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The new face of island manufacturing; stories of success
Who says manufacturing can’t work in the San Juan Islands?
Not Travis Ayers of Luxel, David Marsaudon of Window Craft, Robert Herrick of Lacrimedics, or Hawk Pingree of San Juan Distillery.
All four companies have become established, and all four owners intend to stay. Hard work and unique products are the foundations of their success here, but each credits their employees (except the distiller, which has a single, new, part-timer) and each thinks this is a great place to be headquartered.
San Juan Distillery
Employees don’t play a big part yet at San Juan Distillery, near Westcott Bay, just outside of Roche Harbor, because partners Rich Anderson and Suzy and Hawk Pingree do it all themselves, from crushing apples for cider to distilling apple juice into a variety of liquors to bottling and labeling the products.
What makes the island location important for Anderson and the Pingrees are the climate (“just like Normandy”), the sixteen varieties of “bittersweet and bittersharp” English and French apples that Anderson planted in 1999 on an acre and a half next to Westcott Bay, and the quality of life that brought all three to San Juan Island. The Pingrees, retired professors from the University of Wisconsin, three years ago proposed to Anderson that he expand the cider-making operation to spirits; Anderson readily accepted.
For Anderson and the Pingrees, it’s the passion they put into their product and the quality of the life they lead that makes them happy to be here and optimistic about their future on San Juan Island. “It’s an art form as much as a manufacturing process,” says Hawk, who loves to describe the distilling process in front of their two stills, a 200-liter German Adrian still and a 30-liter Portuguese pot still just for making gin.
The trio sees their business, and their friends’ business at San Juan Winery, as pioneers in agricultural processing and manufacturing in the San Juan Islands, part of and complementary to the growing “agritourism” sector in the islands.
Anderson and the Pingrees say the state tax system, which imposes three layers of ad-valorem taxes on their products, is their biggest obstacle to success. Hawk Pingrees wants the legislature to take into account their size and the different manufacturing and marketing costs that giant distillers absorb by volume sales and pricing. “We know that our craft-made product, made in small batches with premium ingredients, will sell at a premium price, but the layered 10 percent, 22 percent and 17 percent taxes at the manufacturing, distribution and retail levels are discouraging to potential customers,” says Hawk Pingree.
Travis Ayers is the third owner of Luxel Corporation, which he purchased from Forbes Powell in 2007. Powell bought the company from Gordon Steele in 1988; Gordon Steele founded the company in California in 1973 and brought it to the islands in 1979.
When Ayers bought the company in 2007, he thought seriously about moving it to the Bay Area, but since moving here has not had second thoughts about the decision. “My family and the families of my employees love being here, and so do I,” said Ayers.
The company makes high-tech, ultra-thin optical filters using exotic metals, metallic compounds and polymers. Most are used in space flight and plasma physics research, but the company is developing commercial uses such as watchfaces for high-end watches, using beautiful nano-thickness foils marketed under the Luxefoil brand name.
About 100 different Luxel filters are manufactured per year for about 150 different customers worldwide, many of them national space programs. A current “large” contract calls for five hand-made filters for Japanese government science satellites, each performing a different filtering function and each less than one micron (.001 millimeters) thick.
Ayers’s company has 18 “highly valued” employees, many of them with science PhDs. Ayers says he’s found most of his employees here, “many with advanced degrees,” but also assembly workers whom he has to train. He thinks high school science and technology education programs like STEM are “critically important” to his company and to other companies which might move here.
A relatively high cost-of-living scale is a challenge, says Ayers, “but it’s balanced out by the quality of life” in the islands. Ayers thinks bringing customers, both foreign and domestic, to San Juan Island is an advantage to establishing the close person-to-person relationships his company depends on for repeat business.
Window Craft, Inc.
David Marsaudon has carved out a top-of-the-market niche during almost 35 years of making wood windows on San Juan Island for luxury homes across the country. A few of his clients are so exclusive that contracts specify he can’t publicize the customer’s identity.
Marsaudon, a woodworker since age 14, started making windows by himself in La Conner in 1977. An early contract from San Juan Island alerted him to the high-end construction market here, so he brought his saws and joiners to Friday Harbor in 1979.
His long-term workforce of nine skilled carpenters is “essential” to his success, he says, but the level of woodworking expertise needed is such that, like Ayers at Luxel, he’s had to train some workers to meet his standards. But having trained them, they stay.
All nine have been there more than five years, most more than ten, several for 20 or more.
At the 22,000 square foot factory next to the airport, Window Craft hand-builds six varieties of windows, vertical and horizontal sliders, and window screens that match the windows.
Many products are custom designed and built, and all products are designed and constructed to withstand severe environmental stresses.
Because he has an expensive high-tech computer-controlled router and a plant full of high-quality woodworking equipment, Marsaudon does millwork for local builders, but he mostly keeps his focus on his basic product line.
But Marsaudon attributes some of Window Craft’s success to staying focused on windows. “For me, it’s a mistake to try to do too much. Stick with what you know you can do well,” he advises. Rather than expand into doors, Marsaudon forged an alliance with NorthStar Woodworks to provide custom-made doors that match Window Craft designs and quality.
As a manufacturer of relatively large items, Window Craft relies on truck and ferry shipping to bring in wood and glass and ship out the finished windows. Referring to his close working relationship with local and regional transportation companies and with suppliers, Marsauden explains that “arrangements had to be made, not only for shipping, but for servicing our equipment.”
Personable and outgoing, Marsaudon says continuing close relationships with builders, suppliers, shippers and customers are one key to his business. “Everybody loves to come to San Juan Island, many with their families,” he explains. They can appreciate his 22,000 square foot factory and modern equipment. And his customers, many of them from coastal communities, also appreciate the lifestyle.
That “fine island lifestyle” suits both Marsaudon and his cadre of loyal employees. Marsaudon and his eleven employees (two in the office) are all proud of their company and their island home - and intend to stay with both.
“The quality of life - that’s what this place has. And we all love it,” Marsaudon says.
Where Luxel and Window Craft have “niche markets” and relatively small production runs, Lacrimedics, Inc., has a worldwide mass market and production runs of many thousands of tiny “corneal plugs”.
The medical-grade silicone and collagen plugs are used in the diagnosis and treatment of dry eyes, an affliction that affects an estimated 16 million people in the U.S. and 40 million people worldwide, especially senior citizens. Lacrimedics manufactures more than 2 million plugs per year.
“We couldn’t be happier, both personally and business-wise,” says Robert Herrick II, of his 1999 move to Orcas Island from southern California. “It was a package deal,” said Herrick. “Orcas offered a good business climate, including good taxation, goods schools and high family and quality-of-life values,” he continued.
The business was founded in 1984 by Herrick’s father, Robert Herrick, M.D., an ophthalmologist who continues a four-office “corneal health” practice in California. The family vacationed in the San Juans for many years before deciding to move the Lacrimedics business to Eastsound in 1999.
All products are manufactured in Eastsound. They include Collagen Plugs, Synthetic Dissolvable Plugs, and a long-term silicone plug. Molding of the silicone plug is done in Chicago on a Lacrimedics-owned injection molding machine, but the rest of the manufacturing is done on Orcas Island.
Lacrimedics is doing research and development for a fourth product, also to be manufactured in Eastsound. All products must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which inspects all Lacrimedics facilities every two years, and two products are approved for sale in the European Union; they are audited annually in order to maintain the “CE Mark.” They also distribute a product for another company, and private label one of the products for two separate companies.
These four companies, and the dozen or so companies that make and sell other products in the islands, demonstrate that there’s more than tourism and local government to generating income in the San Juan Islands.