Emerging Manufacturers of the Year


Small Company (tie)
Smartplug Systems, Seattle

Seen one electrical plug, you’ve pretty much seen them all, right? That’s not true anymore in the industrial segment, where SmartPlug has come up with a new design for a shore-power plug for the marine industry.

Ken Smith, the founder of SmartPlug, got the idea from repairing fire-damaged boats, thinking about the causes of those blazes and ways to prevent them. The big culprit, Smith decided, was the conventional design of ship-to-shore electrical connections that could overheat and loosen.

SmartPlug’s heavy-duty plug and receptacle are designed to increase contact surface while reducing weight-bearing load, as well as opportunities for water intrusion and corrosion. There’s no twisting involved to plug it in, which, over time, can loosen the connection. Side levers lock the plug in place, and the cover of the receptacle doubles as a clamp to make the connection more secure. SmartPlug also incorporates a built-in thermostat to shut off power in case of overheating.

Result: a reduction in the chances of marine fires. In addition to its 30-amp and 50-amp marine plug systems, SmartPlug has been lining up certifications for international sales and is now developing products for the RV, trucking, electric-vehicle and industrial markets. The company lists more than 400 dealers in the U.S. and Canada.

Small Company (tie)
MC Energy, Spokane

From left, MC Energy CEO Mark Folsom, R&D director Curt Higgins and business development director Cory Arnold, photographed by Matt Mills McKnight.

The wind-energy category isn’t just for big multinational companies to play in. Small companies like MC Energy can build markets too. Founded by Mark Folsom, a manufacturing entrepreneur with several other ventures, MC Energy is building small wind turbines—5 and 15 kilowatts—for the farm, residential and commercial market.

These turbines aren’t scaled-down versions of the giant wind turbines used by utilities. MC Energy’s turbines use a direct-drive design between the blades and the generator, eliminating the gearbox that can be a source of expensive failures. The blades are designed to fold back on the housing as wind picks up, in a shape resembling a badminton shuttlecock. That ability means the turbine doesn’t have to be shut down or locked in place during wind gusts. The turbine drive shaft connects directly to the generator, so there’s no complicated and expensive gearbox to be repaired.

MC Energy has been creating a dealer network to build sales, and wants to address a flaw in the small wind-energy market—little support for consumers once the sale is made—by maintaining close contact with its buyers. The company also hopes to build a manufacturing plant that will get half of its electricity from on-site wind and solar power.

Midsize Company (tie)
FluxDrive, Sumner

There can be problems with mechanical couplings in the drive shafts of machinery: They break down, they transmit vibrations and they require a huge surge of power to start (and the owner pays for that peaking capacity). Variable-frequency drives, which rely on electronic controls, have their own drawbacks.

One solution is the magnetic coupler or clutch, which replaces the physical connection between an electric motor and a pump or blower. By using magnets to transfer the torque across an air gap, and varying the distance between them to vary the speed, magnetic connections significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to start or keep a motor operating.

Magnetic couplers are preferable to mechanical or variable-frequency drives, FluxDrive says, because they’re safe and reliable in harsh environments such as saltwater or chemical vapors, are easily installed on existing drive trains, require less maintenance and operate more efficiently.

FluxDrive was started in 2003, but 2010 was the year it moved from development stage to manufacturing and sales. The company raised $1.4 million in capital to develop sales and marketing channels as well as to expand its product line of adjustable-speed drives.

Initial customers of Flux Drive products have been zoos, aquariums and aquatics facilities. Sales were just $150,000 in 2010, but the company is aiming for eight to 10 times that amount in 2011.

Midsize Company (tie)
NewWood, Elma

Lost in the various corporate shufflings and restructurings at Boise Cascade was a 275,000-square-foot plant in Grays Harbor County at which new technology was to be used to produce a composite wood-plastics material for siding. Boise Cascade actually started the plant and tested the technology, but shut down the facility before reaching commercial volumes of production.

Enter John Bowser, a former building-products executive and industry consultant, who purchased the plant with the intent to start production in the second quarter of this year. His plan is to turn recycled wood and polyethylene plastic into boards and panels that can be used for fruit bins, pallets, crates, concrete forms, siding, flooring and fencing.

The Composite Materials and Engineering Center (CMEC) at Washington State University has been working with NewWood on potential markets—researchers have identified more than 100 uses for the product—and CMEC is also documenting the material’s durability and recyclability.

At full capacity, NewWood expects to recycle more than 170 million pounds of wood and plastic waste a year, and employ 150 people. Aside from taking lots of wood and plastic out of the waste stream, NewWood hopes its products will prove easy to work with in making products superior to existing alternatives: fruit bins that can be washed and reused, fencing boards that are resilient in any climate, and food crates that are resistant to bacteria.


Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

On its 50th anniversary, Redmond’s aerial-work-platform specialist celebrates by seeking new opportunities.

As the development surge continues apace in and around Seattle, aerial booms and scissor lifts crowd every construction site — and a local company quietly thrives.

Redmond-based Genie Industries, named 2014’s No. 1 aerial platform manufacturer by Access International magazine, is not only growing in the United States, but the maker of the ubiquitous blue and gray lift machines is also aggressively expanding its reach across more than 80 countries on almost every continent.

From one man who bought the rights to Genie’s original technology in the 1960s, the company has grown to employ 1,800 in Redmond and more than 3,800 worldwide. The equipment rental industry makes up most of Genie’s business, with 90 percent of its domestic sales going to rentals and 80 percent outside the United States.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Genie appreciates Seattle’s continuing boom in real estate development but sees its greatest growth potential occurring in China and South America as developing countries abandon bamboo scaffolding and tighten safety standards with modern lift technology such as Genie’s.

“There’s a lot of pride locally,” says Matt Fearon, president of Terex Aerial Work Platforms, “but traveling around the world, you cannot believe where you see these machines.”

Genie’s roots go back to 1966, when Bud Bushnell started working for Seattle Bronze, a company that produced hoists in Kent. The business faltered, so Bushnell bought rights to the technology and started Genie — its name inspired by the hissing sound of the compressed air used to raise the machine’s operator, like a genie rising from its bottle.

Beginning a history marked by impressive in-house innovation, Bushnell acquired the patent for the first Genie hoist in 1968. It was the same year Genie’s business got a big boost from a Japanese ironworks company representative who visited the Seattle area and ordered 15,000 hoists on the spot.

Based in Kirkland at the time, Genie traced much of its early growth through the 1970s to the emergence of the equipment-rental business. The swelling demand fostered a spirit of innovation and improvement that Fearon calls “part of our fabric.” In 1974, it introduced the Genie Teletower, which carried more weight than previous lifts. In 1984, it brought out the Z-Boom, which became the world’s most popular lift by carrying workers up and over other structures and obstacles to reach a work area, thereby improving workers’ reach and flexibility with a single machine.

The Z-Boom was a “groundbreaking innovation” that was soon adopted by other manufacturers, says Karen Stash, Genie’s senior director of global product management and marketing. Another Genie innovation is the X-chassis, which allowed the company to build a machine with a larger base that provided stability and also included an expanding axle design for flexibility in storing the booms. Too, Genie was first to introduce the world’s tallest self-propelled boom and hydraulic material lifts.

Bushnell emphasized customer service, Fearon says, making personal visits to clients to see how Genie’s equipment worked in the field and how it could be improved upon, as well as identifying unmet needs at construction sites.

In addition to maintaining a research and development department, Genie encourages ideas from the shop floor and has adopted much of this input, Fearon says.

Genie moved to Redmond in 1982 and grew during the next 20 years to nearly 1,500 employees. In 1998, it opened an additional manufacturing facility in Moses Lake, making Genie the largest employer in Grant County, according to the Grant County Economic Development Council.

In 2001, construction screeched to a near halt amid the turn-of-the-millennium recession, necessitating a different path to growth. Connecticut-based Terex Corporation, a maker of cranes and other massive manufacturing equipment, bought Genie in 2002, providing an infusion of cash, technology, new factories and global markets.

Terex opened new Genie-owned factories in China, Italy and the United Kingdom, not to outsource work but to get equipment to international customers faster, says Chad Hislop, one of two engineering directors at Genie. The Terex acquisition also brought with it a factory in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The factories are strategically situated so international customers can receive the products they order at the same speed North American customers do — in about two weeks. That helps the company offer the same level of service in each market. “You have to have local people who are building in the local markets,” Fearon explains.

Developing countries remain Genie’s biggest area for growth, he adds. In addition to the move to better safety standards, there’s an uptick in building projects. Meanwhile, the North American market is cooling off from a manufacturer’s perspective. Terex reported first-quarter sales in its Aerial Work Platforms business were flat, at $520.2 million, compared to the same period in 2015.

The rising markets today are in China and Western Europe, Fearon says, but Genie also hopes to capitalize on South American markets where developing countries are improving infrastructure, building airports and modernizing ports.

Genie has three factories in Redmond, where the company builds scissor lifts and other products. Workers operate under a regimented lean manufacturing schedule, performing assigned tasks in 10 minutes before moving on to the next machine. A total of 10 hours of work goes into each machine. Genie’s international factories employ the same Lean approach.

“The sun never sets on the Z-45,” Hislop quips, referring to a Genie boom that lifts workers nearly 52 feet in the air.

Genie remains headquartered in Redmond to maintain the small-business spirit the company was founded upon and to retain the talent and loyalty of workers, many of whom have stayed with the company for decades.

“You can’t easily duplicate years of experience,” says Fearon, who believes the Pacific Northwest culture draws many employees and clients to Genie. A new administration office, which opened in Redmond within the past year, is a nice addition. Overlooking hills of evergreen trees, Fearon calls it “a fantastic place to bring customers.”

New digs or not, Genie’s customer base is loyal and enthusiastic. Tom Hammerslag, the owner of Great Lakes Access, an aerial-lift dealer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, likes Genie products because Genie genuinely likes his patronage. “The Genie guys care,” Hammerslag says. “You go to the factory [and] people hug you. They’re warm and welcoming because Genie always knew they needed their customers more than their customers needed them.”

Paul Zaremba, principal at SkyKing Lift Rentals in Bloomingdale, Illinois, adds that Genie stands above the competition because of its history and its innovation. “It’s real simple,” he says. “They make stuff that other people don’t. We tell other vendors, ‘If you don’t want us to buy from Genie, then you need to compete with them, and you don’t. You don’t make a 3232 [scissor lift], you don’t make a push-around [aerial work platform] and you don’t make a Z-30 [self-propelled articulating boom].’”

While Genie has expanded globally to remain competitive, Fearon insists “Redmond is an important part of our past and our future.” So much so that, when Genie engineers are offered positions abroad, they’re loath to leave the Puget Sound region.

Part of that attachment is no doubt attributable to living in such a geographically blessed place as the Seattle area. But Fearon believes Genie’s commitment to continuous improvement fosters a sense of community and loyalty that’s hard to match.

The philosophy, he says, is instilled in temporary and permanent workers alike in the hope that whatever they learn at Genie, they will apply to their work at Genie — or wherever they go next. “At Genie,” Fearon says, “we feel that anybody who sets foot in Genie will walk away with a higher set of skills than when they walked in the door.”

In June, Genie’s parent company, Terex Corporation, abandoned merger talks with China’s Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Company. Terex had consented to an acquisition by Zoomlion for $3.4 billion, but talks fell apart, with both sides blaming the other for the failure. After terminating discussions with Zoomlion, Terex agreed to sell its Material Handling and Port Solutions business to Konecranes of Finland for $1.3 billion. That deal is expected to close next January. Terex had earlier planned to merge with Konecranes before Zoomlion came forward with a seemingly sweeter deal.