Trading Huge Telecom for a Startup: RelianceCM's Big Risk
Corvallis, Oregon, seems an unlikely high-tech town. Once a center for logging, small produce farms that now grow mint and fescue grass surround the university town of about 55,000 people.
But in the 1970s, Hewlett-Packard built a massive plant on the outskirts of Corvallis, bringing with it a wave of technology talent. In those early years, the factory assembled handheld calculators, HP's first personal computers and eventually became known for perfecting ink jet printing.
As HP's business shifted over the decades, some of its scientists and engineers left to start their own businesses in Corvallis, creating a base of manufacturing and technical businesses. In addition, Oregon State University helped to supply an educated workforce that allowed Corvallis to compete against the larger metropolitan areas of Portland to the north and Eugene to the south.
One of those companies was RelianceCM, a contract manufacturing company that for the better part of two decades operated under the name MegaTech. During the 1990s, the company ran three shifts as a "board stuffer," cranking out thousands of circuit boards mostly for the telecommunications industry.
Circuit boards, now a multibillion dollar global industry, are both the brains and brawn of virtually all the technology products we use. They are most often made from copper boards upon which wire circuits are soldered, connecting the dots to resistors and capacitors that make technology work. The computer, phone or handheld device you're reading this on works because of circuit boards.
By 2013, RelianceCM's biggest telecomm customer shifted its circuit board manufacturing to China. But instead of closing up shop, the company saw an opportunity in the now-booming hardware start-up world where entrepreneurs needed small batches of circuit boards to test their ideas and start small-scale manufacturing.
That's when David Schroeder, the now 28-year-old son of the company's third owner Scott Schroeder, decided to do what most companies consider unthinkable: throw away 25 years of history and get rid of the MegaTech brand name.
Scott wasn't in love with the old name, "but I thought he was crazy," the elder Schroeder remembers thinking when David told him they needed to change it. Still he took the leap of faith and said yes to a new name.
The name, RelianceCM, focuses attention on the company's ability to provide hardware startups with hands-on help, reliable circuit boards and a sustainable supply chain. Still it wasn't easy giving up on the name, even one like MegaTech. "It was a scary process," David says. "We didn't just shorten the name. It was gone. Flushed outside of the system. We don't use it anymore."
The Odd Couple
David never expected to join his father's business, let alone overhaul its image for hardware startups. He graduated with a marketing degree from Oregon State with every intention of doing something that probably didn't involve MegaTech.
But it was 2008 and the country was sliding precipitously into the Great Recession. "I never pictured myself here," David says of the company's non-descript office and manufacturing space in a small industrial park a few minutes' drive from the city's picturesque downtown. "But it's what I knew."
Unlike past generations of children who joined the family business and stayed the course, David didn't want to just fill his father's shoes. He wanted to create his own path. But first, his dad put him to work on the factory floor, learning the process of creating circuit boards with people who have worked on the small and often delicate products for more than a decade.
That gave him hands-on experience, so that when he stepped into the role of business development manager a couple of years later, "he knew what he is talking about," Scott says of courting prospective clients.
Around the same time David joined the company, Patty Baker came on as the company's office manager. She too was looking for a way through the recession and, like David, she wasn't content with how the company was selling itself to the outside world. Nor did she want to be an office manager for the rest of her career.
The recession, however, made it tough to risk much at the small company. But when Monaco, a client who made recreational vehicles went bankrupt, Patty and David saw a business that might help them get through the tough economic climate. They decided to continue sourcing those parts from other suppliers, essentially acting as a parts supplier, and help get those products directly to consumers. The risk paid off. "It got us through the deepest part of the recession," Scott says.
Because of this success, Scott says it was obvious that Patty was the perfect candidate to replace the company's sales manager when he retired. Patty chose the title of relationship manager when the company shifted its focus as it rebranded itself RelianceCM.
Patty, 48, jokes that when they walk in to sell the company's abilities to new customers she knows they are thinking who are "the middle-aged lady and the kid?"
But the odd couple combination has worked. David often starts out taking the technical questions and Patty connects with people over topics outside of even contract manufacturing. But the conversations don't always end that way. "A person I would expect D (her nickname for David) to get on with ends up talking to me and vice versa."
Patty says traveling and meeting clients together helped her and David come to the decision that RelianceCM needed to be a company that entrepreneurs would have confidence in. They wanted their company to be able to meet the start-up mentality -- a business model that requires fast and flexible manufacturing.
"Who do we want to talk to as customers and at that point we were talking to a lot more startups -- which we had always called them 'new customers' -- but these people had a new mindset," she says. "They weren't just the engineers that we had been trying to present to. They were entrepreneurs with a broader vision."