Clovis News

Fresno Co. shifts business focus to the little guy

Valley officials once chased Donald Trump and Bass Pro Shops in the hunt for economic development. Today they’re more interested in businesses like Valley Chrome Plating.

Housed amid auto dismantlers in three nondescript buildings tucked into an industrial area of Clovis, the company has only 65 workers. But it has customers across the nation.

Experts say these kind of companies are key to the region’s economic growth because they draw fresh dollars into the local economy, creating wealth that flows to other businesses and their workers.

So local economic development officials are finding ways to help these small businesses — finding services they need, navigating difficulties that hold them back, even just fixing potholes to help their trucks run more smoothly.

“More than ever we need that type of support for local businesses,” said Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “It’s brutal out there.”

Of the companies with headquarters here, video-security company Pelco often makes headlines, as did Gottschalks before it closed. But many others run mostly under the radar.

Valley Chrome Plating makes and sells chrome bumpers and other accessories for big rigs. The aftermarket parts are sold as replacements after a truck is wrecked, or to buyers wanting to gussy up their rigs.

President Ray Lucas says he does 60% of his business east of the Mississippi River, due mostly to leads from a yearly trade show in Louisville, Ky.Valley Chrome is beginning to sell to truck manufacturers, too. A contract with a major truck manufacturer is expected to be finalized soon, he said, and that will boost business significantly.

Valley Chrome suffered during the recession but is seeing an upswing, he said.

Although the company is 49 years old, many people have no clue it’s located here, he said.

“They have no idea,” he said. “I don’t do a lot of marketing in this area because so much of my business is elsewhere.”

Companies like Valley Chrome are key to the local economy because they bring in money from outside areas, said Tim Stearns, director of the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at California State University, Fresno.

No economy can exist by circulating money in isolation, he said.

“You always have to be able to pull money in from other parts and other economies in order to enhance your economy,” he said.

Mike Dozier agreed. He is director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State, which runs the Regional Jobs Initiative.

Although stores, doctors and lawyers are necessary, they circulate money locally, he said. A new dollar brings a financial boost to all kinds of businesses in town, Dozier said. Each dollar coming into the community is circulated between four and eight times, experts said.

Hoping to support more local businesses, the EDC started the BEAR Action Network, which stands for business expansion and retention, in 2008.The network of information, resources and services is designed to help businesses with whatever they need, such as referring them to an accountant who is familiar with the tax advantages of enterprise zones, Geil said.

City managers of all local cities also participate in the network, which has helped cities be more responsive to businesses, he said.

Sometimes the needs of a company are as simple as fixing potholes outside a business so there’s less wear and tear on the trucks and the product doesn’t get damaged, he said.

Lucas said that although he hasn’t directly benefitted from the BEAR network, he has noticed support from government agencies lately.

Last week Valley Chrome received an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and an official from the county’s division of environmental health showed up at the award ceremony.

“These are the same people that do a lot of the environmental enforcement with us,” he said. “If they see us in a good light ... we are establishing relationships with them that can only help us down the road.”

Keiser Corp. is another company that brings outside money into the local economy. It manufactures stationary bikes, ellipticals and other fitness equipment, with about 40% of its sales outside the United States. The company has a sales office in Britain.

“We’re probably one of the best-kept secrets in Fresno,” said Dennis Keiser, who founded the company here with his brother Randy in 1978.

From a plant on Cherry Avenue, Keiser Corp. makes equipment that is used on U.S. military’s submarines, by gyms all over the world and by half of the country’s professional football and baseball teams.

After sales grew 65% in 2008 compared to the previous year, sales were flat the following year during the recession, Dennis Keiser said.

But already sales are picking up. A new, more compact elliptical machine is selling well in Europe. More of the compact machines can fit into a room, allowing gyms to hold walking classes popular in Europe. Such classes are expected to catch on here soon, he said.

One risk facing the local business community is that these companies will sell to an outside buyer or leave the area. Either way, the profits leave the Valley.

Pelco, for example, was bought by French company Schneider Electric in 2007.

And Plastic Jungle, a Web-based company founded in Clovis that lets customers buy, sell and trade gift cards, recently moved to Mountain View. The company received a $4.8 million investment from Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

Tech firms are particularly at risk of being lured away as venture capitalists like to be close to their investment, and it makes sense for them to be located in the country’s hotbed of technology, said founder Tina Henson.

While local agencies are doing what they can for businesses, many still complain about the cost of doing business in California. Both Keiser and Valley Chrome have considered moving out of state.

Lucas of Valley Chrome looked into moving to Nashville about six years ago when he realized he could save $600,000 a year in workers’ compensation, freight costs and power bills. But because the move would cost $10 million, require a huge amount of work and uproot family, Lucas decided against it.

Likewise, Keiser has frustrations with government. He said that while some agencies are helpful, others are adversarial and make running a business in California difficult.

Dozier said it’s important to address those issues. That’s why the RJI’s top focus is on retaining and expanding businesses, he said. It has a far higher priority than persuading outside businesses to move to Fresno, he said.

“You take care of what you got first,” he said. “You make sure those industries know that they’re wanted here, and if they have any issues, you address those,” he said.

Fresno has gotten better at that over the last five or 10 years, he said.

The EDC still does some attraction of outside businesses, working with seven other counties to do so, Geil said. But Dozier points out that when local companies thrive, other out-of-town businesses will notice and look to the area without being courted, Dozier said.

Some have already noticed.

Betts Spring Inc. began moving aspects of its business to Fresno from San Francisco 20 years ago.

The company makes springs for the transportation industry and other purposes, from nuclear power plants to irrigation equipment. It also makes accessories such as hangers for truck mud flaps. It bought an Ohio fender maker in 2007 and also manufactures and distributes truck parts across the country.

In January 2008, it moved its headquarters for its manufacturing division here.

The 141-year-old company first moved here because Fresno’s central location was ideal for the distribution side of its business, said president Mike Betts. The cost of living also played a role, he said.

One hundred of its 190 employees are located in Fresno.

Betts said he sometimes get comments from people asking how he likes Fresno compared to San Francisco. He said he debunks Fresno’s stereotypes and tells questioners that 15 minutes is considered a long commute here, unlike the Bay Area.

“We feel that Fresno for us ideal,” he said. “It’s a friendly business climate, where a lot of cities are not. The people are lower key in general in the Valley than they are in the bigger cities, and government tends to be available and open and cordial.”