Hewlett-Packard Co.’s future in Vancouver may be uncertain, but the high-tech company’s presence here will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on the local economy.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has downsized its Vancouver Imaging and Printing Division from a peak of more than 3,000 workers in 1998 to an estimated 600 in 2009. With the sale of its 174-acre campus in east Vancouver to SEH America Inc. last June, there’s speculation within the community that HP would leave the area altogether.
“Nobody knows what the long-term trajectory is,” said Bart Phillips, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. “We hope they’ll maintain their presence, but if you look at any community, there’s a life-cycle of companies. They grow, develop and then disappear.”
As different companies and industries cycle through prominence in Clark County, due to the recent recession and the long-term decline of manufacturing here, they shape the region’s vitality.
For many companies, including HP, which has attracted top-notch talent from throughout the U.S. and abroad to work at its Vancouver offices, that legacy seems to be their employees. Many HP workers stay here after leaving HP to start businesses and nonprofit organizations, volunteer or fill openings at other local technology companies.
“I know (HP) folks who have left for higher education, who are starting businesses from marketing consulting to family mediation,” said Paul Speer, a former vice president of development strategy at HP who now works pro bono for SCORE in Portland, offering small-business counseling. “A bunch of us were at a point in our careers where we felt giving back to the community was a good deal.”
The Columbian followed up with several former HP employees to trace the company’s long-term contribution to the community. A new weekly business section feature on Fridays called “You’re Hired!” will also continue to tap the pulse of the county’s changing economy by highlighting job transitions that workers make in a variety of industries.
Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) coach, WorkSource Vancouver
Mechanical engineer at HP, 2003-2009
As chance would have it, Manlio Castillo applied for his job as a career counselor the week before he was laid off from Hewlett-Packard. Last February, the mechanical engineer stumbled on the posting for a Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) coach, working with 16- to 24-year-old students and dislocated workers interested in technical careers. He thought it sounded like an ideal job.
He landed an interview, but the agency hired someone else initially. The former Boeing engineer had worked on the International Space Station before his job in research and development on the paper path mechanism for HP’s inkjet printers. But he’d never worked with kids.
After his last month at HP in March, Castillo started collecting unemployment benefits and half-heartedly looking for engineering jobs.
“I wanted to do something tangible for my community,” Castillo said.
Then, in June, Worksource called him back with a job offer.
WorkSource in March was among several regional recipients for a portion of a $2 million federal stimulus grant to help boost the pool of workers available for science and engineering jobs in Southwest Washington and Oregon.
Castillo helps workers laid off from jobs in declining industries, such as pulp and paper mills, find training or employment in other technical careers such as construction, machining, auto repair and network administration.
He also mentors youths through pilot programs at Hudson’s Bay and Heritage high schools in Vancouver. The kids get one-on-one career counseling from him, including help finding financial aid for a training program or college, writing a résumé or filling out applications.
But the fun part for Castillo is helping the kids get excited to learn new skills.
“Kids who do well in science and math classes do well in these fields,” said Castillo. “I encourage kids to take more of these classes.”
President, Sigma Design, Inc.
HP engineer and manager, 1981-1997
Some 13 out of the 30 employees at Sigma Design in Vancouver are HP alums, recruited by president and former HP hardware engineer and manager Bill Huseby. And at least five of his engineers are contractors working in-house at HP.
So it’s no surprise that HP culture permeates Sigma, which also counts other large regional players in the high-tech industry, including Cadet Manufacturing, Electro Scientific Industries and RS Medical, among its clients for consumer product design. More than a decade ago, Huseby left HP to found the small engineering firm based on the business principles he learned in his 16 years there.
“I did my professional adolescence at HP,” Huseby said. “It made me who I am from a business perspective.”
He has since tried hard to replicate the “heyday” of HP, before a change in the company’s management led to massive restructuring, layoffs and a shift to a stronger corporate culture.
“The old HP was a coveted place to work. I was certainly proud to work there,” Huseby said. “I still have a soft spot in my heart for HP.”
Central to that early culture was the mentality that its employees were its No. 1 asset, Huseby said. He has also adopted a cautious approach to growth, hiring only when there was enough contract work to justify it and avoiding debt.
As a result, 2009 was Sigma’s best year yet, Huseby said. The company worked to diversify its client base and is doing more work in Asia out of its Singapore offices. Sigma is now hunting for a larger office space in downtown Vancouver to accommodate its growth.
Bamboo product manager, Wacom
HP marketing manager, 1970-2006
After almost 37 years at HP, Dennis Hoff decided to take a buyout a few years ago and within two months went to work for Wacom, another high-tech titan with American headquarters in Vancouver.
“It was a very attractive severance package,” Hoff said, smiling. “Much better than what they offer now.”
As a vice president of international marketing for HP, Hoff lived in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand managing the company’s DeskJet business. But the company underwent a major shift in management and strategy starting with CEO Carly Fiorina in 1999 and followed by CEO Mark Hurd in 2005. After cutting back on hardware engineering and product design, the company now includes a stronger focus on information and business services.
“HP was very employee-friendly and then they began to do layoffs and the whole environment just became more difficult to thrive in for the old-timers,” Hoff said. “The company today is very strong and very well-managed. But for me, it was an opportunity to do something different.”
Hoff is now on the leading edge of innovation in touch technology as a product manager at Wacom. His Bamboo line of graphic tablets are used mostly by designers in creative industries. But the underlying touchscreen technology is used in a range of products sold by major manufacturers, including cell phones, computer tablets and home appliances.
Hoff credits HP’s abundant employee career training opportunities for the continued success of himself and his former colleagues. Most of the HP co-workers he’s kept in touch with have stayed in the Vancouver-Portland area after leaving the company, he said.
“They were always being prepared for other careers; the whole county benefits from an employer like that,” Hoff said. “Whether HP stays or goes, they leave behind a positive impact on the community.”
Founder, Snap Fitness in Woodland
VP of integrated marketing and communications at HP, 1995-2009
The first Snap Fitness gym opened in Woodland in October, a short eight months after founder Doug Vaughan left his job as vice president of marketing at Hewlett-Packard. And the new franchise of small, local gyms has plans to add two more locations in Southwest Washington in the next few months.
“There were a lot of changes that had happened at HP and it was a much different company than I joined several years ago,” Vaughan said. “It didn’t seem as fit and as aligned to me individually, and I’d always dreamed of owning my own business.”
Fitness is a central part of Vaughan’s life, so he did a complete market analysis of Clark and Cowlitz counties and found a growing demand for fitness services in the communities surrounding Vancouver. Many outlying residents travel to Vancouver to use modern, professional equipment, he said.
Snap Fitness offers large gym amenities with personalized, small-gym services in outlying neighborhoods.
“It’s a completely different business, but I got that strong marketing background in HP and applied it to the fitness industry,” Vaughan said.
The community response to the Woodland location has been “overwhelming,” and the company is now a year ahead of schedule in its original business plan, Vaughan said. Choosing the right location, in a high-traffic area at 1307 Lewis River Road, was critical, along with targeted marketing efforts, he said.
“One of the things I brought into my life (from HP) is knowing you can’t just open your doors and expect people to walk in,” Vaughan said. “You need to get the word out.”
Dave Frei and Jennifer Corio
Founders, Cobalt Designworks in Vancouver
Frei, mechanical engineer 1993-2008; Corio, product manager 1996-2001
Husband and wife Dave Frei and Jennifer Corio met at Hewlett-Packard in the 1990s where he worked as a mechanical engineer on HP’s DeskJet printers for 15 years and she was a product manager.
These days, they’re designing and fabricating a driveway gate for a lavender farm in Woodinville and deck railings for a remodeling project in northeast Portland, and working on a public art commission for the city of Bremerton.
During a leave of absence from the company about 10 years ago, Corio took classes in art and metalworking and got hooked. Frei, who grew up working on race cars and trailers, often found himself offering technical advice on her projects.
When HP offered Frei a buyout two years ago, the couple seized the opportunity to start Cobalt Designworks in Vancouver, an artisan shop that creates custom metalwork for builders and remodelers. Frei does the fabrication and welding while Corio designs pieces and manages the business.
Founded in the midst of the economic collapse, the company’s first few years have been shaky, Frei said. But it’s given them time to fine-tune the business, which is starting to pick up again.
“HP isn’t a directive-type company; they set an objective, put quality people on it and get out of the way,” Frei said. “It put in my mind as long as we set our objectives and work toward them and learn as we go, I feel comfortable we have the skills to get there.”