Defensive play


 

The defense market can be easy to overlook in Oregon, a place with a bigger reputation for its antiwar movements than for its military history. 

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Through most of last year, nearly every U.S. Marine who wore out a pair of boots received a replacement manufactured near the Portland airport. LaCrosse Footwear completed a $29.5 million contract to deliver 202,000 pairs of boots to the service last spring – the largest-ever military order for the company’s Danner brand. The 82-year-old Oregon company is better known for providing footwear to hard-core hikers, woodland laborers and the fashion-forward who want to dress like them. At the same time, though, Danner has also filled contracts with the Pentagon dating back to the early 2000s.

The defense market can be easy to overlook in Oregon, a place with a bigger reputation for its antiwar movements than for its military history. It’s the only state west of the Rockies without an active-duty military base and one of only a few nationwide. A mere quarter of one percent of the Defense Department’s 2012 contract spending took place in Oregon. Yet when it comes to the U.S. defense budget, even the crumbs can come with nine zeroes: Including primary and subcontracts, the DOD did roughly $1 billion in business in Oregon that year. 

Dave Hunt, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition, says the companies helping to fill those contracts range from five-employee machine shops to Daimler Trucks North America. Since the PNDC formed in 2005, it’s assembled a database of 4,000 potential suppliers for its members. Last fall, it held its first-ever supply-chain conference with 75 companies that included Daimler, shipbuilder Vigor Industrial and aerospace manufacturer Precision Castparts. “We had four different roundtables during that morning where you were seeing the business-to-business connections being made across the table,” says Hunt, “people realizing, ‘Oh, wow, you have that capacity? We didn’t know there was anybody here who had that capacity. You have that 3-D printing machine? We didn’t know anybody had that facility in Portland.’”

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Fashioned from a shipping container, a self-contained shooting range allows for on-site
testing of Crimson Trace products.

// Photos by Jason Kaplan

Danner is a fitting example of the way defense money gets spent at businesses across the state. Unlike the big-name weapons and aircraft manufacturers that buoy the economies of places like California and Virginia, work for the armed forces represents less than half of revenues at LaCrosse Footwear. It’s a side of the company that attracts limited notice from the shoe-shopping public, but a contract with the Marines represents a significant injection of revenue that can bring another 40 to 70 workers into the Danner factory. 

Likewise, more than 1,000 companies doing business in the state – many in Oregon’s staple industries like outdoor gear, electronics and IT – sold a largely unadvertised but significant portion of their product lines to the military in 2012. Congressional budget standoffs clipped the Pentagon’s spending on those goods by 7.7% last year, and the final numbers for Oregon’s 2013 defense business were expected to drop substantially as contractors finish cleaning up the Army’s Umatilla chemical depot. Worse, business leaders say, is the uncertainty wrought by patchwork temporary budgets, debt-ceiling brinksmanship and the recent government shutdown that ground development of many new products to a halt. To stay ahead, Oregon’s defense businesses have needed to innovate and diversify to satisfy this massive, demanding market. 

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Crimson Trace products are manufactured in
Wilsonville, Oregon

At Danner, scents of glue and leather mingle amid the hiss of grinders and compressed air. A machine that thrashes water-filled boots like a paint mixer to test their Gore-Tex liners sits at one end of the high-ceilinged production floor, while at the other, a man wearing blue plastic gloves scrutinizes a tall stack of hides, rejecting about 40% of them as inferior leather. 

 That focus on quality and the flexibility of the 59,000-square-foot factory won the company its first large military contract in 2004, in spite of a higher bid than its competitors. “It took us quite a few years to enterprise, because it was almost a tight-knit circle, a closed circle, of other brands that were doing it for many years,” says vice president of sales and marketing Craig Cohen. “We stayed true to quality and stayed true to delivery, which allowed us to get a sample order in, and it built from there.”

Military orders have come in steadily ever since. At the end of last year, Danner was in the running to provide the Marines with another 110,000 pairs of boots. But, like every DOD supplier these days, the boot maker has watched U.S. defense spending shrink every year since its recent peak in 2010. In response, says Cohen, the company stopped factoring the defense contracts into its yearly budget assumptions a few years ago, hiring additional factory workers on a temporary basis to fill defense orders as needed. To keep them working, Cohen says, his team is focused on expanding sales in niche markets where price is secondary, such as heavy-duty boots for cold environments or elite special-forces teams.


Beyond its direct contribution to the bottom line, Cohen adds, the company’s work for the military also informs its growing consumer offerings. He cites a product based on a boot designed for troops in Afghanistan that was honored among Outside magazine’s Gear of the Year in 2012. “It has a direct effect, because if it’s strong enough for the military, and it has strong results for other applications, it certainly has a great crossover, in both materials and construction,” Cohen says.

Few companies embody that crossover between Oregon’s legacy in outdoor equipment and its work for the military more than Leupold & Stevens. Its highly trained workers use computer-controlled lathes the size of SUVs to turn upwards of 2 million pounds of aluminum every year into rifle scopes for hunters and snipers alike. Its engineers frequent military firing ranges and shooting schools for feedback on their products. At the same time, U.S. and NATO military personnel arrive every month or so to tour its headquarters, which has grown into the footprint of a Costco since Leupold moved to a then-isolated corner of Beaverton in 1968. 

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Leupold & Stevens vice president Kevin Trepa is proud
that his company’s products are made right here in
Oregon.

The 107-year-old company did limited work for the Navy during World War II but ramped up its defense business in earnest when the Army adopted one of its long-range scopes in the mid-1980s.  It then acted mostly as a subcontractor to rifle manufacturers until setting up a division devoted exclusively to defense in 2008. “It is a growing percentage of our business as a standalone channel,” says Kevin Trepa, Leupold’s vice president of global sales and business development and a 25-year Marine Corps veteran.

Like LaCrosse, since its purchase by ABC-Mart in 2012, Leupold is not publicly traded and shares limited financial information. The company’s total revenues are in excess of $100 million, and it employs about 700. While Trepa declines to say exactly how Leupold’s sales break down among divisions, he notes that the defense business was up 30% in 2013. Among its work for every branch of the military, it landed a five-year, $42.8 million contract last year to provide a version of its Mark 6 scope to the U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Center.

For many fighters, Leupold’s optics have become as fundamental to their gear as their combat boots, giving the company a degree of confidence that’s waned at many other defense contractors in recent years. Even after the deep cuts to federal spending known as sequestration, Trepa says he expects the growth to continue: “The military is still buying equipment that it needs, and there are still global deployment requirements for our armed forces.”

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Inside the company firing range, Crimson Trace
President Lane Tobiassen demonstrates how the 
built-in laser sight keeps his aim true.

Business is also brisk at an Oregon company that’s laid claim to more than half the market for handgun laser sights. In a conference room at a Wilsonville industrial park, past a sign in the lobby that politely reminds visitors that loaded firearms are not allowed inside, Crimson Trace CEO Lane Tobiassen excuses himself to his office to grab a small picture frame. Inside is a copy of the first Crimson Trace contract from the U.S. armed forces —  a $500,000 Navy SEALS order it’s been fulfilling since 2010. The same year, the company spun off its military-focused products into a division called CTC Defense. It drummed up additional business among weapons manufacturers, including  an order for 25,000 laser sights for M72 rocket launchers. Tobiassen says the military division, which represents just under 10% of sales, made up a larger portion of Crimson Trace’s revenue in 2012 than at any point in the company’s 20-year history.

Yet the gradual withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan gave the company plenty of warning that it would have to diversify to keep that division growing. Less expected was the disorder that erupted last year in contracting circles following congressional standoffs on the debt ceiling and the federal budget. “You also have this inertia on the part of the people making new product and new contract decisions to hold off and to hesitate, because they don’t know if they’re going to have funding to do what they want to do for the warfighter,” Tobiassen says.

To keep its defense products moving, he’s dispatched his staff to pursue militaries upgrading their gear in Australia, the U.K., Canada, Mexico and other allied countries. The commercial side, meanwhile, has tracked recent years’ robust growth in handgun sales, allowing the company to add 50 employees in 2013 and bring its total workforce to 160.


Wilsonville-headquartered FLIR Systems, while also drawing the bulk of its sales from commercial markets, was not so lucky. The end of the federal fiscal year usually brings a “contract flush” as government agencies spend down their budgets. Not so in 2013. As a result, FLIR’s CEO told analysts, the third quarter was the worst he’d seen in his three decades with the company, which manufactures night vision equipment and other advanced sensors. As a result, FLIR revised its 2013 revenue expectations from between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion to between $1.45 billion and $1.5 billion. It also announced plans to close six locations in the U.S. and Europe, although its Oregon headquarters still employs about 300.

Anticipating smaller defense budgets, the company gradually cut its share of government work from 57% in 2009 to about 40% today. Vice president of corporate development and investor relations Shane Harrison says the 2013 sequestration cuts and the government shutdown were not even the biggest factor in the recent performance of its military business. “The fact that there is no budget impacts us more than the fact that the budget’s going down. It’s the uncertainty that not having a budget creates in our customers that is what’s been slowing our business down over the last two years.”

Meanwhile, a handful of smaller companies have grown their government business in the face of flighty congressional funding by taking a more entrepreneurial approach to winning the military’s business. Hillsboro-based Eid Passport, for example, nearly tripled sales in just three years as a growing roster of military outposts adopted its commercially developed RAPIDGate personnel identification systems. 

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On the floor of Leupold & Stevens’ Beaverton factory,
giant lathes hone rifle scopes from aluminum tubes.

“One of the big jokes is that we are much better known in Washington, D.C., than we are in Portland,” says James Robell, Eid Passport’s president and COO. Discussing the company’s recent growth, he comes across as confident as he is affable, with a wiry white mustache and an open collar on his striped dress shirt.

Robell, a 19-year Intel veteran, explains how Unicru founder Steve Larson drew from his experience automating human resources tasks to establish Eid Passport in 2001. The company began working for retail clients – including a group of Kmart stores right as that company filed for bankruptcy – but its rapid growth began when the DOD began looking for a low-cost way to track vendors entering and leaving military bases. Most defense acquisitions begin with an exhaustive internal process to develop a detailed request for proposals. Eid Passport, by contrast, effectively cold-called Washington state’s Fort Lewis in 2004 to offer its kiosk system that confirms visitors’ IDs using biometric information like fingerprints. With fees charged to base vendors covering all the costs, acquisition officials were willing to work with the company to bring the technology up to military standards and install it on the base. 

Within six months, Camp Pendleton in California also adopted the system, followed by other bases and government agency headquarters. The DOD now represents 80% of the 300-person company’s $40 million in sales.

“The most challenging part was to convince the people who are responsible for helping protect the forces that, ‘Hey, there’s a new way to do business, and it’s not the same way you’ve been doing it,’” says Robell. “It was unique, because they are used to pushing through, at that time, several layers of carbon copy for a visitor pass or a business pass. And we brought them a completely automated system that included biometrics.”

Sequestration, though, slowed the company down. Fewer off-site workers maintaining Navy ships, for example, means fewer people paying for their credentials to access the shipyard. As a consequence, Eid Passport’s revenues flattened last year, even though the company continued to add customers. To reverse that trend, Robell says he’s placed a greater emphasis on selling to industrial facilities and nonmilitary agencies, like the departments of Energy and Homeland Security.


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Cloud Cap Technology general manager Jim Siekkinen
gives a tour of the small factory where drone camera
systems are born.

In Hood River, Cloud Cap Technology’s components for small, unarmed drones offer another example of niche military products developed commercially. “We believe we’re not only creating great new products that our country’s defense requires and needs, but we’re also helping to pave a way for procurement in the 21st century that involves the supply base innovating and being able to offer ideas and products that meet the military halfway, to ultimately get what they need developed quicker and less expensively,” explains general manager Jim Siekkinen. That can mean taking the investment risk to create a new technology and then approaching the DOD with it, rather than waiting two to three years for a branch of the service to define its needs and develop its own specifications.

Drone technology became ideal for this contracting approach, as soldiers’ needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR in military speak) evolved rapidly over the last decade. Siekkinen equates today’s small unmanned aircraft to a pair of binoculars  —  if binoculars could search for combat hazards 20 or 100 miles over the next ridge. Founded in 1999 by two friends working at drone developer Insitu, just across the Columbia River, Cloud Cap provides the makers of unmanned aircraft with parts like autopilots, motors and stabilized camera systems.

Now a subsidiary of UTC Aerospace Systems, the company employs about 100 people and ships 100 to 200 systems each year. Siekkinen, a tall, former Minnesotan dressed in jeans and a blue vest on a cold afternoon, joined the company when Goodrich purchased it in 2009. He’s optimistic about the growth potential for unmanned systems, even as the company had to freeze some research and development projects last year because of uncertainty surrounding the 2014 federal budget.

In response, Cloud Cap is placing a greater focus on commercial markets and military spending abroad. That, too, provides a challenge because of the strictly enforced International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Every foreign sale involving a restricted item requires a detailed license outlining exactly what the customer will do with it. Smaller companies stretched in normal times to spend three to nine months completing that paperwork, then dealt with 2013 furloughs among the federal employees who review it. Restrictions have loosened in recent years. But Siekkinen says they still represent a significant competitive disadvantage in international sales, which represent about half of the market for small, unmanned systems.

Taking in the broader picture, though, Siekkinen says the outlook for unmanned aerial systems has nowhere to go but up. They’re significantly cheaper than manned planes, and they fit well within a larger shift in U.S. military strategy emphasizing special forces. “Dull, dirty, dangerous jobs are what UAS do best. So in that sense, they hold great promise for DOD to be saving money in the coming years,” says Siekkinen, who compares the technology’s current development to advances made in aircraft after their combat debut in World War I. 

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At Crimson Trace, assembling the in-grip laser sights
is a labor-intensive process. In the factory, rows of
highly skilled technicians assemble the products to
extremely tight tolerances with the goal of delivering
a sight that will work right out of the box without the
need for further calibration. Many of the staff are also
customers and 100% of employees are NRA members.

Oregon will be a part of that. While the state has earned a reputation as a frequent enclave of antiwar politics, Siekkinen and leaders at several companies contracting with the Pentagon described their communities and Oregon’s elected officials as entirely supportive of their businesses. For example, the PNDC recently brought its agenda to reduce export restrictions and revamp procurement practices to a meeting at the office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer. “I think he would identify as the most progressive member of the Oregon delegation,” PNDC executive director Hunt says, “and that was just not a factor at all.”

With billions of federal spending in play, politicians tend to focus as much on the jobs that money creates as they do on the military clout it enables. Recent years have seen Oregon companies grow more coordinated and assertive in pursuing that business, even as the industry overall faces a shrinking defense budget. DOD spending cuts forced many to innovate in ways that may well bring more military business to the state in the form of exports and products developed commercially by nimble technology companies like Eid Passport and Cloud Cap. Looking ahead, the defense industry will remain a sliver of Oregon’s economy. Nonetheless, this niche market will continue to offer thousands of contracting opportunities to businesses across the state willing to take on the challenge.