Driving north on Highway 97, you have to wonder what kind of wingnut would build a snowboard factory in the southern Washington town of Goldendale. Located in Klickitat County, Goldendale's ex-timber economy is now centered around the cattle industry and an aluminum factory. The entire region is economically depressed.
However, this makes the success of the France Group factory even more important to the community. In February, the town approved a 300,000-dollar loan to the France Group through the Community Development Block Grant program, which is designed to fund economic development primarily benefiting low and moderate-income households.
Pacific International, a small publicly held company owned by Binks Gravel, acquired The France Group from Pacific Northwest trash magnate Ty Ross in January, 1999. The factory has 21 presses and a annual capacity of 250,000 snowboards–although only a fraction of that is being currently utilized.
According to Jim Fraser, general manager of the France Group, between 30,000 and 50,000 24/7 snowboards will be built this year, with Japan and Canada the primary markets. The company is actively pursuing additional OEM business.
With the possibility that the France Group factory could eventually employ more than 75 local workers, the town wants to see it succeed and expand.
But growth like that is still a ways away, and improvements to the factory will be a necessary first step before production is able to ramp up, says Mike Plunkett, the new vice president of manufacturing for the France Group.
When SNOWboarding Business visited the factory in June, Plunkett was just beginning a ten-day factory restructuring program that would update some of the machinery and streamline the production line.
For the past 28 years, Plunkett has been producing either water skis, wakeboards, skateboards, or snowboards. “He was building skateboards for Tom Sims in 1974 and has making snowboards since 1978,” says France Group R&D Director Gavin Meyers. “Mike gives me 100-percent confidence that product performance and quality will advance.”
Plunkett says moving to Goldendale with two teenaged children and leaving a nearly completed custom house in Huntington Beach was a challenge, but that the opportunity was too good to pass up. “We want to be able to walk before we run, but this factory has tremendous potential,” he says.
In this time of overcapacity and consolidation, expertise like Plunkett's isn't a luxury, it's a precursor for survival.