As told to Amy Gunderson
While manufacturing has largely left Silicon Valley for Asia, Noreen King has built her contract manufacturing company, Evolve Manufacturing Technologies, into a $14.8 million-a-year business. After riding the highs and lows of the microchip industry, last year King decided to shift focus and produce products for biotech and medical companies instead. And this summer, the company moved into a new 45,000-square-foot facility, three times larger than its old digs, proving that this is one Silicon Valley manufacturer that isn't going anywhere.
Before starting Evolve, I ran operations for a foreign-owned company that manufactured a chemical mechanical polishing machine--a big, complex piece of equipment used by chip makers. It became a very unhappy place to work. Top management was in perpetual turnover, which often resulted in brutal office politics.
I managed 35 people, the largest head count in the company. As a woman in a position like that, there is usually someone gunning for you, but in an unstable environment with everyone vying for power, it's 10 times worse.
One of my co-workers and I decided we wanted to get out very badly, and that motivated us to think about what we could do working for ourselves. We came to what we knew--manufacturing. It took about two months to come up with a plan but a year to get the first order. By that time, my partner had moved on.
It was the most stressful time of my whole life. I still had a full-time job, and I was using my credit card to start the business. There were so many times when the sensible thing to do was walk away.
I met a potential client at a trade show in 1998, and he told me that his company was looking for someone to make parts for its robots. I called just about every week, and he would tell me, "We should be doing this very soon." Finally, after a year, they gave me a call.
By the time I got that order, I had quit the foreign-owned company and taken a job as an outsourcing manager at another company. I wasn't ready to go full-time at Evolve. The stress continued. There weren't enough hours in the day. I created manufacturing documentation at night, and several times a week I would have to meet with a customer's engineers to review the documents. I always wanted to meet at lunch. This double duty lasted three months and almost drove me crazy.
I was frustrated, because I couldn't do a good job when I was working full-time. Once I had more work than I could handle in my spare time, I knew it was do or die.
Evolve initially made parts for machines that make computer chips. But that is such a boom-and-bust industry. I never knew where it was going. For semiconductor companies, six months out is a really long time.
Last year, I decided to move away from that industry and instead focus more on working with biotech and medical companies. They plan their businesses a year or two ahead which, obviously, makes our work more predictable. Our revenue took a hit initially, but the decision was a wise one. We're on track to get to $50 million in the next two years.
The products we build are complicated. We built a machine that uses fluorescent imaging to show how fast drugs move through laboratory mice. In the past, the mice would have to have been cut open. Machines like this can speed the time to market for new drugs.