After helping to form an industry group for Sonoma County's advanced manufacturers in late 2011, Sonoma County Building Economic Success Together -- BEST -- is coordinating a similar gathering of executives from the county's top players in food and beverage manufacturing that participants hope will spur further growth in that sector.

The effort follows a wave of interest in how those sectors help drive the region's economy, and feeds the economic development group's larger goal of helping to create 4,100 jobs in Sonoma County in five years.

[caption id="attachment_48809" align="alignleft" width="180"] Carolyn Stark[/caption]

"The purpose of the Food Industry Group is to establish an executive leadership group that will work to leverage their cumulative strengths for action and to be a resource for business development and business success in this sector," said Carolyn Stark, executive director of BEST.

With a first meeting planned for late February, the "FIG" will include some of the region's largest employers, with input from financial firms and others that work closely with the industry. While efforts like the Sonoma County Food System Alliance focus more on policy, the new group is largely centered around growth opportunities for local businesses.

Early participants include Sebastopol-based tea maker Traditional Medicinals and Petaluma-based dairy Clover Stornetta. Blair Kellison, CEO of Traditional Medicinals, and Marcus Benedetti, CEO of Clover, serve as co-chairs.

Other potential participants include companies like Petaluma-based Amy's Kitchen, Santa Rosa-based La Tortilla Factory, Healdsburg's Costeaux French Bakery and Forestville's Kozlowski Farms, among others.

Mr. Kellison, a member of BEST's board of directors, said that he anticipated the gathering would be a first step in the formation of a centralized brain trust for the thriving North Bay sector.

[caption id="attachment_68351" align="alignright" width="200"] Blair Kellison[/caption]

"Even though our products might seem very different -- tea versus tortillas -- many things about our processes are very similar," Mr. Kellison said.

Sharing knowledge and challenges could lead to bottom-line improvements, like collective bargaining for packaging and other common supplies, Mr. Kellison said. While no specific goals have been set for the nascent group, the coalition could ultimately help to attract new manufacturers and suppliers to the region.

"It's hard for any one company to organize this," he said. "Economic development doesn't just happen. We, as a county, need to be proactive."

For the Technology Industry Group or "TIG," participating companies representing high-tech and precision manufacturing have come to share not only best practices, but also some staff and equipment with other members, said Richard Schroeder, general manager of the Healdsburg Operations Facility for Florida-based General Dynamics.

Working with BEST to form the group, Mr. Schroeder drew from his experience developing an approach to leverage underused resources across General Dynamics. The local coalition, he said, has proven even more effective in providing assistance in some areas.

"General Dynamics might have the world's most renowned expert in corrosion resistance in Maine, but there could be someone of equal caliber 10 minutes away," he said. "As long as we weren't working with a direct competitor, why can't we help each other? If we have a half-million-dollar machine that we use 20 percent of the time, why can't we rent that out?"

The group has also helped from a recruitment standpoint, creating a pathway for employees that are earmarked for layoffs to fill a need at another firm, he said. In 2013, the group is likely to work collectively to recruit further talent by marketing the varied opportunities available for hopefuls in the high-precision manufacturing sector.

"One of the challenges we face is recruiting talent from outside of the area. They might hold the perception that this is the only job for them," he said. "Not having the appearance of a critical mass of employers can be a barrier to recruitment."

Approximately 15 companies are part of the Technology Industry Group, including Petaluma's Small Precision Tools and Labcon, as well as L-3 WESCAM in Santa Rosa.

In the case of the food industry sector, data are scant concerning the impact of food and beverage manufacturers in Sonoma County, as government economic data typically lumps those companies in with the wine industry.

[caption id="attachment_68352" align="alignleft" width="180"] Clay Stephens[/caption]

Yet a consensus of anecdotal evidence was recently boosted by a first-ever food industry report by Dr. Robert Eyler, chair of the economics department at Sonoma State University and head of economic consulting firm Economic Forensics & Analytics. Commissioned by Novato-based business lending and advising firm Warren Capital Corp., the November 2012 report showed sector jobs to be growing amid statewide declines, supporting more than 15,000 jobs and representing 14 percent of total manufacturing employment in Sonoma, Marin, Napa Solano, Mendocino and Lake counties.

"It helps to diversify our economy, and is a great compement to the wine and hospitality business," said Clay Stephens, CEO of Warren Capital, of the new food industry group. "I think it's been a long time coming."