angeles for people. You never know where they come from,” he says.

The bigger problem has been a certain level of anti-tech bias from local governments that have had bad experiences with tech companies failing. Hendershot believes all governments, from the local city to the federal government, try to pick economic winners and losers. Their track record, he says while citing notable busts like Solyndra, leaves a little to be desired. He doesn’t hide a libertarian streak, especially when it comes to government meddling.

“If you own a business and have to pay taxes you tend to become a conservative,” he said.

But his commitment to the town of Rogue River remains firm and the company’s future weighs on his mind, especially as it emerges from its biggest threat to date.

He knows the potential is significant, both in terms of revenue and potential suitors. He is mindful of it, but relishes that he doesn’t have to focus on running a business and solely making those decisions.

“The ugly truth is I don’t run this business,” Hendershot says. “I’m an engineer. I have hired good people and let them do their jobs. I set the tone and direction. I will occasionally weigh in on management decisions and I do some inevitable customer relationships because I’m ‘the boss,’ but mostly I’m still an RF engineer.”

He knows his children have no interest in making this a “family business.” He is aware of the need for an exit plan, though it’s not top of mind.

“I love my job,” he says. Though he admits, “I frequently explore offers. Nothing completely satisfactory has presented itself yet.”

Hendershot says the exit plan focus can be a trap for many entrepreneurs who are focused on the profits more than the work. This gives him an edge. He’s in no hurry to do anything with the business other than keep working to make it the best it can be. He still gets to do exactly what he does best.

“My wife says ‘you play all day and they pay you for it,’” Hendershot says. “The sad truth is it’s true. I played with radios as a kid and I still play with radios now.”

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For more information visit www.radiodesign.com.

Building a world-class MEMS foundry in the Rogue Valley

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Building technology, as it turns out, might actually be easier than inventing it.

“Easier” is not the word Rogue Valley Microdevices cofounders Jessica Gomez and Patrick Kayatta would choose. But when the husband-and-wife team wanted to launch a business in their field of expertise, it came down to making other’s inventions or trying to launch one of their own.

They opted to make stuff—really complex, precise, high-tech stuff—in contrast to the high-dollar, high-wire investment common in micro-processing. In so doing, they launched a one-of-a-kind business that has solidified its niche.412791_379795092046535_1218187416_o

“Our business model isn’t the typical startup business model based on emerging tech or a new product launch, which a lot of times comes from working on technology in the university,” Gomez says. “Eventually patents are filed and they’ll do some proof-of-concept work and start raising money. If they are lucky and tenacious they’ll get funded eventually. Then the clock starts ticking. They have five years maybe to get that product to market. It’s very difficult. Our model is different.”

The decision likely meant more work, longer hours, and a gut-wrenching level of risk, but it has paid off how they both hoped, with steady work in a place they wanted to raise a family.

Gomez, 37, Rogue Valley Microdevices CEO says, their company is the only microelectronics manufacturing facility in Southern Oregon.

“We build other entities’ projects,” Gomez says. Customers include universities, hi-tech companies, even startups. “Really anyone who is lacking the ability to manufacture the chip that they have designed or need.”

Asked where the competition is, Gomez says, “Taiwan.”

415767_379781772047867_2048210312_o“This is becoming more difficult to do in the U.S., but there is a strong market for it. It’s the story of the U.S. with all these companies building this disruptive technology. But once it becomes a commodity it goes offshore.”

Global competition is fierce. But relative proximity to American companies and universities has its advantages as well. In some ways, this Southern Oregon company is the best local alternative.

From New York to Ashland

Gomez and Kayatta first met during the late 1980s when both worked at Standard Microsystems Corporation in Long Island, N.Y.

Gomez started as a minimum-wage lab operator on an assembly line. Boredom motivated her to educate herself in other aspects of the business like manufacturing, processes and software configuration.

Kayatta was recruited to a startup in Los Angeles. Gomez followed. They saw first-hand the perils of the startup culture when the business eventually shut down. The couple then decided to go into business of their own.

The big decision was where.

“We thought about staying but the cost of operating a facility there it didn’t look financially doable,” Gomez says.

They thought about going back to Long Island, which also was cost prohibitive. Florida? Wasn’t a good fit, they thought. Finally, Gomez started thinking about Southern Oregon for its proximity to the Bay Area and Portland and its relative cost of living. It didn’t hurt that she had lived there for a while as teen and still had family there. She hadn’t loved it back then, but now with a family and a business in their plans, it grew on her.

The favorable business culture, especially assistance from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. (SOREDI), sealed the deal.

SOREDI is a non-profit organization tasked with developing business prosperity in Jackson and Josephine Counties. It offers services including assistance in site selection, permit applications and access to capital. For Gomez and Kayatta who were making repeated trips up Interstate 5, the help from SOREDI was enough to leap in and make the move.

The couple invested everything they had. SOREDI took a second position on the bank financing, which mitigated the bank’s risk and helped secure the loan.

“That’s the only way we could fund the company with the start-up costs,” she says.336818_508217062537670_2104100553_o

They set up their first clean rooms and got to work.

“We started really basic. We did two types of films. We had maybe 500 to 1,000 square feet of clean rooms and started making money,” Gomez recalls.

She estimates that the monthly budget demanded about $14,000 in revenue just to survive and keep up the lines of credits they took. Credit card debt grew as well. So did their work hours.

“It’s sort of out necessity right?” she says. “Because we don’t have the ability to have this big multimillion dollar exit. It’s not attractive for an investor to put a bunch of money into this company, so we just kept putting it in ourselves. We wanted something that was going to be around for many years.”

They succeeded. The business has enjoyed steady growth and earned a reputation for quality and attention to detail that is critical in microdevice manufacturing.

“We didn’t have the option to fail. We took everything we had, our income, our house, our credit into this company. We lived off Pat’s 401K working 18 hours a day,” Gomez says. “The first five years were really tough. We’d basically sleep here.”

But perhaps the biggest accomplishment is they survived with their marriage intact.

“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Gomez says. “I was 25 when we started this company. It was two of us. We didn’t have a team of engineers.”

That common sense focus still guides the company, she says. They continue to focus on what they do very well. They don’t worry about the mega deals that happen in other companies, like the recently announced billion dollar super merger between Spansion and Cypress. That’s not their business model and it’s never been their goal, she says.

“That big giant pay-off for us is not as important as steady jobs,” she says.409281_379774998715211_1537131771_n

Often it’s inevitable when a company scales up its technology and begins mass production for it to take the work offshore. Prior to that expansion is a niche where Rogue Valley Microdevices excels.

“We are supporting a lot of this cutting edge stuff that we don’t want to introduce to a foreign environment especially in those beginning,” Gomez says.

Building Southern Oregon tech

With the business more secure and a team of roughly 20 employees, the work hours remain long but the survival stress has abated. Gomez has begun to connect with others to offer what help she can. She also wants to help generate funding for other startups, which will help the nascent tech corridor in the Rogue Valley grow, recruit a strong workforce and improve the community’s economy.

339083_379797188712992_793926256_oThe region’s tech culture doesn’t have a lot of depth, but it does have “one of everything,” Gomez says. The diversity of tech interests and culture isn’t common in a rural area.

“We are all very unique so we have to do it in a unique way,” she says.

Part of that is continued work with SOREDI and other public and private agencies seeking to boost the innovation economy. She helped start the Sustainable Valley Technology group to help develop resources for entrepreneurs. Jackson County came aboard as an initial funder with an investment of $50,000 to help attract and assist high-tech, clean energy businesses.

“We thought this was the best and brightest idea we’ve heard in a long time,” Commissioner C.W. Smith said.

The focus of the group is to help provide office space, support services and venture capital for emerging businesses, a Jackson County press release stated.

“I’ve been working a long time to develop resources for startup companies. I believe that’s critical for our local economy,” Gomez says.

She also serves on the state workforce board. She’s well aware of the obstacles for the region.

“It’s hard to find really good well qualified employees to hire in any of these companies. I thought we were unique but I hear stories and I don’t think we are.”

Next steps

Plans for the future look very much like the present. Hard work, excellent quality products delivered to innovative companies that need that specialized care Rogue Valley Microsystems provides.

Expansion is coming, but not in the form of a massive multi-million dollar merger or investment partner. It looks more like a larger building and putting into use more clean room space that is critical to increase production.

“We are pretty packed,” Gomez says. They recently purchased a $10,000-foot clean room that was decommissioned by Intel, she says, but they don’t have anywhere to put. That will have to change soon.

It’s all part of the original plan, the so-called easier way to launch a high-tech company in a rural outpost.

“We still want jobs and to provide for ourselves and make a decent living,” she says, for herself, her husband and their growing number of employees. Just like they started, it’s pretty basic, but in the fundamentals have come the success and perhaps a model for others coming to the region to follow.335885_379785108714200_1590338315_o

For more information, visit www.roguevalleymicrodevices.com, like them on facebook, or follow them on twitter and LinkedIn

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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For more on Tucker Sno-Cat, visit www.sno-cat.com, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter

Angling into a compelling business

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Start-up lesson number one, if experience is our guide, is to invest in a product unique to Oregon that is about to be the topic of a major motion picture. It worked fabulously for Oregon Pinot Noir following Sideways. But before that, it worked even better for those in the business of angling for fish with a rod, reel and fly.

The Pacific Northwest’s boutique fly fishing industry found its unexpected spokesman when Brad Pitt chased big fish against the incredible backdrop of Montana in A River Runs Through It. Talk about a visual marketing campaign.

“That movie kicked the fly fishing business in the tail,” Jon Bauer, founder of Bauer Fly Reels in Ashland, Ore. recalled recently. “That propelled the fly fishing industry for ten years. All these people saw the movie and fell in love with it and had to go do it.”

Bauer was one of those caught up in the momentum, which also grew because of a dramatic sweep of history. In addition to Pitt, another big name of that era – Ronald Reagan – had a little bit to do with it. The Cold War Era fell with the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Defense spending dropped. Back in places like California, machine shops bore the brunt. Many had to reinvent themselves just like a Bauer, a race car driver with a machinist background.

“Everybody and their brother who had a machine shop was trying to make a fly reel in the 1990s,” Bauer said.

Bauer beat them all to the punch and he did it by literally reinventing the wheel.

Re-inventing the wheel

Bauer, now 65, was in his early forties with a new family when he needed a new career. Being a race car driver doesn’t prepare you for much outside of racing. He said he considered a startup business within the field of racing that he knew well.

11043050_929517320414677_4805936100096403220_n“That was, for me, deep water,” he says. “You had to have a lot of money and I didn’t.”

What being a race car driver did prepare him for—combined with his machinist background from his youth—was to make things.

“In racing we were designing widgets all the time. That’s how you stay ahead and win,” he says.

So the next career move, he figured, would involve some type of new widget that he could put his name on and sell. Riding the aforementioned wave of interest in fly fishing and being an angler himself, he thought a lot about the reel.

“It’s a pretty simple device and they’ve been made in a certain manner for many, many, many years,” he says.

That lack of innovation created an opening. Also, coming from a different industry all together, he thought differently than those trying to improve the reel. He thought about truck winches and race car wheels and how both generate power and speed. He applied some basic physics, a larger wheel (called an arbor) and new clutch technology, all of which came together in a patented design that makes Bauer Reels one of the best reels on the globe still to this day.

“Large-arbor fly reels are the hottest thing in fly fishing since the introduction of graphite rods in the 1970s,” wrote Field and Stream magazine.

“It’s illogical to have it any other way,” Bauer says. “It was not only large arbor, but a one-way clutch that I designed. Eliminating the number of parts, better costs, less things can go wrong. It was a game- changer. It was totally different and that’s what made such a big splash. As a result, any reel company of any consequence today all make large arbor reels. We really changed the industry.”

Oregon made craftsmanship

So start-up lesson number two might just be this: if you expect to profit from a major motion picture and the glamorous star power of a Brad Pitt, your product better be good – industry-leading to be precise. Here, like Oregon Pinot Noir, fly fishing in environmentally protected free-flowing rivers and streams elevate the quality of the experience throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Bauer’s reel remains an industry leader.

10710554_844675922232151_5783647888767386693_nStill made by hand (often Bauer’s hand) in an Ashland shop, Bauer reels are an industry leader in a sport that dates back to second century Rome and the art of Tenkura in Japan. Fly fishing is above all, to those who enthusiastically defend and participate in the sport, an art form. Bauer is a foremost artisan, his supporters enthusiastically say.

“Passionate fly angler, precision fly reel designer and a champion race car driver, I personally don’t think Jon has it in him to do anything in life less than perfect,” blogged Greg Darling, internet sales manager for Gorge Fly Shop. “The first thing I took interest in was Jon’s workbench… clean, neat and all in order.”

From that workbench comes reels others rave about.

“The new RX5 performed flawlessly and this reel just might be Jon Bauer’s masterpiece,” wrote Dylan Rose of Fly Water Travel.

Dave McCoy, owner and guide of Emerald Water Anglers, says Bauer’s reels have served him well fishing in every part of the globe, from Alaska to New Zealand and virtually every continent in between.
“It is very smooth, and has wonderful sensitivity to the drag so it can be set perfectly,” McCoy says.

Business challenges

As it turned out, inventing a new reel system for centuries old technology was the easy part.

“We didn’t quite pull off that plan to retire up here,” Bauer says of his move to Ashland in 2005. “We did hit the peak when we moved out of California, which helped a bit I guess.”

The fly fishing industry had cooled. Again the sweep of history played a hand, this time not for the better. First came Sept. 11, 2001, which dramatically impacted travel. The next few years were bumpy, full of peaks and valleys not uncommon to a small business, even one with a globally recognized brand and industry leading patent.

Then, off-shore manufacturing provided stiff competition as quality increased.

“The whole model has changed because of the influence of what’s being made in China and Korea,” he says. “It hasn’t gotten any easier, but I think there is a little swing of manufacturing coming back into the states. But that takes a long time.”

The tough business climate was only going to get worse.

“2008 really put a stop to everything,” Bauer says. “Fly fishing is a small, tiny, miniscule industry. The recession hit the distribution hard. The larger companies with a broader product line gobbled up the retail side of it which takes us out of the equation.”

Bauer only makes reels. Not fishing poles, not waders, not even an inexpensive bulk manufactured knock-off reel made in China. Distribution networks are critical and most are on life support.

“A lot of fly shops couldn’t make it,” Bauer says. “We use independent sales reps, and of course a lot of them couldn’t make it either. It’s been difficult.”

10849946_872572852775791_3502392861608260093_nBut confidence in both Bauer quality and Bauer himself remains high as those within the industry appreciate Bauer’s contributions.

“Jon is a charismatic, knowledgeable and passionate purveyor of his product,” McCoy says. “In this sport, we need as much of this as possible to inspire and lead the next generation to carry that torch forward and Jon is doing an exemplary job of it.”

The obvious question begs to be asked, so I do. Will the brand be bought out?

“That’s a big topic right now. Because of the ups and downs of the economy we’ve been approached several times, but it’s never been completely done. We’ve built a good brand but there are fewer companies that can afford to buy up these brands.”

Personally, he says, he’d like see an independent like himself—another machinist looking to keep the machines running—buy him out. But he’s listening to offers. He’s considering the exit strategies and thinking seriously about the future of the sport he loves. He still has a place on the Williamson River in Southern Oregon, the place he bought to retire and fly fish that still beckons.

“I gotta figure out that puzzle,” he says, which is not altogether unlike the puzzle of the reel itself that he solved and launched himself into the history books of a historic sport.

For more information, visit Bauer Fly Reels or like Bauer on Facebook.

New cut on an old school profession

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Chris Diaz really had about as much of a chance of avoiding the family business as Michael Corleone. When your brother, brother-in-law, mother, father, grandfather and his brother are all barbers, the odds are you’ll join ‘em, sooner or later.

“I tell people that for me it was easy to get into it,” Chris says, while cutting a stylish fade for the Southern Oregon University student sitting in the barber chair in front of him. “I grew up in barbershops my whole life, sweeping in my grandfather’s shop, sweeping in my parent’s shop. It’s always been that way.”

Chris is a barber at The Flap Top in Ashland, a shop his parents Mike and Terri opened more than 20 years ago. By taking the best of the salon experience – customer service, modern décor, a complimentary alcoholic beverage, for example – and combining it with old school classic hairstyles that are suddenly back in fashion, The Flat Tap survived the downturn in barbershops long enough to enjoy the current wave of popularity.

“Every year you learn and adapt. We’re special because of our kids. They teach us too,” says co-owner Terri, who learned the trade from her father and her uncle.

Another generation of Diaz barbers have expanded beyond Ashland into downtown Medford. Mike and Terri’s oldest son Brandon Diaz, 29, and their daughter Amanda’s husband, Pablo Villa, 32, have teamed up to open The Fellas Barber Shop, which pushes to be current and competitive by tailoring to a new wave of clients.

Flattop1“Cutting hair is the best job I’ve ever had,” Brandon said, noting he’s been working many jobs since he was 16. He points to his dad as his guiding influence.

“If my dad had become a doctor, I would’ve become a doctor and followed in his footsteps.”
The Don Corleone of this family of barbers – Brandon and Chris’ grandfather – long ago insisted his daughter learn to use clippers or starve. Terri learned the trade back in the 1980s cutting mullets and other dramatic long-haired styles. Like many women, she focused first on being a stylist so she could ride the trend toward high-end salons. But soon enough she was back to the basics of barbering.

“He was right all along,” she says of her father.

Barbering is a trade, she says, that has helped her entire family weather all the changes in the industry and the economy.

Innovation in an old profession

After years of falling out of favor, barbershops are back in a big way.

Nationwide, the cosmetology and barbering industry grew 29 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to Inc. magazine. Charles Kirkpatrick, the executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, recently told the New York Times the number of licensed barbers had grown roughly 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, which amounts to about 20,000 new barbers.

According to Forbes Magazine, “North American sales of shaving products is a $3 billion a year business.” A 2013 Salon business study and forecast “showed that like women, men are currently seeking barber shops that are close to their home, offer a wide variety of services and are competitive in pricing.” Major players are moving into the American market, opening high-end franchises across the country.

The trends can be seen throughout the state of Oregon as well. The Barbers franchise has 15 Portland-area locations. It offers shoulder massages and hot lather neck-shaves for an up-scale barbering experience. Another chain, The Bishops Barbershop, has a dozen Oregon shops, all seeking to attract the next generation of customers with its edgy marketing and appeal.

Staying in style

Without even trying to be a trendsetter, Mike said creating a unique experience for men has driven the latest innovations and changes at his shop.

Customers can enjoy a free 10-oz. cup of locally brewed Caldera beer while they wait, a decidedly modern twist. Or like Mike says, they can have a Tootsie Pop as well, a nod to classic Americana.

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“The beer is just like the girls going to the beauty shop getting a glass of champagne,” Mike says. “It’s just a little something extra. Men in particular don’t pamper themselves. We wanted them to feel like it’s a guy’s place. It feels comfortable.”

Mike credits Terri for that classic, modern combination.

“You know what it is?”, Mike says about his barbershop and its success. “My wife said something to me that really stuck. She said, ‘Why does the barber shop have to get old with the barber?’ It’s true. So many shops you see the yellow paint that started off white, the upholstery is old. ‘You have to make people feel welcome,’ she told me.”

Terri says the same thing the next day when Mike isn’t around.

“I’ve always learned that in barbershops, especially in barbershops, the shops grow old with barber,” she says.

She would not let that happen with The Flat Top.

A mix of old and new

Whereas The Flat Top itself—the hair cut, not the shop—remains the coin of the realm for a white man of a certain age, the styles of the ‘50s and ‘60s have returned, bringing a whole new generation of customers out of expensive salons and back into the barber’s chairs.

Styles always circle back around, Terri says, even with new names.

“A fade is a taper,” she says. “That’s what it’s been called. But now they call it a fade. The styles stay the same.”

But The Flat Top—the shop, not the style—continues to evolve right along with it, carving out a niche business in a declining economy. As Mike points out, barber schools across the country, including Oregon’s, have closed.

“They are not producing barbers anymore,” Mike says. “My sons are third-generation barbers. They’re rare because they get the training from us.”

But that too is the secret to business success. By weathering the downturn in popularity and steadily adapting to the trends, the Diaz Family, just like the famous fictional Godfather, has a corner on the market in this corner of the state.

“You’re never gonna get wealthy,” Mike says. “But you’re indoors and out of the elements. It’s not like construction where it’s boom or bust. It’s a comfortable living.”

A sign on the wall may as well be the business motto.

“There’s no school like old school,” it reads.

For more information, visit the Flat Top Barbershop on Yelp.

Craftsmanship meets impact

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The old Quonset hut situated near the I-5 freeway has been a fixture for decades in this southern Oregon town, but the energy level and innovation taking place inside is entirely new.

The Quonset also represents a calculated gamble that not only can manufacturing re-energize this rural Oregon community with good jobs and high return on investment, but that the business within – Roguewood Furniture Company– can compete with venture capital dollars that are most often associated with 21st century technology rather than old-school product making.

Harmony in discord

But don’t tell Elizabeth Bauer this gamble isn’t prudent. Her whole business is built on taking discordant ideas like this one: scaleable investment in rural manufacturing, or like this one: sustainable forest products, and making them not only meaningful, but profitable and of high community value.

20141021_Roguewood_0162Bauer, 37, is the president and founder of Gilded Rogue, an Ashland, Ore. investment company that launched last year. It has since purchased three southern Oregon businesses, including Roguewood and its retro Quonset hut.

“This is a good company that just needed a little bit of love,” she says of Roguewood.

Bauer came out of the grocery industry where she worked as a CFO for massive company with 2,700 employees and annual sales of nearly half a billion dollars. She said her time in corporate finance taught her that many businesses are lacking the language to compete for investment dollars.

“I’d hear all the time,” she says. “There is nothing to invest in. I know it isn’t true but I realized they are speaking different languages.”

Which lead to those seemingly discordant terms being merged together in an old-school business model that can attract cutting-edge investment dollars.

Embracing rural Oregon

“There is a lot of angel money for startups, but not as much for ready-to-scale investment. That’s our sweet spot,” Bauer says. “We’re really about accelerating. We’re trying to get companies out of that first stage and into stage 2 or 3 expansion.”

Bauer said the mission is straightforward and simple. They are looking for companies within the rural Pacific Northwest that have potential sales growth and potential social impact.

Both, she insists, are critical.

“The impact is built into the costs, say, like the wood we use,” she says, because compromising local impact would dissolve the mission. Each company under the Gilded Rogue umbrella must be focused on “benefiting a social issue and making a difference in the world,” according the company’s website.

Building on what works

“The do-good stuff is more than a slogan in the daily operations of Roguewood. It translates in observable ways into the work place, just as when Quin Wilson, a Roguewood furniture designer, returned from a hunt for reclaimed wood. Wilson described the value of the large beams he brought back like trophies of his latest expedition.

20141008_20141007_Roguewood_0175-3I got this out of a saw mill they are tearing down in Klammath Falls,” he said.

He struggled to hold the massive beam—perhaps a 2×12 to an inexpert eye—on its end.

“See how tight that grain is. New timber today may have as much as 1/3 of an inch gap. But this is so much higher quality…” Wilson explained, then segued seamlessly into his plans for converting the beams into a new artisan table.

Wilson plans to smooth out the grain (“just a little, so it’s smooth, but still looks right”) and fill in some holes. On the spot he bought a significant amount of the wood on site and dragged plenty back in his truck.

“How much?” Bauer asked.

“$2.50 a square.”

“Very nice,” she said.

Wilson was also excited about a new wood he’s exploring as a potential product.

“I just found another type of wood I think we might want to take a look at. It is yew wood. It’s a salvage wood. It has a lot of potential,” he reported.

Bauer encouraged him to take a look. No micromanaging here. That freedom, Bauer says later is a big factor in Roguewood’s plan. Bauer, who is now serving as the company’s CEO, is building the business around the craftsmanship and quality that already existed. The employees will be the eventual owners, so autonomy now—with a guiding hand on the business side—is critical. Empowerment is a big part of the growth strategy.

“It’s like putting floaties on a company instead of tossing them into the deep end,” Bauer says.

Economic Rebound

Based on the early explosive growth under Bauer’s leadership, Roguewood won’t need the floaties for long. The word is out in the community as well. Former employees are returning, applications in hand.

“I shouldn’t have left,” one man says as he quickly dropped off his application.
Inside the Quonset hut energy and activity hums. Different sections are used for making different products. The smell of steel saws burning through hard wood mixes with the noise of machines in high gear. But the relaxed vibe of the work represents more high-school woodworking class than high-pressured manufacturing.

In October Roguewood hit $250,000 in sales and ramped up to 60 employees, up from $120,000 in sales and 17 employees back in July. November sales will hit $350,000, Bauer says.

“We just need to get them out the door,” she says of recent sales.

November will also be the first month of a new strategic partnership with Sawyer Paddles and Oars, which agreed to move its manufacturing into the Roguewood site. Employees will be able to cross-train in both furniture manufacturing and paddles, according to Sawyer President Peter Newport.

“I think Liz is an amazing leader,” Newport says.

The partnership fits with what industry experts say is the future of American manufacturing. John Bova, director, MTN Capital Partners LLC, told Industry Week streamlining is the future of American manufacturing.

“The types of decisions that needed to be made include streamlining of go to market, successful new product introductions from a strong pipeline and steady global business investment. Those will be key characteristics for manufacturers poised for higher growth levels,” Bova said.

Lead with sales

It’s all part of the process Bauer envisioned when she first focused on Roguewood.

“Sales came first,” Bauer says. “Then came the employees. Now we’re connecting all the dots,” said Mariam McVeigh, Roguewood’s director of sales. She shares that the arrival of Bauer and her team has infused the company with creative energy.

20141021_Roguewood_0472“It’s like my handcuffs came off,” she says. “The potential always has been there. We have the product and quality and we have the reputation. Now we have the possibility.”

McVeigh used her personal connection to an employer at the Wild River Brewing Company to land a new account. Shaun Hoback, manager of the brewing company, said he just signed a contract with Roguewood for new dining room tables and matching décor that includes old photos of the mills in town and new sustainable products made there including Sawyer paddles.

“Those paddles are gorgeous,” Hoback said. “We want to connect first and foremost with local companies. But the story behind the wood, the company, the industry here, all plays a part in why we want to do business with them.”

Bauer also brought in a team of professionals to help Roguewood organize its front office. One of those is Sam Leaber, systems administrator for Gilded Rogue, on loan to Roguewood.

“Companies don’t always know what they need until it all goes wrong,” he says.

By having Leaber available, Roguewood can improve its online presence without the added cost of a full-time IT guy. Bauer’s husband also pops in, helping out with any number of tasks as needed.

“The more we do this kind of stuff,” Bauer says, arms sweeping across the spartan office space, “the more they can do what they do best, building a great product.”

Significant impact

For all the business savvy, the mission remains impact-centered, much like Wilson’s hunt for reclaimed wood and Bauer’s determination to build a solid, permanent workforce. It also is evident in the exit strategy Bauer has in mind, which is to eventually sell the company to the employees themselves.

Because the company was undervalued and is now getting the lift it needed it should soon hit industry standards, Bauer says. That realized growth will allow the employees to buy her out. It means a company will sustain in the community that gave it life and will benefit that community long after Bauer is on to other projects.

20141023_roguewood_0240-2Bauer knows profits are critical. But unlike much of the venture capital world that is looking for the explosive dividends of tech companies that require 10 times the amount invested in returns, Bauer says the same return can be realized with a lower rate of growth with fewer failed investments.

“There are a lot of companies out there that don’t fit the 10x model,” Bauer says. “But we sort of put them together to outperform that model. We don’t have the eight in ten failure rate to absorb. It allows us to succeed.”

It also allows them to continue to make an impact, like donating money to the Ashland-based Lomakatsi non-profit that educates children about forest health. For every piece of furniture Roguewood sells, Lomakaski is given money to plant a tree, Bauer says.

Bauer says the company must excel and the impact must be reflected in the product, which “drives money into impact.”

She says the overall aim of the company is connecting the diverse artisan craftsmakers in the Pacific Northwest to the burgeoning market of clients across the globe.

“If we can do wood products right, in a sustainable way, here in Southern Oregon, in timber country, well that’s a great model for everyone,” Bauer says.

A model Bauer is willing to gamble on.

For more information, visit http://www.roguewood.com, follow Roguewood on Twitter, or like Roguewood on Facebook.

An overnight success, 20 years in the making

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It’s rare to use the words “hot tub” and “great idea” in the same sentence. But those two seemingly incongruous terms came together on a pivotal day in August 2010. Lem James relaxed in the hot tub with his son discussing business and life, which wasn’t unusual for the pair.

Lem had spent the last several years seeking the perfect startup idea—a niche idea to be exact, so the conversation focused on startup ideas to opportunities. He had watched and compared businesses inside very competitive markets and niche markets. But nothing had quite fit the mold.

All it was needed was a spark.

“Hey Dad, why don’t you build those concrete ping pong tables you saw in Germany?”

And that was all it took.

Lem recognized a viable product and innovative idea.  Permanent, outdoor table tennis tables took something familiar and turned it on its head. Lem liked the purposeful creativity of combining ping pong and concrete—two things that didn’t seem to mesh—to create a new outdoor experience in public places.

But this would be more than a niche market; it would be wide open without any competitors and an immediate customer focus; Parks & Recreation.

From a fleeting idea, a permanent table

Normally, “outdoor” ping pong tables need to be set up every day and put away at night. This, combined with play, causes them to wear out every few years. Left outside, table tennis tables deteriorate rapidly.

A concrete table, however, can stay outside through harsh weather and doesn’t need to be set up and taken down at all. This was the key.

Concrete tables could save money for parks, military bases, community centers, and even home owners. Using concrete completely redefines where table tennis works. Instead of backyards and garages, tables can be installed in parks and outdoor school yards.

Forming a business as sturdy as its product

Within a week, Lem had AutoCAD sketches and plans to build forms. As he shared his idea, however, others raised concerns. Who would buy these concrete tables? Wouldn’t shipping costs eat up any profit? Who would even think to search for a product like this? America just wasn’t familiar with the idea. It was a luxury item and, in 2010, we were in a recession.

P1020652With his work experience, Lem knew parks across the country and beyond would be interested, and he knew the channels to reach them. As for shipping, that’s a normal cost of doing business. Even when others shared their concerns, the passion grew.

“Every once in a while, we had to do a gut check because they were putting out a few quotes but nothing was selling yet,” said Lem. “We had to hone in on our product and our marketing to put our products out there to our target markets without traditional advertising. We began selling a table here and there. Then, once we could put enough story and photographs together to show tables in parks, schools and nice backyards, sales started rolling.

“It’s frustrating to watch potentially good businesses start and poke around, and then evaporate before they even get the traction to move forward. I’ve watched several businesses fail to launch in this manner. Many times so much time gets spent on making a perfect product that marketing and sales get ignored.

“A lot of these businesses get launched by very smart successful people, but people who don’t need the business to succeed. They have other successes that are easy to fall back on. Early on, a friend asked what my back up plan was. I said plan A was to succeed wildly, and plan B was to succeed mildly. There was no backup plan to fail. If we ran into failure, we would plan around it and continue. Don’t quit.”

During the first year, the company focused on developing and improving the tables, adding steel nets, integral concrete dye to offer color options, and making other refinements. Concrete chess tables were a natural addition to the product line, and these weren’t as foreign to the American market. The playing squares are marble inlaid tiles in a background of polished, exposed aggregate concrete in an array of color options, including recycled glass.

Why Oregon?

The entrepreneurial community in Oregon supported Bravado from an early stage, including the Roseburg Small Business Development Center and Young Entrepreneur Society (YES), a Roseburg group that supports new innovation.

These groups provided the cross pollination of ideas, which has been central to Bravado’s product development and marketing. In addition, they provided crucial support to a founder with a unique concept. Lem was able to pitch ideas and get feedback from a unique cross section of business thinkers and fellow entrepreneurs.

Oregon is also home to an array of groups, like Portland based City Repair, who are great supporters of the placemaking movement. City Repair builds community projects—like turning an intersection into a public park. They describes placemaking as “a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.”Permanent outdoor games—especially table tennis—fit in perfectly with placemaking by providing the community a gathering point where everyone can play.

Best of both worlds

As Lem perfected the engineering and production of the ping pong tables, his mind began to turn to other product opportunities based on the company motto, “Everybody plays!”

Cornhole, a simple, but not very well known game immediately came to mind. The bean bag game was easy to adapt to concrete and place as a permanent feature in parks, while also creating a more entry level product line. Foosball was added to the product line after a table tennis fan sent a picture of a similar table in Paris. While the actual forming and production took some fine tuning, the actual game itself is to pick up and learn.

Foosball and cornhole allow almost anyone to begin playing and then develop mastery over time—just like the sport that inspired the original product.

Work that inspires activity

Lem shares a contagious enthusiasm for his products and the games they facilitate. it’s not just about selling something and making money. These tables are on the cutting edge in concrete work, the placemaking movement, and the sport of table tennis.

Bravado Outdoor’s table tops are recognized in the concrete industry for design and finish work and have been featured by different suppliers. The tables are another example of combining two different disciplines: concrete engineering and concrete countertop finish work.

These publicly available tables support the developing of ping pong in America, and integrate into the urban placemaking design movement; where sidewalks, corners or small urban spaces are turned into an oasis where people can gather. Where an old empty lot can become a miniature neighborhood gathering spot with ping pong and chess as the focal points.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 3.25.47 PMThe sport of table tennis, in particular, has been a second tier sport in North America, usually played in garages and basements. But Bravado is taking table tennis into the outdoors and public places, putting the sport front and center and giving more people across America and the chance to hone their skills. The Bravado team strongly believes that by making table tennis more accessible, the level of play will be raised—ultimately helping the US become more competitive on the international scene.

Lofty goal? Sure. But the accessibility of basketball courts in parks and urban areas has definitely played a central role in the development of many top players, and while there is a big difference between basketball and table tennis in regards to the idea of being a competitive sport, accessibility and awareness are still critical development steps.

And once in place, these tables will be around for years to come. No nets to replace or backboards to repair. No play structures to fix. No swing chains to replace. Just hours of enjoyment by kids and adults alike.

And much like the products they have developed, Bravado has created a solid company, firmly grounded in the community that supported them from the beginning.

For more information, visit http://www.concretetabletennis.com, follow Bravado on Twitter, or like Bravado on Facebook.