After a historic flameout, Bend’s economy is coming back to life on the strength of a fresh crop of growing companies and the enduring pull of its natural beauty.
By Ben Jacklet
Shelly Hummel has been selling homes in Bend for more than 20 years, and she’s got the attitude to match: upbeat, confident, a dog-lover who took up skiing at age 4. She labors to keep things positive, but every so often her frustration slips free: “The banks just kept giving the builders money, without even looking at plans or doing drive-bys of the places they were selling. The market just exploded with new construction. Boom! Selling stuff off of floor plans. Unfortunately, selling them to people who had no business buying them. It was a perfect storm of stupidity.”
We are touring the wreckage of that storm in Hummel’s Cadillac Escalade, driving down Brookswood Boulevard into a former pine forest that now hosts a swath of housing developments with names like Copper Canyon and Quail Pine. “This was the boundary line until 2003,” says Hummel. “These roads dead-ended. That home sold for $350,000. Now it’s on the market for $175,000. Short sale.”
Hummel never intended to become a “certified distressed property expert” specializing in selling homes for less than is owed on their mortgages. But in Bend, she didn’t have much of a choice. No city in Oregon — or arguably, the nation — experienced a more dramatic reversal of fortunes during the Great Recession than Bend, the economic engine for Central Oregon. Home values got cut in half. Unemployment soared to over 16%. A once-promising aviation sector imploded. So did an overheated market for destination resorts. Brokers, builders and speculators once flush with cash woke up underwater and flailing. Banks renowned for their no-document, easy-money loans stopped lending. Layoffs led to notices of default; foreclosure brought bankruptcy.
How does a community recover from economic meltdown? That is the central question I am trying to answer about Bend. I start my inquiry at the offices of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), an organization formed to diversify the economy after the last major recession in the region, in the 1980s. My meeting is with executive director Roger Lee, marketing manager Ruth Lindley and business development manager Eric Strobel. I turn on my digital recorder and say, “I’d like to hear your take on how the recession impacted Bend’s economy.”
Silence. I read their expressions: Not this again.
It takes some time, but over the course of the interview they paint a sharp portrait of what went wrong and why. A local housing boom “fueled by speculation, not solid economics,” in Lee’s words, crashed. The local crash coincided with a national housing slump that devastated Bend’s major traded sector of building supplies. The final blow was the collapse of the local general aviation industry. Cessna shut down its local plant in April 2009. Epic Aircraft, the other major employer at the airport, went bankrupt.
“Aviation was our diversification away from construction and wood products,” says Strobel. “We had thousands of employees out at Bend Airport. It was the largest aviation cluster in the state… It just completely fell apart in six months.”
The housing crash infected everything in Bend. Plummeting property values left everyone feeling poorer, and paralysis took hold. No local buyers emerged for businesses put up for sale, and the new owners moved operations out of town, eliminating more jobs.
“All these things came rolling in at once, one piece of bad news after another,” says Lee. “At the same time, we still had some companies holding their own.”
For Bend to recover from its three-year slide into the abyss, it will need more than companies holding their own. It will need companies capable of thriving independently, without dubious loans or short-lived subsidies. It will need savvy opportunists who understand how to develop new technologies, capitalize on trends, build on strengths and create jobs. It will need businesses that bring money into the region rather than relying on local spending.
Lee and his colleagues at EDCO are well aware of those needs. They reel off a list of companies poised to take off, and I recognize many of the names from my appointment calendar for the week. Lee says he talks with potential entrepreneurs considering a Bend startup about once a week on average.
“We’ve got a lot of early-stage companies getting into that next level and getting real customers and real revenue,” says Strobel. “It’s been exciting. It’s not 300 employees at any one place, but it’s six employees here, eight there.”
That strikes me as a good sign. The latest research about job creation indicates that the best strategy is to develop and support a wide variety of businesses with entrepreneurial flexibility. With the rise of cloud-based computing, great startups can be anywhere. Why not Bend? For all of Bend’s extreme growth and financial turmoil, it remains a stunningly beautiful place. That point hits home a few hours later as Shelly Hummel drives me across Bend’s west side, pointing out mountains and listing the many gorgeous spots I absolutely must explore while I’m in Bend. The client Hummel is showing around town this afternoon is moving here from the Bay Area at least partly because Bend made Outside’s list of best places to live.
Not long ago, Bend topped a more dubious list, as Global Insight’s most overvalued housing market in the nation. It was an ominous sign, but it was also a bit misleading. The simple formula of median income as a percentage of median housing price does not take into account the value of the rapids of the Deschutes River flowing through downtown, or the view of the Sisters, Smith Rock, Mount Jefferson and more from the many available homes in the west side. There are reasons why these lots sold for $300,000 to make room for million-dollar homes. There are also reasons why those homes were never built, and that buyers are upside-down on their mortgages.
The spirit of invention, as applied to video software, gliders and beer
Windward Performance owner Greg Cole has grown his operation at Bend Municipal Airport to 24 employees, with plans to grow to 120 jobs. Windward designs and builds high-performance flying machines including a glider designed to soar to a record-breaking 90,000 feet.
It’s the morning rush hour, and you can barely hear auto traffic over the frogs and red-winged blackbirds in the cattails outside of StreamIt headquarters in the Old Mill District. “I’m on the river for under a buck a square foot,” says founder and CEO Jeff Coffey. “We go paddle any time we want to. There’s a kayak shop right next door.”
Coffey moved to Bend 11 years ago and fell in love with the fly-fishing and the community feel. After his job fell through, he decided to try something entrepreneurial. He’s 37 years old, and StreamIt is his fifth company. He’s hoping to grow it to 50 employees by the end of 2012. “With my other companies the goal was to sell them,” he says. “This time we’re going to build it here in Bend.”
The goal of StreamIt is to help people and institutions distribute videos online and get paid for them. There is a huge market for training and educational business videos, and for the most part they are still sold as DVDs. “DVDs are dying,” he says. “Why in the world would I manufacture a DVD? I get global distribution immediately online. And I get analytics.”
In Coffey’s view, small technology companies like his are the obvious sweet spot for Bend. “We’ve done light manufacturing,” he says. “Light manufacturing killed us. It’s time to get serious about taking risks on startups.”
Coffey didn’t think he was taking a personal risk when he bought a home in 2006. Today he is $250,000 under water. He’s not happy about it, but he points out that in many ways Bend’s crash has been good for entrepreneurs. Rent is cheap and the pool of people hungry for work is large. He can pay his software developers $60,000 to $80,000 as compared to the $100,000 to $120,000 they would earn in the Bay Area. He just has to convince them to live in Bend and kayak instead of sitting in California traffic.
Bend may be a community of choice for Coffey and his fellow serial entrepreneurs, but it is also a town with strong blue-collar roots. You see that when you drive east from the shops and restaurants of the Old Mill District over to the city’s more modest east side of older neighborhoods, box stores and industrial parks. Coffey is correct about the travails of light manufacturing in Bend, but at the same time it is difficult and a little sad to imagine a Bend where workers don’t build things for the physical world, like airplanes.
Out at the airport, it takes me a while to figure out where Windward Performance is located. I finally locate some workers in grimy clothes, building things by hand in a noisy hangar. They direct me to general manager Tim Gorbold. He tells me he joined the company two years ago; since then it’s grown from six people to 24. Among the recent hires are a 19-year-old woman, an 88-year-old machinist and recent graduates from Lehigh and Purdue universities. Asked what is enabling the company to expand, Gorbold says, “Greg is a brilliant aerodynamicist.”
Windward’s owner, Greg Cole, came to Bend in 1995 to work with Lanceair. Cole also served as chief engineer for Columbia Aircraft, which built highly regarded planes in Bend but ran into cash-flow problems and was bought out of bankruptcy by Cessna. Cessna told Oregon Business it had no plans to leave Bend a year before doing exactly that, shifting jobs to Mexico. Another major employer, Epic Aircraft, was sold out of bankruptcy in 2010 and is struggling to revive operations.
When Cole talks about the lost jobs at the airport he grits his teeth and shakes his head. Then he moves to show me what he’s working on in his seven-hangar operation: a glider designed to soar to a record-breaking 90,000 feet (close to completion), an electric plane with a tilt-wing design to combine the lift of a helicopter with the thrust of a small plane (concept stage), aerodynamic wind turbines that produce more electricity by bouncing around like beach kites, a super-bad glider capable of withstanding 10Gs — more torque than what fighter pilots absorb.
“We can’t be crude,” Cole says. “We have to be exceedingly elegant, exceedingly low-drag, exceedingly light and strong.”
The Windward operation does not resemble a factory production line so much as a sprawling innovation lab. Employees are making carbon fiber molds by hand. Cole walks through the facility briskly, riffing on lift-to-drag ratios, pressurized breathing machines, space exploration and the challenge of finding a fuel source anywhere near as efficient as petroleum. It is exhausting and delightful to try to keep pace with his ideas.
Outside of the hangars in the midday light, Cole gestures to the nearby building that Cessna abandoned. “I worked in that building when it first opened,” he says. “I’d like to get back in there, building airplanes.”
The company will need to grow for that to happen, and it is. Windward and Cole are getting a lot of publicity for their Perlan glider, and their other projects offer tantalizing glimpses of the future. “We’d like to be a 120-person company,” says Cole. “We’re headed in that direction.”
The owners of 10 Barrel Brewing are hiring to expand their beer production fourfold as Bend’s craft brewing industry takes off. Clockwise from top left are 10 Barrel owners Jeremy Cox, Garrett Wales, Brad Wales and Chris Cox.
Heading back from the airport, my head is spinning with physics and geometry. Fortunately, my next appointment involves a product much simpler to get your head around, or vice versa: beer. Central Oregon’s craft beer industry is thriving. The continued success of Deschutes Brewery, the fifth-largest craft brewer in the nation, is spilling over into younger companies such as Boneyard Beer and 10 Barrel Brewing Company. I’m off to visit with the co-owners of 10 Barrel, who recently cherry-picked two of the city’s most highly regarded brewers from Deschutes and Bend Brewery to lead an aggressive expansion.
The ownership team for 10 Barrel certainly doesn’t look like a cutthroat bunch when I drive out to meet with them in a half-deserted business park off Empire Avenue. They’re soaking up sun in the parking lot, cracking jokes and drinking from a keg. Co-owner Chris Cox, who is 33, boasts about the great whiffle ball games in the parking lot as he leads me back to an office decorated with a poster advertising Extreme Midget Wrestling. His partner Garret Wales joins us a short time later with a container full of Mexican food.
Cox and his brother Jeremy were in their 20s when they moved from Portland to Bend to escape their corporate jobs and take a shot at buying and running a bar. It was boom time in Bend, so their bar did extremely well. They hired brewers and got into making their own beer, sold it hard, brought in ownership partners with experience in distribution and sales. They did everything right — except they bought property in Bend.
“Our property investments are down 70%,” Cox says with a grin. “But that’s how it is in Bend. You can tell the saddest sob story about all the money you lost and chances are the guy across the bar from you has been through something 10 times as bad.”
When the bottom fell out of the economy, the brokers and builders who used to flock to the bar to celebrate their successes stopped showing. The Coxes hired two out-of-work attorneys as servers. The value of the land they’d bought just kept falling. But their 10 Barrel brand held up well, in Portland as well as in Bend. Cox and his co-owners overruled the cautionary advice they heard from everyone they talked to and opened a brewpub in February 2010. Rather than sputter, the place has taken off. They couldn’t keep up with demand for their beer, so they decided to expand production fourfold, bringing in 14-year Deschutes Brewery veteran Jimmy Siefert to lead the transition. Siefert is hanging out in the parking lot, and when I ask him how he feels about his new job, he launches into a passionate monologue about how much fun it will be to grow 10 Barrel like they grew Deschutes.
Cox smiles. “We drink beer all day long, but we work really hard, too.”
It’s not the typical path to job creation, but it’s working for 10 Barrel. Launched in 2006, the company is up to 100 jobs. Cox expects to hire 20 more people to keep up with production and move the beer into new markets outside of Bend.
Innovations in green data storage, proximity gizmos and SEO
Not far from the parking lot where the boys from 10 Barrel play whiffle ball on sunny days, a newly remodeled, unmarked building is cooling down in the high desert air. It is Central Oregon’s latest data farm, and from the parking lot it doesn’t look like much. You can’t see the solar panels from here, the Dutch-designed low-energy cooling system, the cylindrical “man-trap” portal that allows a visitor to enter the facility only after displaying the correct biometric information.
Leonard Weitman, BendBroadband’s vice president of technical operations, meets me by the entrance, where smooth jazz is piping into a lobby with bright white floors. Weitman joined BendBroadband in March 2010 and directed a $16 million remodel of a former warehouse into a secure center for storing confidential data. The building is called the Vault, and while it is nowhere near as large as the new Facebook data center 35 miles away in Prineville, it represents a new opportunity for Central Oregon in general and BendBroadband in particular. The company added 50 jobs over the past year to grow from the 29th-largest to the 19th-largest business in Central Oregon.
As a “co-location” facility the Vault can serve hospitals, financial institutions and telecommunications companies from Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C., storing data in an area with minimal seismic risks. “It’s a growing business, and not many of these facilities are considered environmentally friendly,” says Weitman.
As he leads me through a facility packed with security cameras and elaborate power redundancy systems, Weitman says BendBroadband pursued a strategy similar to that of Intel: invest during the downturn to put the company in a stronger position for recovery. The company needed a new operations center anyhow, so combining that upgrade with a foray into a new business made sense. The “green” nature of the facility helps it stand out, and also supports a growing sector in Oregon. The solar panels were built in Hillsboro by SolarWorld, installed by Bend-based Sunlight Solar, and run through invertors made just a few blocks away from the Vault by Advanced Energy Systems (formerly PV-Powered).
Weitman says the plan is to expand the center once the completed portion is 60% full. BendBroadband also owns an adjacent property for future development.
A few miles away in the Northwest hills, the world headquarters of another Bend-based technology company, Proxense, shares little in common with the Vault. Founder John Giobbi works from a home office with some computers and a phone, a big window facing out on the valley and a flight simulator for honing his piloting skills.
Giobbi came to Bend from Chicago, where he worked for a large corporation that did very well. “I was in a position where we could live where we wanted to,” he says. “I wanted to get out of Chicago. And I love it here in Bend.” He bought a home with a view in 2001 and started planning his next career move. The Napster phenomenon of consumers pilfering content online, upending the music industry, caught his attention, and he decided to pursue a technological solution involving a wireless device able to grant — or block — a computer user’s access to protected content.
The more he thought about the concept, the more he liked it. He decided to take a long-term approach. “I spent four and a half years filing patents,” he says. Once he had compiled a “good portfolio of patents,” he licensed the technology to the gambling giant Bally in Las Vegas. That deal brought in revenue that enabled him to hire top talent. After a national search he selected David Brown, a senior chief engineer from XM radio who had just finished creating a global satellite radio system. Giobbi hired away some of the top engineers from XM and set them up in South Florida, near XM headquarters, flying from Oregon to Florida quarterly to check in on their progress.
While his team was building the technology in Florida, Giobbi was raising money in Bend. He started with hospitals. Doctors and nurses log in and out of computers hundreds of times daily to protect patient information, and eliminating that monotonous step through automation was an obvious time-saver that Giobbi was convinced would sell itself. Much of the $8.5 million he raised in addition to $1.5 million of his own money came from Bend-area physicians. “Raising money in 2008, 2009 and 2010 was not a fun thing,” he says. “But we did it. We closed the round.”
Now the business is on the cusp. Most of Proxense’s 35 jobs are located in Florida, but Giobbi says he plans to establish headquarters in Bend to grow the company to about 100 jobs over the coming year. He says he’s already exploring possible applications in retail and finance, including a new type of credit card.
Sarah Laufer, here with her family at Bend’s McKay Park, closed the retail shop for her company Play Outdoors, but she recently expanded her e-commerce operation to keep up with orders.
There’s no denying that the money is flowing again in Bend and the rest of the nation. It’s just flowing in very different directions. Digital technology, social media and e-commerce are taking off, but consumer spending remains iffy. Sarah Laufer has experienced both trends first-hand over the course of building a new outdoor brand in Bend called Play Outdoors. Her retail store downtown is closing after less than a year in operation. But the web side of her business is growing briskly from a small, modest space next to the railroad tracks on the east side of town.
Laufer is a 37-year-old attorney who grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents were outdoors people, so she got to experience all sorts of adventures that big-city kids usually don’t get to enjoy. She went on to work as a river guide on the Deschutes and settled in Bend with her husband largely because of the beauty of the outdoors here.
She took a break from law after having her first child in 2007, and decided to start a company helping parents to get their kids healthy and active, playing outside. The format she came up with is a magazine-style website with blogs and videos linked to product sales for bike helmets, clothes, life vests and other products to keep kids happy and safe in nature. She describes it as a way to share the great outdoor culture of Bend with parents from other places, who want to give it a try but aren’t sure how.
“Most of our parents are weekend warriors, they’re rookies,” Laufer says. “Our job is to show them how to get started, where to go and what to buy.”
The Play Outdoors shop in the Old Mill District lost money, but the website grew quickly, from 100 products and four brands to 1,000 products and 10 brands. The warehouse space recently expanded from 2,800 to 7,000 square feet, and the business now employs about 15 people, mostly local moms with direct experience with the joys and pitfalls of exploring the outdoors with kids. The operation could expand further if Laufer is able to raise money. “We’re looking for the right investor, whether it’s a VC fund or a super-angel or an angel group,” she says. “We’re looking for a strategic partnership.”
There’s a precedent for that. The young Bend company that’s had the most success raising investor cash is G5 Search Marketing, which has grown to more than 110 jobs since its launch in 2005. The average age among G5 employees is 31, which makes sense when you consider that the industry of search engine optimization has not existed for long.
G5 Search Marketing CEO Dan Hobin (far right) has built the fastest-growing tech company in Bend and expects similar tech success stories to follow. With Hobin are (left to right) Nancy Hall, Greg Meier, Gunnar Hansen, Coby Randquist and Amy Foster Trenz.
While I’m waiting for CEO Dan Hobin in the conference room I chat with one of G5’s recent young hires, marketing manager Amanda Patterson. She moved to Bend from Orange County in 2006 with her husband, who is a carpenter. The home prices didn’t seem high to them by California standards, and her husband found so much work in Bend that he started his own business. Then the recession hit and her husband’s business went under. With an underwater mortgage and a new baby at home, Patterson is more than slightly thrilled to have landed a job at G5 among hundreds of applicants.
Hobin takes a seat in the conference room and starts talking with the same matter-of-fact optimism I recall from previous phone interviews: “In a macro sense people are struggling all over, but it’s different for small startups,” he says. “Internet technology is on fire all over the country. It reminds me of 1998.”
Hobin moved to Bend in 2002 after pursuing a variety of ventures in the Bay Area dot-com boom years. “Some of them did pretty well, others crashed and burned,” he says with a shrug. He launched G5 in 2005 by going after the not-particularly-sexy business of self-storage units, leading the shift from the yellow pages to the Internet and providing companies with sales leads and instant analytic reports. From there he expanded into senior housing and apartment buildings. He bootstrapped the company for five years before landing $15 million from Volition Capital out of Boston last year. Sales grew 60% last year. Last October, the business expanded into a new floor, and they’re already running out of space there.
Hobin says he has no regrets about building G5 in Bend, and he expects plenty of similar growth businesses to follow likewise, especially now that the town has become affordable again. “The real estate crash was the best thing that ever happened to Bend,” he says.
The new austerity, as applied to dog adventure products, bureaucrats
Ruff Wear president Will Blount (left) and founder Patrick Kruse pioneered the market for outdoor supplies for dogs. The company has been debt free since 2003 and has increased payroll every year since its founding 15 years ago.
Ruff Wear, a Bend-based company that has pioneered the market for outdoor products for dogs, isn’t growing at anywhere near the clip of G5 or 10 Barrel. President Will Blount says 10% annual growth works just fine for him. “Growth for the sake of growth can actually kill a brand,” he says. “We’re trying to build a company that will be here 100 years from now, 1,000 years from now… We look at it like climbing. You take a step forward and if it feels right you keep going.”
The outdoor sports analogy makes sense in Blount’s case. An avid backcountry skier, fly fisherman and kayaker, he moved to Bend with his wife 10 years ago after suffering through an endless traffic jam in Denver (too big) and a brief experiment with McCall, Idaho (too small). He landed his job at Ruff Wear by impressing founder Patrick Kruse with his composure on a whitewater river trip. Kruse was shifting from kayak gear to dog gear — an easy market choice when you consider the numbers: 18,000 kayakers and 40 million dogs.
Ruff Wear started with collapsible dog bowls made from the same materials used to keep tents dry. It has expanded into dog toys, dog life jackets and so on. The newest product is for joring, or skiing/skateboarding along behind a harnessed dog.
Part of the Ruff Wear marketing strategy involves running free dog-washing stations during an annual celebration of the Appalachian hiking trail in Virginia. Another initiative involves distributing free Ruff Wear chew toys to star avalanche dogs. The business recently opened a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on Bend’s east side. Blount notes with pride that the company has been debt free since 2003 and has grown payroll and benefits every year since its inception 15 years ago.
Not far from Ruff Wear headquarters in Bend’s Northwest hills, a once-obscure tech company called GL Solutions is running out of room faster than G5 is downtown. The business recently doubled from 40 people to 80 people after a well-publicized hiring binge that founder Bill Moseley says brought 900 applicants. “In three years we’ll be 250 people,” Moseley predicts.
The new jobs are to fulfill the largest contract GL Solutions has won: a $9 million deal to help North Carolina manage its health services system. It’s complex, laborious stuff (especially when compared to heading out to the high country to test out doggy boots) — but talk about opportunity. The goal of Moseley’s software business is to shake up government agencies and make them more efficient.
Moseley has a master’s degree in public administration and a law degree. He was a public sector employee with a mission to improve the Oregon Department of Justice’s information technology system when he decided to go into business making government work better, working from Lake Oswego for a few years before moving to Bend.
In Bend, Moseley kept the business going by borrowing money from friends and family and paying himself a meager salary. He and his team built five iterations of their software, and wrestled with new complexities with each new client. “In government the operating rules are established in statutes,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if it makes sense.”
On the positive side, the challenge of building software for everyone from the Oregon Board of Accountancy to the Wyoming Board of Geology kept large competitors out of the game. GL Solutions has agency clients in 18 states, and Moseley predicts strong growth as taxpayers continue to demand government reforms. He plans to remain in Bend because he considers it an excellent environment for growing businesses —especially after the recession. “Bend was getting to be a place where middle-class people couldn’t afford to live anymore,” he says. “I was happy to see housing prices fall.”
From pure insanity to real opportunities, and a way forward
Tom Fristoe was not happy to see home prices fall in Bend. He bought in 2006. “We just sit and stare at it every month,” he says of his investment property, laughing. “Yeah, we’re way under water.”
The fact that he is laughing tells you a few things. By now, the once-shocking reality of owing more money to the bank than your property is worth is commonplace in Bend, so Fristoe is hardly alone. Also, he has plenty of good news to offset the bad. His young business, TeamUnify, has grown quickly to 17 employees in an office in Northeast Bend. It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday and the office is humming.
Fristoe is another Bay Area tech refugee who moved to Bend for lifestyle reasons and found it a good place to build a cloud-based software company. A competitive swimmer, he took over administration of his masters’ swim team and started writing software “just for fun.” Now TeamUnify has 1,600 teams as clients and a million unique web visitors. The company has developed a mobile app for coaches and parents and an online voting system to enable customers to choose future features.
“Our goal is to keep adding teams to the platform as fast as we can,” Fristoe says. “We can do that through our profits. We don’t need any more money.”
Fristoe expects to add 10 or so jobs over the next few years as he seeks to tackle untapped markets in Germany, France and Australia. He says it takes a while to find good employees in Bend because of the small population base, but it can be done. He’s doing it, after all, and so are others. “You can grow a business here,” he says. “You can find good people. And you can certainly buy a lot of house for not much money.”
As I head back from TeamUnify to check out of the Mill Inn, it occurs to me that the opportunities for these growing niche tech companies are almost limitless. Who would have thought you could build an exciting young company by helping people run swim teams better? Or by improving Google rankings for self-storage companies? Dan Hobin told me that when local entrepreneurs launched the Bend Venture event a few years ago to boost hot young tech companies, there really weren’t any around. Now there are dozens, bringing millions of dollars into the local economy. All were founded by entrepreneurs drawn to Bend by its landscape.
That point hits home again as I head out to the headquarters of Bend Research in a pastoral setting of horse pastures, trout streams and snow-capped mountains. The founder, chemist Harry Lonsdale, was a Bay Area refugee doing contract research for the government. All he needed was a mailbox and a telephone. He chose Bend for the fishing.
Thirty-plus years later, Bend Research is vital to the local economy, with a payroll of about $13 million, a steady flow of business visitors from major pharmaceutical firms and a growing collection of successful spin-offs. Rod Ray reinvented the business weeks after taking over as CEO two and a half years ago, shifting from one exclusive contract with Pfizer to 60 clients making medications to treat cancer, heart disease, chronic pain and other maladies.
Ray serves as a trustee of the OSU Foundation with the goal of supporting Bend’s OSU-Cascades campus and helping it to grow from a minor presence into a stand-alone institution. He is also looking for ways for his company to share space with OSU-Cascades as both expand in Bend. “It’s a good environment for my guys to be around. And we need space. We’re out of space.”
One of the reasons Bend Research is out of space is Ray has been too busy rebuilding the company from 135 to 205 employees to build new facilities. Also, he has been hesitant to take on debt after the economic calamity he has witnessed in Bend. “I saw people go down the tubes because they took too much risk,” he says.
With his long history in Bend, his deep involvement in the community, his Sam-Elliot-style lawman’s moustache and his laid-back, tell-it-like-it-is Western style, Ray seems a logical choice to offer the long view on what happened to Bend – and what should happen next.
“It just needs to be done in a reasonable way,” he says. “Growth and risk, all of that, it needs to be controlled. What was happening was out of control. Right before the recession hit, Bend was nuts. It really was crazy. If you look at what people, banks and builders were doing, it was insane. A lot of people in town, people who I respect, say the economy is much healthier now. The growth is based on reality and real opportunities, rather than speculation. So that’s the lesson.”
It’s hard to call an economy healthy when unemployment is still over 12%, half of the home sales are distressed deals and thousands of manufacturing jobs have vanished. But my week in Bend has convinced me that something compelling is taking root here. Dynamic companies are rising from the ashes, and while not all of them will thrive, some will. The OSU campus is expanding, Bend Research and BendBroadband are moving in promising new directions, startups are popping up all over town and the tourism/lifestyle scene is benefiting from an ever-expanding menu of trail runs, bike rides, triathlons, outdoor concerts and ski events. It will take years for property values to recover and manufacturing jobs may never bounce back, but a diverse assortment of entrepreneurial seeds have been planted, and they are sprouting.