Athletic and outdoor companies in Portland, Ore., partner to spur economic development

Companies in Portland, Ore., have joined forces to make their region the commercial epicenter of the outdoor and athletic industries.
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Portland, Ore., has always been known as a city of fit folks who love the outdoors, but someday it might also reign supreme as the commercial epicenter of the outdoor and athletic industries.

At least that’s the hope of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group, a team of Portland companies formed over the past two years to spur economic development of athletic and outdoor product manufacturers in the area. (Click here to read more about the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group.)

“We have always recognized that these industries are strong in the Portland region, anchored by companies like Columbia Sportswear and adidas,” said Jennifer Nolfi, manager of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry team for the Portland Development Commission (www.pdc.us). “Our goal is to bring together industry leaders to make Portland a more competitive location for the companies here, as well as other companies that might consider Portland.”

The Athletic & Outdoor Industry group is one of four “clusters” of businesses that the city of Portland is promoting in hopes of growing jobs and strengthening the area’s economy. (The other clusters are clean tech, software and advanced manufacturing.)

In addition to Columbia Sportswear and adidas, companies in the Athletic & Outdoor Industry cluster include such brands as Nautilus, Nike, Icebreaker, Keen, Horny Toad, Danner/LaCrosse, Leatherman and Yakima.

The cluster also includes schools and organizations such as the PDC, Oregon Business Development Department, Oregon Business Council, Portland State University, Impresa Economics and the University of Bern.

Over the next two years, members of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group will form partnerships to create educational programs for employees, develop ways for companies to better tap into the area’s large pool of skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and also launch mentoring programs so companies can share knowledge. At the same time, the city of Portland will find ways to raise the profile of businesses within the various clusters.

On Nov. 16, leaders of several athletic and outdoor companies joined Portland Mayor Sam Adams at an event to announce results from a recent study on the history and growth of Portland’s athletic and outdoor business sector, and potential ways to grow employment.

According to the study, titled “Athletic & Outdoor, A Signature Industry for the Portland Region,” Portland companies that serve the athletic and outdoor industries employ more than 14,000 workers statewide. This sector of business includes some 700 firms with a payroll that totaled nearly $1.2 billion in 2008. It also includes about 3,200 self-employed people who generate sales revenues of more than $95 million.

“This Athletic & Outdoor Industry work represents an important component of the city's strategy to create new jobs for Portland,” Adams told attendees at the event. “Portland is the home of the best brands in the industry, and I’m pleased to see such a strong public-private effort to further job growth in the A&O sector."

A key element of the effort is to develop partnerships between companies so they can improve the skills of their workforce. “We’re relatively new to the area, and we’re a young company, and the average age of our employees is less than 30,” Icebreaker general manager Lisa Thompson told SNEWS®. “I would love to set up mentoring sessions for our people.”

A major challenge for athletic and outdoor companies is pulling in talented employees. While Portland has a large pool of young, highly educated people, competition among companies to recruit them is fierce. Members of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group hope to more aggressively market their business sector to raise awareness among prospective employees.

“It’s great if we can hire really talented design folks that grew up here and live here and are trained here,” Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear, told SNEWS. While athletic and outdoor companies in Portland compete with each other for employees, Boyle and Thompson of Icebreaker said companies seem willing to work together for the greater good of their industries.

“At the end of the day, it’s good for the municipality and the area, so we’re supporting it,” said Boyle, adding that the concept of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group has “been very well-received.”

James Curleigh, CEO of Keen, said that his company could become stronger by participating in the group. “Being in the ‘cluster’ has helped Keen to deliver a ‘complacency prevention plan’ and a ‘competence improvement plan,’” he told SNEWS. “We recognize that you can draw strength from being surrounded by some of the best in the business.”

Nolfi of the PDC said the next goal of the Athletic & Outdoor Industry group, as well as the other clusters, is to establish a materials resource library, which could open in the fall of 2011. “This would not only serve athletic and outdoor companies, but those in other industries as well,” said Nolf. “That will go a long way to support the industry but also establish Portland as a design center.”

Nolfi said Portland’s new approach to economic development is a departure from the norm. “The old model of economic development was recruitment,” said Nolfi. While the city of Portland wants to eventually draw companies from other areas of the country, it first wants to strengthen companies in town, and then, eventually, outsiders will recognize that Portland is a good place to set up shop.

“The emphasis has changed,” Nolfi said. “It’s now about growing local companies and helping them access the resources they need.”

--Marcus Woolf

*Photo courtesy of the Portland Development Commission.

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