Five months and counting: stories of the Colorado maker and manufacturing economy

Feb 04, 2014

Five months ago we introduced CompanyWeek, digital and events media conceived to take an unprecedented view of the Rocky Mountain maker, manufacturing, and built-environment economy.

Since then we’ve profiled nearly 70 companies in ten or so different industry sectors. We’ve learned a lot along the way:

· We asked each company to articulate the challenges, opportunities, and needs shaping their business. (We summarized responses in a CompanyWeek white paper; read or download it here.) Easily the top challenge in the manufacturing and maker economy is a lack of qualified employees. The steady loss of manufacturing jobs, to ‘globalization’ and the recession, has resulted in a ‘skills-gap’ today. Policy-makers and educators are racing to fill the gap, but the reality is that manufacturing won’t be ‘back’ until we’re well underway educating the workforce for the next, ‘new’ manufacturing economy.

· The community of policy wonks, economic developers, and media also lag in understanding how the new manufacturing economy is reconstituting - at least in the Rocky Mountain region. Here, machiners and advanced industrial manufacturers have been joined by a new and dynamic cadre of lifestyle, food, beverage, technology and software makers. Trends that favor ‘buy local’ and ‘made-in-America’ appear to be enduring; they’re also an engine for entrepreneurship and innovation.

· Economic development efforts tend to tilt ‘top-down’ in the hunt for flagship companies and big wins, while broad, sustained growth in regional making and manufacturing is materializing from small and midsize companies, up.

· Companies we’ve profiled point to a state and local ‘promotions gap’ as a result – especially for firms not located along the Front Range. The ‘official’ story of Colorado manufacturing remains one of large, Denver-metro companies.

· Business is compensating. Industry efforts are underway to establish tools to better connect companies with each other – first regionally. Western slope companies are looking west and south to form new regional alliances. Business is finding a way.

· More companies would like to make things here and are actively looking to do so. But a new opportunity/cost equilibrium has yet to materialize in sectors like apparel and sports accessories that would profoundly change the manufacturing equation for business. Companies would benefit from a concerted effort to lowering the barriers to ‘on-shoring’, in Colorado and the region.

· There’s some nervousness in Colorado’s highest-profile ‘maker’ category. Craft brewers are fretting, privately, about whether the market is still able to support the still-steady stream of new business launches. This despite a collegial atmosphere in the craft brewing community that continues to attract talent and money, and support growth from the inside out.

· Colorado’s natural food business is a model of innovation. Companies like Fresca Foods are a catalyst for growth, providing manufacturing, packing, and technical services to promising food brands. Operators like Rudi’s Organic have written new rules for brand extension. The progeny of Colorado’s natural foods pioneers are ripping it.

· Government and industry appear well aligned in support of entrepreneurship and business incubation. But for companies in post-launch mode, problems fester, the most acute being a lack of adequate second-stage capital. Colorado, for one, is also leading in the effort to provide business export services and expertise to help firms open new markets.

· The ‘maker’ movement is poised to explode. A hit last year in northern Colorado, with over 3000 attendees, Denver will be home to a Mini Maker Faire in May 2014. Sparkfun, Otterbox, and other name manufacturing brands are enthusiastic supporters.

Finally, makers and manufacturers of all stripes like to convene and celebrate the trade. And why not? A sample of photos below from the first CompanyWeek reception, hosted by Workplace Resource, the exclusive commercial dealer for the iconic American-made furniture brand, Herman Miller.

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