Let’s follow the sun for economic development

Jim West
Jim West Zenith Properties

Editor’s Note: The Inside Track is a recurring column written by a local business professional. Authors of these columns aim to provide you with their own perspective on a current trend or development within their industry, getting you on The Inside Track.

I recently found myself driving down Fourth Plain Boulevard to take a tour of a new industrial facility being constructed. I reflected on how this construction project and the company that was building it should serve as a highlighted case study example of our best efforts in economic development.

In the depths and the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, the Columbia River Economic Development Council recognized the need to generate renewed momentum rebuilding our job base. They launched an effort in 2010 with the help of an organization called TIP Strategies to create a new economic development plan.

The plan had six major goals. I’m going to focus on Goal 4 – Business Development – to enhance business vitality through targeted recruitment, expansion and entrepreneurship efforts with the objective to create an organized coherent effort to identify companies, particularly startups and stage two companies that needed resources to continue their growth path.

In 2008, a young engineer from Intel came up with an innovative idea on how to provide racking systems for the solar industry. His name was Tony Liu. Tony launched his company, SunModo, which develops, manufactures and sells solar photo-voltaic (PV) racking and mounting solutions to residential installers, commercial integrators and other solar providers in North America.

I became aware of Tony when we both started attending the PubTalk Series, produced by the CREDC in an effort to attract entrepreneurs, engineers, innovators and investors into a different type of networking event. These gatherings brought startups and stage two companies closer to the expanded services and resources they might need as they grew. The CREDC recognized the potential in SunModo right away and provided direct mentoring and CFO services through an experienced board member.

And grow is just what SunModo did – to the point where in 2014 they were recognized for the second year in a row as the Vancouver Business Journal’s Business Growth Award winner (this time in the 6 to 10-year category. Revenues at the company had grown 53 percent over 2013 and an increase of 61 percent was projected for 2015.

In fact, 2014 marked the year where Tony recognized he needed additional expertise in getting SunModo to successfully navigate the company to the next level. He hired a local executive with 27 years of experience across both Fortune 100 and privately-held businesses, both with domestic and international focus, Rick Campfield.

It wasn’t long into Rick’s tenure they identified that the path the company was on would require a significant upgrade in both size and capacity of their facility. They were renting in a small business park near downtown Vancouver and decided to launch an effort to purchase a local warehouse. I was introduced to Rick at the right time and was fortunate to be able to provide the service of leading the search.

They felt something in the 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot range would suffice. However, Clark County has for years had a shortage of light industrial buildings, and due to the impacts of the recession on construction virtually, no new light industrial properties had been built.

For a frustrating seven months we searched every possible property, and finally settled on a 2.6-acre parcel out on Fourth Plain Boulevard directly north of the Armed Forces Reserve Center. After challenging negotiations, we closed on the property in August of 2015.

CREDC has provided support in several areas as they ramp up this facility. In 2015, they connected SunModo to the Impact Washington program, which helps companies ramp up their exports by creating a free sell zone to reduce tariffs.

Then Tony and Rick make a great decision to hire Mark Jackson, a local contractor with well-established roots in Clark County. Rick and Tony’s vision for this facility is to not only house their staff and be the worldwide hub for receiving and distributing their product, but it will also showcase how solar energy innovation will help lead the way into a brighter future. CREDC supported this step as well, as they started the pre-application process with the city of Vancouver and assisted in getting the proper documentation from the state of Washington.

SunModo has grown to more than 300 customers in North America, and have expanded their international sales efforts to Mexico, Canada and Latin America. They have a vision of being a $30 million dollar a year sales company and will be ramping up hiring as the facility comes online.

This is a huge win for Goal 4 and the many folks who had a hand along the way. Let’s follow the SunModo model.

Jim West is a licensed Commercial Real Estate Broker at Coldwell Banker Commercial specializing in local business property ownership and leasing in Southwest Washington. He can be reached at 360.823.5109.

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