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News / Business / Clark County Business

Camas’ Sigma has designs on a productive future

Sigma Design has seen vast, steady growth since its creation 25 years ago in Vancouver

By Allan Brettman, Columbian Business Editor
Published: July 7, 2019, 6:00am
8 Photos
Andy Doty, a computer numerical control machinist at Sigma Design, makes a set of screws on a lathe.
Andy Doty, a computer numerical control machinist at Sigma Design, makes a set of screws on a lathe. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Clients, vendors, friends and employees’ families poured through the front door of Sigma Design on a rainy Thursday afternoon at the end of June.

They’d arrived for a celebration. The company that launched in 1994 was commemorating its 25th anniversary — a quarter-century of steady growth in revenue, employees and areas of expertise. The company has grown from a mechanical engineering group with a handful of employees in a small office near Vancouver’s Uptown Village to a product design and development company with about 330 employees, many of them working at the company’s 56,000-square-foot headquarters in Camas.

A vibrant economy has played a key role in Sigma Design’s growth, said Matt Cameron, vice president of engineering, who has worked 19 years for the company. But networking also has been a powerful stimulant, he said.

“I think we hit kind of a critical mass with the Sigma Design network,” Cameron said. “Somebody in our organization four years ago knew somebody in almost every company – Intel, Microsoft, Nike. We just knew people all over.”

How far its come

At Sigma Design’s 25th anniversary event on June 27, company president Bill Huseby delivered a toast that took note of how far the company had traveled:

In 1997, the company had three clients. Today it has more than 118 active clients.

In 1997, the company pitched 25 jobs and made four jobs active.

• In 2018, it had 1,352 jobs with about 150-plus active at any time.

• Since 1997, it has had almost 11,000 jobs (10,952 to be precise).

• In 1997, there were two employees. Today, there are 330, an increase of 165 times. Revenue has grown nearly 200 times in that span.

• In 2001, it had six employees. All are still working at Sigma Design.

• In 1997, it occupied a 700-square-foot office. Today, it has four locations occupying more than 74,000 square feet.

• Employees work in 10 cities, three states and four countries.

While Cameron named three Sigma Design clients, he declined to describe the services provided. In fact, even at the festive event, the company had taken precautions: Crowd control barriers blocked access to some hallways. And if a visitor was lucky enough to be escorted past the barrier, the company had removed or shrouded some of the products in progress.

If not company names, the Sigma Design website describes the services provided: product development, automation, manufacturing, industrial design, engineering, project management, prototyping and testing.

“There’s a lot of technology and other companies in the greater Northwest,” Cameron said. “And it’s safe to assume that we’ve engaged most of them. Most of the big ones, anyway.”

Clients may prefer Sigma Design’s concept-through-production capabilities, Cameron said.

“We have capabilities on staff that can engage in the very early stages of a product development all the way to the end where we actually manufacture,” he said. “Most of our competitors do not manufacture things. So we build stuff in this building and in a couple of other locations that we have.”

Rachelle Hutchens, Sigma Design’s human relations director, agreed that networking has played a major part in the company’s expansion. The company had about 40 employees when Hutchens joined six years ago and has since grown its head count by more than eight times. On Tuesday, its website listed openings for a dozen jobs.

“We call it employee transiency,” Hutchens said. People who collaborated with Sigma Design when they worked for one company often remembered that positive experience when they moved on to another company.

“They liked working with us because we’re easy to work with,” she said. “They remembered us. The word of mouth, I think, is what has expanded us the most.”

Company President Bill Huseby envisions more growth for the company. Geographically, some of the biggest opportunities would be along the Interstate 5 corridor, Huseby said, something he once called “purposeful growth along on the West Coast.”

In November 2018, the company opened an office in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. The office gives the company better access to area clients in aerospace, health care, clean technology, information communication technology, maritime, military and defense industries.

When the office was announced, Craig Baerwaldt, Sigma Design’s business development officer in Kirkland, said the company “already has a strong presence in the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) industry, so increasing development within the local aerospace market is a natural fit.

“In the product development market, confidentiality when developing and prototyping hardware is paramount. As companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Boeing continue to develop in Seattle, it makes sense for us to provide services that match the growth of major players in the region.”

It’s been a dozen years since the company opened Sigma Design & Engineering PTE, LTD in Singapore. At the time, in 2007, the company produced tools and fixtures to help manufacture consumer electronics products, said Cameron, the engineering vice president.

In Asia, Sigma Design has employees that live in China, Malaysia and Singapore.

“There’s certainly a lot of work to be had on the I-5 corridor,” Huseby said. “So there’s a tremendous amount there. But you can grow anywhere — the East Coast, (and) more in Asia. Just kind of all around.”

Huseby became Sigma Design’s third employee in 1997 when he left HP, where he worked for 16 years, to join Sigma Design founder John Barker and his wife, Sue Wainwright. John Barker left HP to start Sigma Design in 1994.

A photo on Sigma Design’s website displays two of Huseby’s passions: sailing and a notable Pac-12 university. In the photo, he’s at the stern of a sailboat on the Columbia River. He sails competitively — several times across the Pacific, says the company website — and for fun. And in the website photo, he’s wearing the cardinal red T-shirt of his alma mater, Stanford, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering.

Huseby took a break from greeting visitors at the 25th anniversary celebration to lead a tour for The Columbian around parts of the company’s headquarters building, answering questions about Sigma Design’s history and trajectory. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sigma Design serves customers in a variety of industries including consumer electronics, automotive, sporting goods and industrial automation. Does the company specialize in one area more than another?

No, because we believe in having a lot of breadth. That served the company well not only in the breadth of industries that we’re in, but also in the breadth of offerings. We call it “concept through production,” in that you go from early engineering work — industrial design, paper studies to detailing, doing engineering — then you have to prototype it. And you start going through a prototype, then test, then fix, prototype, test, fix, loop. And when you come out of that you do a little bit higher volume until you get into production. And then there’s equipment that has to go into building stuff in high volume … so we do everything from concept through production.

But what we don’t do is we don’t care what door the client comes in. So, uh, if they want us to machine parts, we’ll machine parts. If they want us to test it, we’ll test it. If they want us to design it, we’ll design it.

Why might a client come to Sigma Design rather than going to your competitors?

Within any particular business sector that we do, there are certainly competitors. But when you talk about putting it all together from start to finish, from concept through production, then there’s very, very few companies that actually do that.

When you joined Sigma Design, the company had three employees and you were one of them. Now there’s about 330. How would you compare and contrast your enjoyment of the job then with now?

When there were five or six people, I had to do it all, right? I mean, I had to do everything from quoting the job to invoicing to designing. I did some machining. I would put stuff together and take it apart and make it work. I invoiced the client, I did the payroll. And as we’ve grown, my job is to cleave off what I do because I can’t do it all. And now there’s an executive team that’s responsible for a lot of that.

I’m at heart an engineer. And that’s what I like doing and I thought I was pretty good at it. I like designing stuff. Now, I design something different. I help design organizations, I help design strategies. That’s a little different. What I try to do is design the company, that’s my job. My responsibility is to set the culture, set the direction. But I don’t do that in a vacuum at all.

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A placard posted throughout Sigma Design lists the company’s six core values: Integrity, Help clients and each other, Take time to laugh, Adaptable, Respect for each other, Exceed customer’s expectations. Where did that come from?

The company had been in business for about 12 years or so, and I was getting a lot of questions about where are we going, what are we doing? Are you going to do this until it fails and then, you know, stick your tail between your legs and go back to Hewlett-Packard? And I thought, “My God, I’m not doing my job right. I’m not putting the target up on the wall and not painting the vision.” And so I went off and, with some help from a friend of mine, I came up with what was our first, what I call a BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

And that goal was “Tenex”: 10 times the revenue, 10 times the profit and 10 times the fun in 10 years. And I presented that to the employees. (Editor’s note: There were about a dozen employees at the time, which Huseby called the Group of 12. And they achieved the goal after 10 years.)

So the Group of 12, we went off to Skamania Lodge for a couple of days and we set that foundation of the core values. And those haven’t changed since 2006.

Columbian Business Editor