Spokane Industries taps niche

Journal of Business
By Kim Crompton

SPOKANE, WA-Spokane Industries, Inc., the longtime castings and metal fabricated product manufacturer here, says it’s experiencing mostly steady sales growth companywide and finding encouraging market expansion opportunities in its custom stainless steel fabrication division.

In particular, it points to the successes it’s had to date in tapping niche demand for large beverage tanks that it’s producing for storing and processing wine, beer, and spirits, and for its mobile aviation vacuum fuel drain systems.

One of its newest products targeting the wine industry is the CleanSweep No Entry Fermenter, which it makes available on tanks of 25-ton capacity or larger. The system enhances worker safety and improves efficiency, the company says, by removing pulpy grape residue mechanically with the touch of a button, eliminating the need for workers to enter the tanks and clean them manually.

Introduced two years ago with a 10-tank installation at the 14 Hands Winery in Prosser, Wash., Spokane Industries says it now is fabricating eight more tanks for 14 Hands and seeing strong demand for the product from other sizable wineries.

“We think it’s truly a groundbreaking product,” says Greg Tenold, president of Spokane Industries. “These tanks are just plain more efficient.”

Meanwhile, the company says it also is seeing a lot of strong customer demand for its SealVac Vacuum Fuel Drain System, which is a mobile unit designed to drain fuel from military and commercial aircraft quickly and with no fuel spills.

“We see it as a big market oversees,” Tenold says.

To be sure, these two products – both manufactured in its metal products division, where the company does custom stainless steel fabrication work – still represent just a fraction of its total production. That division also manufactures other products, and the company has two other divisions – steel castings and precision castings – that continue to produce components for a broad range of industrial and defense applications.

In fact, the steel castings division, which is the company’s oldest division, still generates about two-thirds of the company’s revenue. The division focuses on making metal castings of parts for the construction, mining, and transportation industries, among others.

Tenold declined to discuss the company’s revenues, but says that aside from a couple of years over the last decade or so, “In general, we’ve experienced good steady growth in all three of our divisions.”

Spokane Industries occupies a total of about 265,000 square feet of space in five buildings in the northeast corner of the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, at 3808 N. Sullivan. It now employs 269 people, which is down slightly from 278 last year, but up from about 250 10 years ago, when it reported annual sales of more than $26 million.

The company was founded here in 1952 as Spokane Steel Foundry by the late John C. Tenold to provide quality castings to mines, ore mills, and the lumber and construction industries. It moved to the Spokane Industrial Park in 1965. It established the metal products division in 1978 and changed its name to Spokane Industries in 1981 to better reflect its two divisions. It created the precision castings division in 1991 to provide what are called investment castings – often small wear parts, formed using wax and ceramic molds – for commercial, medical, industrial, and manufacturing applications.

The company now is owned by three of the founder’s sons – Greg, Bob, and Tyrus. Bob is company chairman, and Tyrus is president of the casting division.

“We run it as a board. It’s run collectively,” Greg Tenold says.

The company says on its website that, along with its second-generation ownership, it also has many second- and third-generation employees.

Though Spokane Industries uses longtime processes for much of its metal fabrication work, Tenold says it employees a large team of engineers, invests continuously in research and product development, and has been awarded numerous patents.

Of its steady emphasis on innovation, he says, “It’s part of our culture. It’s definitely not top down. It’s, ‘How can we make things better?'”

In its metal products division, it has been making large custom stainless steel tanks for years, but division manager Nate Batson says the CleanSweep No Entry Fermenter targeted at the wine industry is “a unique product we have that no one else has.”

It uses a precisely engineered sweep arm, driven by a hydraulic motor-gearbox combination, to remove sediment from the large tanks and to make tank-cleaning a one-person job, he says. Since the cleaning operation is done from outside the tank, workers no longer are exposed to hazards associated with breathing concentrated carbon-dioxide in a confined space.

Although the company has been producing custom stainless steel tanks for years for things such as wine, beer, spirits, water, and industrial chemicals, it says it’s just starting to produce them for the dairy industry, and Tenold says, “We’re placing a big emphasis on that.”

As for its SealVac Vacuum Fuel Drain System, Spokane Industries says it’s hoping to continue to expand sales commercially and overseas after having established strong relationships with military customers.

“It took us a long time to get the Air Force comfortable with attaching something to their aircraft (that can quickly drain fuel), but they’ve come to learn that it’s very safe, and it’s very efficient and it’s a great time save for them,” Tenold says.

The SealVac attaches to aircraft sump points with drain tools that use a compressed air-generated vacuum seal. The drain hose that attaches to the system is able to drain fuel into a holding tank much faster than gravity, potentially saving hours of time that an aircraft is idled for maintenance, Tenold and Batson say. It also prevents the fuel from spilling onto maintenance workers’ clothing or skin, thereby eliminating a potential health hazard, they say.

Spokane Industries says users of its SealVac system include virtually all U.S. military branches, some foreign countries’ air forces, and a sizable number of major aircraft manufacturers and air carriers.

Other related products it makes include the SealVac Plus Vacuum Fuel Drain and Recovery System, which filters drained fuel for reuse; a HandiFueler Ground Support Service Card, which is designed to service aircraft fuel, fluid, and tire needs in a single trip; and the HandiFueler Helicopter Maintenance Cart.