Camas electronics firm increasing global focus

Owner has revamped almost every aspect of business — quality, philosophy, location — since purchasing it in 2008

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

CID Bio-Science

• What: Creates and manufactures portable instruments used to measure and analyze plants.

• Owner: Leonard Felix.

• Employees: 17.

• 2013 revenue forecast: $4 million.

• Where: 1554 N.E. Third Ave., Camas.

• Web: cid-inc.com

When Leonard Felix saw the ad, he was first puzzled, then intrigued.

"Electronics manufacturer for sale in Camas?" he recalls thinking. "I thought I worked for the only electronics manufacturer in Camas."

Felix, at the time a director at Sharp Electronics, wanted to know more. Seven years later, he's the owner of the business that piqued his curiosity. That business, CID Bio-Science, has more than doubled its annual sales since Felix took over. It recently moved into spacious new Camas offices, designed around the principles of lean manufacturing. And Felix is preparing to expand into new markets that he hopes will fuel growth at the company for years to come.

CID Bio-Science, founded in 1990, makes portable instruments used in agricultural research. One product allows scientists to scan plant root growth beneath the earth. Another measures the canopies of trees and forests.

When Felix bought the business in 2008, CID's products seemed to compete well against the competition, he said, but they didn't meet the quality standards he'd learned developing consumer products at Sharp. CID runs its own small machine shop, manufacturing and assembling its gear on site.

Drawing on the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, often translated as "continuous improvement," Felix urged CID's engineers to make the company's devices sturdier and more precise. He also boosted efforts to enhance relationships with the overseas distributors responsible for many of CID's foreign sales.

So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. CID's 2008 revenue was $1.8 million, Felix said. He predicts more than $4 million in sales this year.

Sales strategy

Distributors have taken note, said MK Bose, whose company, Spectra Agritec, sells plant research equipment to research centers, universities and private businesses in India.

"After Leonard joined, the quality of the products — which is the main concern that I have — they were able to improve and add more quality checks," said Bose, who has been working with CID since the 1990s.

Pep Oncins, a distributor with Solfranc Tecnologias SL in Spain, agrees: "I'm very impressed with the improvements made since 2008."

Oncins and Bose were among roughly 20 distributors from Australia, Asia, South America, Africa and Europe who visited Camas in October to learn more about the CID products that it sells.

Those distributors are key to CID's growth strategy, Phil Berger, the company's sales director, said.

"The majority of our sales are through exports," Berger said.

He estimates that 70 percent of CID's sales are made overseas. China, India and Brazil in particular have shown strong demand, a reflection of those nations' surging economies.

CID has opted to work with distributors rather than developing a large sales operation, because they have a better understanding of their own markets, Berger said.

It seems to be working. CID won 2011 Exporter of the Year at the World Trade Center Tacoma Globe Awards and the 2010 Small Business Exporter of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

New markets

Since acquiring CID, Felix has focused on growing sales within a familiar niche. But some of CID's products could have applications beyond research, he said.

In particular, one of the company's devices can read how much ethylene gas is coming off of produce. This information can be used to determine how long some fruits and vegetables will stay fresh. Agriculture businesses are already measuring gases to estimate fruit maturity, but Felix said that CID's product is more portable and more precise than those of most competitors.

Until recently, however, CID was selling the device to researchers, and not actively marketing to agri-business. That is changing, with the launch of a new brand name, Felix Instruments. CID is also developing other agribusiness-related products to sell under the new brand, Felix said.

Staying lean

Even as CID's sales and ambitions have grown, its staffing levels have remained small. The company has just 17 employees — a total that includes engineers, manufacturing workers and sales crews.

Felix said he anticipates some staffing growth and that he is committed to keeping manufacturing on site, but he also does not see CID growing into a giant employment source.

"The goal is to stay lean. Everyone works to maximum efficiency, at maximum capacity," he said. "Everyone also works with maximum autonomy."

Felix acknowledges that he's asking a lot of his workers. When he first bought the company, he experienced high turnover, he said. But now staffing has stabilized, and Felix has instituted changes aimed at making CID both a productive and a pleasant workplace.

The company's previous offices were growing cramped when CID this past year bought a run down gray hulk that had previously housed an American Legion Hall. The 80-year-old building, which cost $275,000, could have turned into a money pit. But as Felix brought in inspectors to examine its concrete foundation, its wood beams and its structural integrity, he kept getting the same reports: Everything was in tip-top shape.

With the help of Portland architects, CID renovated the building, creating a manufacturing shop in the basement, and an open first floor to encourage efficient collaboration. An unfinished basement room is ready to be adapted as the company grows and evolves.

On the main floor, "engineers sit on the left, production on the right," Suzy Truitt, CID order administrator, said. Kaizen principles guided the layout of the space, she said, and so did a desire to stay connected to the company's Camas roots.

Old wood forms from the early days of Camas' paper mill decorate the walls. The building's original wood floors were once the base of a roller rink during an earlier time in the structure's history.

Felix said he welcomes the increased visibility of CID's new headquarters, even though the company won't be doing much business with its neighbors; CID's growth ambitions are global.

But being a part of the Camas community?

"This is fun," he said.