A Shell Game

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
John Tytus
Bill Tytus, president of
Pocock Racing Shells in Everett, has led the company into becoming one of the
top suppliers of racing shells in the country.

The first time he visited the crew boathouseat Syracuse University in 1992, John Tytus
says he noticed something odd about the facilities. “The men had a full locker
room upstairs that was spacious and pretty nice,” says Tytus, 35, who rowed on
the Orange crew from 1992 to 1996 and now directs sales for Pocock Racing
Shells in Everett. But wedged downstairs in a corner of the boathouse, the
Syracuse women’s crew changed clothes in a room that Tytus says was “about as
big as a clothes closet.”

Syracuse’s locker room arrangements were the norm for
college crews in the early ’90s, when competitive college rowing was dominated
by lanky guys like the six-foot, four-and-a-half-inch Tytus and women were an
afterthought. In 1997, that changed. That was the year the NCAA belatedly
recognized Title IX of the Federal Education Amendment, originally passed in
1972, and began sponsoring national championship racing for women rowers. The
NCAA’s decision started a tide of cash flowing into college rowing programs for
women.

At Syracuse, the women got a spacious new locker room of their
own, and other college athletic departments at schools like Michigan, Ohio
State and the University of Virginia that had been allocating millions to
male-dominated sports like football and basketball—and not much to women’s
athletics—suddenly became gender sensitive. Washington State University, for
example, elevated its women’s crew—but not the men—to a varsity sport, making
the team eligible for scholarships and financial support from the school’s
athletic department. Clemson’s women’s crew now rows out of what Tytus
describes as “a Taj Mahal” of a boathouse.

“The guys,” he says, “still row out of a shed.”

John Boyer
On the floor of Pocock Racing Shells' factory,

employee John Boyer preps a hull for
a second layup.

For Pocock, the NCAA’s decision to support Title IX was a
lifesaver. George Pocock began building sleek wooden racing boats for the
University of Washington in 1911 in an unlighted former tearoom on Lake Union,
and for decades afterward, the family-owned company dominated the business of
making college racing shells in the United States. Pocock boats, hand-crafted
like fine furniture, brought back Olympic gold for Seattle rowers and national
rowing titles for the UW. But by 1985, when Bill Tytus, John’s dad, bought the
company from Seattle rowing icon Stan Pocock, the company was floundering.

“Stan was a dear friend, but he was getting old,” says Bill
Tytus, 63, a former championship rower who gave his son the middle name Pocock,
and who still heads the company as president. “Colleges were buying the hotshot
composite boats and Pocock was still making wooden boats. Sales were down to
maybe 50 boats a year.” The company, he says, was close to shutting down.

Under Title IX, schools receiving federal funding were required to
encourage more women to participate in intercollegiate sports. Perhaps more
important, they had to spend proportionately on men’s and women’s sports
programs. Critics grumbled that the NCAA was slow to respond to the federal
mandate while college athletic directors complained, in turn, that traditional
women’s sports like field hockey and soccer just didn’t consume enough cash resources
to match their big-time football and basketball programs—an important
distinction because Title IX measures compliance by the amount of money devoted
to women’s sports compared with that given to men’s sports.

By the mid-’90s, says Tytus, “a bunch of athletic directors
were sitting around drinking cocktails and they decided women’s crew was an
easy way to get Title IX off their backs.” Crew can indeed cost a pile when a
boathouse, training equipment, coaches and all the other paraphernalia that goes
with messing about in $35,000 boats are added up. Since most college crews race
boats with eight rowers and a coxswain, and serious programs often put several
boats at a time on the water at the varsity and freshman levels, “women’s crew
became a big factor in meeting the Title IX requirements,” says Brett Johnson,
director of operations for USRowing, a Princeton, N.J.-based organization that
oversees many of crew’s competitive events.           

In 1997, USRowing had about 70 women’s rowing programs in
its membership, Johnson says. Last year, that number was up to 140. Moreover,
as women’s crew has grown at the collegiate level, the sport’s popularity has
spilled over to postcollege, or Masters, programs, many of which are populated
by middle-aged women and mothers whose daughters took up rowing in college. To
meet Title IX requirements, colleges now award athletic scholarships to
promising young female rowers, making women’s crew prominent at the high school
level. In Florida, for example, the number of high schools with rowing programs
has climbed from 15 to 47 in the past decade. “When a bunch of parents in
Arkansas find out their daughters can get a full ride to a major university,”
says Bill Tytus, “rowing starts to look pretty interesting.”

Seattle’s Green Lake junior crew program, sponsored by the
city’s Parks and Recreation department and the Rowing Advisory Council, now
draws 130 high school rowers annually, from Everett to south Seattle, says
Patricia McCarrier, the program’s director. Ninety of the junior rowers are
women and McCarrier says most of them get rowing scholarships when they
graduate.

Pocock began focusing on women’s rowing in 1997 when Bill
Tytus designed a racing shell specifically for women. The boat was roomier than
the men’s racing craft, with less drag through the water. “Women,” explains
Tytus, “have a center of gravity that is considerably aft of men.” When the UW
women won national championship gold medals in Pocock’s new boat in 2001 and
2002 and a silver in 2003, orders came rolling in from other schools.

“In crew,” says John Tytus, “you buy the boat that beats
you.”

By 2002, Pocock’s annual sales had grown to 240 boats and
the company was grossing about $2 million annually. Sales drifted down to 160
boats last year as the recession forced cutbacks in college spending on men’s
sports, pulling down Title IX-driven spending on women’s crew as well. But this
year, the Tytuses expect to sell about 200 boats and gross $2 million. Pocock’s
Everett workroom, located in a hangar-like building nestled next to Boeing’s
much larger aircraft hangars, is bustling these days, with 14 employees,
including the Tytuses, working on 20 racing shells in various stages of
construction. Two-thirds of the boats, says John Tytus, will go to women’s
crews.

The proximity to Boeing is no coincidence. Early on, when
business was slow and still housed on the shore of Lake Union, Boeing hired
Pocock to build pontoons for float planes. Boeing eventually took its business
in another direction, but came back in 1995, hiring Tytus to design and build
prototypes of winglets for the aircraft maker’s fleet of 737s and 747s. The
contract lasted six years and produced some unusual designs, pulling Pocock
through some hard years until the racing-shell business kicked back in. “It was
good money that came along just when we needed it,” says Bill Tytus.

But the industry is not without competition. Pocock’s
strongest rivalry, in the way collegiate sports can be, is with New Haven,
Conn.-based Vespoli. Sales of Vespoli’s racing shells have climbed even faster
than Pocock’s. Last year, says Mike Vespoli, the company’s chief executive, the
business sold 425 boats, giving it the top spot over Pocock. The two firms
compete fiercely for college and high school business—Vespoli boasts he snagged
John Tytus’ alma mater, Syracuse, this year, and got a toehold on the West
Coast recently by wrapping up a sale to the University of California at
Berkeley crew. Tytus won Green Lake away from Vespoli three years ago and says
he’s sold the program $500,000 in new boats since then. Half of Pocock’s boats
go to college programs, he says, including East Coast crew powerhouses like
Navy, Harvard and Cornell.

Still, Pocock and Vespoli were both disappointed when the UW
varsity men’s and women’s crews chose top-of-the-line, German-made Empachers to
race in during the past two years. Last year, the UW men’s heavyweights won the
IRA (Intercollegiate Rowing Association) championship in the German boat, which
cost $45,000 compared with Pocock’s priciest shell, which is $10,000 cheaper.
“Empacher is expensive,” says UW women’s crew coach Bob Ernst. But, he adds,
“Empacher is the best flying machine in the world.”

That opinion hurts. Empachers are the racing shell of choice
these days for top-tier crews like Harvard’s varsity eight and Brown, which can
afford them. “It takes a brave coach to show up in a non-Empacher boat these
days,” says Mike Vespoli.

But Ernst has plenty of praise for Pocock as well. “They
build very good boats and they are very supportive of our program,” says Ernst,
who has coached both the UW’s top men’s and women’s crews and raced them in
Pococks in the past. UW crews practice in Pococks, which Ernst says are more
durable and easier to fix than the German racing boats. Currently, the UW boathouse
has 63 Pocock shells, along with two Vespolis and three Empachers.

John Tytus says he can live with those
numbers. “We’re competitive people,” he says. “We want to see our boats go fast
and win. But most of all we want to see our boats sell.”   

Related: The Crew Crew: Business connections made through crew racing.

Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

On its 50th anniversary, Redmond’s aerial-work-platform specialist celebrates by seeking new opportunities.
 
 

As the development surge continues apace in and around Seattle, aerial booms and scissor lifts crowd every construction site — and a local company quietly thrives.

Redmond-based Genie Industries, named 2014’s No. 1 aerial platform manufacturer by Access International magazine, is not only growing in the United States, but the maker of the ubiquitous blue and gray lift machines is also aggressively expanding its reach across more than 80 countries on almost every continent.

From one man who bought the rights to Genie’s original technology in the 1960s, the company has grown to employ 1,800 in Redmond and more than 3,800 worldwide. The equipment rental industry makes up most of Genie’s business, with 90 percent of its domestic sales going to rentals and 80 percent outside the United States.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Genie appreciates Seattle’s continuing boom in real estate development but sees its greatest growth potential occurring in China and South America as developing countries abandon bamboo scaffolding and tighten safety standards with modern lift technology such as Genie’s.

“There’s a lot of pride locally,” says Matt Fearon, president of Terex Aerial Work Platforms, “but traveling around the world, you cannot believe where you see these machines.”

Genie’s roots go back to 1966, when Bud Bushnell started working for Seattle Bronze, a company that produced hoists in Kent. The business faltered, so Bushnell bought rights to the technology and started Genie — its name inspired by the hissing sound of the compressed air used to raise the machine’s operator, like a genie rising from its bottle.

Beginning a history marked by impressive in-house innovation, Bushnell acquired the patent for the first Genie hoist in 1968. It was the same year Genie’s business got a big boost from a Japanese ironworks company representative who visited the Seattle area and ordered 15,000 hoists on the spot.

Based in Kirkland at the time, Genie traced much of its early growth through the 1970s to the emergence of the equipment-rental business. The swelling demand fostered a spirit of innovation and improvement that Fearon calls “part of our fabric.” In 1974, it introduced the Genie Teletower, which carried more weight than previous lifts. In 1984, it brought out the Z-Boom, which became the world’s most popular lift by carrying workers up and over other structures and obstacles to reach a work area, thereby improving workers’ reach and flexibility with a single machine.

The Z-Boom was a “groundbreaking innovation” that was soon adopted by other manufacturers, says Karen Stash, Genie’s senior director of global product management and marketing. Another Genie innovation is the X-chassis, which allowed the company to build a machine with a larger base that provided stability and also included an expanding axle design for flexibility in storing the booms. Too, Genie was first to introduce the world’s tallest self-propelled boom and hydraulic material lifts.

Bushnell emphasized customer service, Fearon says, making personal visits to clients to see how Genie’s equipment worked in the field and how it could be improved upon, as well as identifying unmet needs at construction sites.

In addition to maintaining a research and development department, Genie encourages ideas from the shop floor and has adopted much of this input, Fearon says.

Genie moved to Redmond in 1982 and grew during the next 20 years to nearly 1,500 employees. In 1998, it opened an additional manufacturing facility in Moses Lake, making Genie the largest employer in Grant County, according to the Grant County Economic Development Council.

In 2001, construction screeched to a near halt amid the turn-of-the-millennium recession, necessitating a different path to growth. Connecticut-based Terex Corporation, a maker of cranes and other massive manufacturing equipment, bought Genie in 2002, providing an infusion of cash, technology, new factories and global markets.

Terex opened new Genie-owned factories in China, Italy and the United Kingdom, not to outsource work but to get equipment to international customers faster, says Chad Hislop, one of two engineering directors at Genie. The Terex acquisition also brought with it a factory in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The factories are strategically situated so international customers can receive the products they order at the same speed North American customers do — in about two weeks. That helps the company offer the same level of service in each market. “You have to have local people who are building in the local markets,” Fearon explains.

Developing countries remain Genie’s biggest area for growth, he adds. In addition to the move to better safety standards, there’s an uptick in building projects. Meanwhile, the North American market is cooling off from a manufacturer’s perspective. Terex reported first-quarter sales in its Aerial Work Platforms business were flat, at $520.2 million, compared to the same period in 2015.

The rising markets today are in China and Western Europe, Fearon says, but Genie also hopes to capitalize on South American markets where developing countries are improving infrastructure, building airports and modernizing ports.

Genie has three factories in Redmond, where the company builds scissor lifts and other products. Workers operate under a regimented lean manufacturing schedule, performing assigned tasks in 10 minutes before moving on to the next machine. A total of 10 hours of work goes into each machine. Genie’s international factories employ the same Lean approach.

“The sun never sets on the Z-45,” Hislop quips, referring to a Genie boom that lifts workers nearly 52 feet in the air.

Genie remains headquartered in Redmond to maintain the small-business spirit the company was founded upon and to retain the talent and loyalty of workers, many of whom have stayed with the company for decades.

“You can’t easily duplicate years of experience,” says Fearon, who believes the Pacific Northwest culture draws many employees and clients to Genie. A new administration office, which opened in Redmond within the past year, is a nice addition. Overlooking hills of evergreen trees, Fearon calls it “a fantastic place to bring customers.”

New digs or not, Genie’s customer base is loyal and enthusiastic. Tom Hammerslag, the owner of Great Lakes Access, an aerial-lift dealer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, likes Genie products because Genie genuinely likes his patronage. “The Genie guys care,” Hammerslag says. “You go to the factory [and] people hug you. They’re warm and welcoming because Genie always knew they needed their customers more than their customers needed them.”

Paul Zaremba, principal at SkyKing Lift Rentals in Bloomingdale, Illinois, adds that Genie stands above the competition because of its history and its innovation. “It’s real simple,” he says. “They make stuff that other people don’t. We tell other vendors, ‘If you don’t want us to buy from Genie, then you need to compete with them, and you don’t. You don’t make a 3232 [scissor lift], you don’t make a push-around [aerial work platform] and you don’t make a Z-30 [self-propelled articulating boom].’”

While Genie has expanded globally to remain competitive, Fearon insists “Redmond is an important part of our past and our future.” So much so that, when Genie engineers are offered positions abroad, they’re loath to leave the Puget Sound region.

Part of that attachment is no doubt attributable to living in such a geographically blessed place as the Seattle area. But Fearon believes Genie’s commitment to continuous improvement fosters a sense of community and loyalty that’s hard to match.

The philosophy, he says, is instilled in temporary and permanent workers alike in the hope that whatever they learn at Genie, they will apply to their work at Genie — or wherever they go next. “At Genie,” Fearon says, “we feel that anybody who sets foot in Genie will walk away with a higher set of skills than when they walked in the door.”

PARENTING ISSUES
In June, Genie’s parent company, Terex Corporation, abandoned merger talks with China’s Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Company. Terex had consented to an acquisition by Zoomlion for $3.4 billion, but talks fell apart, with both sides blaming the other for the failure. After terminating discussions with Zoomlion, Terex agreed to sell its Material Handling and Port Solutions business to Konecranes of Finland for $1.3 billion. That deal is expected to close next January. Terex had earlier planned to merge with Konecranes before Zoomlion came forward with a seemingly sweeter deal.