A little bit of history was made at this week's Top Manufacturers awards. Yes, over the years there have been plenty of technology industry events and hundreds of people packed Telecom Valley conferences in the boom years in the late 1990s. But in 25 years I can't recall an afternoon like the Top Manufacturers awards when such a range of companies from big to small were gathered in one room.
Read profiles on the 2011 winning companies.
Among the 13 companies honored Tuesday at Sonoma Mountain Village was DJ Grey of Healdsburg, a 14-employee, highly respected maker of precision components for some of the world's largest technology companies. There was 10-employee Datum Technologies of Santa Rosa, a Hispanic-woman-owned precision machining and manufacturing company. CEO Analisa Hunt and her husband, company President Richard Hunt, spent a combined 27 years with Hewlett-Packard and have incorporated many of the fabled early HP values into the company. Mr. Hunt helped start a program at Petaluma High School that has graduated 100 tooling and machinist apprentices.
Also honored were BioMarin Pharmaceutical of Novato, fast-growing solar technology innovator Enphase Energy and Raydiance, whose precision, fast-pulse lasers could change the future of how life-saving medical and other devices are made.
As each of the winners' stories was told over the course of an hour or so, the level of community commitment was striking. The president of Liberty Valley Doors of Cotati, Michael Pastryk, wins awards by day for making custom doors from recycled wood and still finds time to spend countless hours in the community through Rotary and other pursuits. Family-owned La Tortilla Factory is committed to creating and maintaining a "learning organization" for its 300 employees.
It there was anything missing last Tuesday night, it was that more elected public officials were not there to witness the contributions of these companies to the economic vitality of the North Bay and the people who live here. (Representatives of the City of Santa Rosa attended as did Wendy Friefeld from the office of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma.)
One of the many profound moments of the evening came in a video prepared for the evening by Dick Herman, president and founder of the manufacturing group, 101MFG. In that video, was an "aha!" moment: If companies shift so-called basic manufacturing functions overseas to save on costs, how do local, U.S. workers learn the basics from which they then become experts? The answer is they often can't. In many respects were have set ourselves up for failure. Meanwhile, overseas competitors are aggressively going after more advanced manufacturing and other businesses.
Jim Happ, the president of Labcon North America, which employs 240 people in Petaluma and turns out 1 million products for the medical test industry daily and is a leader in recyclable bioplastics, believes manufacturing companies can be engineered in a way that they can sustain themselves and grow in the North Bay, California and beyond. And that includes so-called basic manufacturing.
For that to happen, the first idea that has to be given up is that manufacturing cannot survive in the North Bay. It is in fact surviving and in many ways thriving. Growth rates for many companies range from 15 to 50 percent. The group 101MFG estimates North Bay manufacturers employ 18,000 people and generate 20 percent of the region's GDP, or nearly $5 billion in annually.