Columbia Machine retools definition of success

Vancouver manufacturer’s workforce swells to nearly 600, company-wide

Metal Handling

Success is often followed up by change, but as demonstrated by Columbia Machine Inc., a Vancouver-based manufacturer and engineering company, real success is a combination of innovation and community.

Founded by Fred Neth, Sr. in 1937, Columbia Machine began as a one-man machine shop housed in a small building where the second span of the I-5 Bridge is now located. In the mid 1950s, the company moved to its current location (107 S Grand Boulevard), a former movie theater. Over the decades, the company has gained an international reputation with locations in North America, Mexico, China, New Zealand, Australia, India and Poland, but continues to operate its headquarters in Vancouver.

MachinesRick Goode, company CEO, shared that the Vancouver facility is housed in a complex comprised of just over 300,000 square feet. Recently they’ve been focusing on minor building repairs and signage updates, but the real investment has been a major upgrade of their steel service center to increase capacity, improve manufacturing technologies and enhance the department’s flow and efficiency. New laser burning, forming and fabrication equipment is a significant portion of the project’s expenditures.

Simultaneously, an existing building has been upgraded for research and development of new applications. Goode said that recent growth in the manufacturing industry has created greater demand for automated bag filling with a myriad of construction materials, for example, and that Columbia Machine also conducts product research for other companies on a contractual basis.

Of course, growth spurred by a healthier economic outlook requires employers to keep up with the work load.

“Many markets are strong,” Goode said. “A lot of markets have come back domestically and internationally. As demand’s picked up, we’ve ramped up hiring to meet demand and hired folks to go after new markets in addition to growth with existing businesses.”

Working with WorkSource

In an environment where Internet sites dominate job searches, Columbia Machine has found a partnership with WorkSource invaluable and utilizes web searches to advertise job fairs.

John LeMarte, business services consultant for manufacturing at WorkSource of Vancouver, said, “The challenge for employers is there aren’t enough job seekers looking for work. So Columbia Machine has a job fair at WorkSource and advertises on, say, craigslist and steers folks to WorkSource for the job fair.”

One such hiring event was held last month and, according to Kelley Foy, human resources manager for Columbia Machine, they were pleased with the results but the greater help that WorkSource has provided is in the form of services they administer. She said they’ve hired at least five employees recently who’ve qualified for an on-the-job training program wherein WorkSource reimburses the employer for up to $5,000 of each person’s training wages.

LeMarte explained that the money comes to WorkSource through the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC), funded by a federal program known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Also falling within the scope of WorkSource services is industry standard pre-testing, which the agency administers to job seekers for employers.

“Manufacturers will contact us to see if we have some kind of tool to test someone to see if they have rudimentary knowledge for an opening need. They tell us what they’re looking for in a job seeker and the test can be customized for different available positions like a programmable logic controller who deals with software on manufacturing machines,” LeMarte said.

Foy added that a recent new hire qualified for $250 worth of tools through a voucher and she has sent other workers to WorkSource who’ve qualified for things like gas cards and work boots.

On the grow

Today, Columbia Machine is approaching 600 employees with about 500 based in Vancouver. Although the export market has been solid, because they do business in more than 100 countries around the world, the strong dollar has made their equipment expensive in developing markets, Goode explained. Also a hot topic is the recent expiration of EXIM (Export-Import Bank of the United States).

“For a business like ours, a big percentage is export,” Goode said. “It (the lapse of EXIM) is just one less tool we have to be competitive.”

However, Goode is optimistic that EXIM will soon be renewed and has been actively meeting with lawmakers to voice his concerns and work toward a resolution. Last year, that included a trip to the White House and recently a meeting with Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler.

Overall, Columbia Machine is seeing good growth opportunities caused by marketing efforts and is engaged in several projects in line with that growth potential to increase their business. At local high schools and colleges, they’re champions of educating job seekers on the facets of manufacturing and engineering, emphasizing that they are part of a technologically-savvy industry that can be quite profitable with good benefits and retirement (in an environment where some of those perks have gone by the way side).Over 75 years later, this company born out of one man’s strong work ethic continues to hold those founding values dear.