It all ended one day, with no fanfare. The trailers laden with Douglas firs that had rumbled past Bob Praegitzer's office stopped coming. There were no more lumberjacks swearing in their cabs, no more power saws buzzing in the yard.
Praegitzer, one of the most successful loggers in western Oregon, moved into a new building 1,000 feet down the road -- and, in effect, into a new century as well. After 30 years of felling huge trees, he was jumping into the high-technology business of printed circuit boards. It is an industry in which success depends on an exquisitely fine touch: Hundreds of circuit lines, each thinner than a human hair, must be etched onto a glass board. Instead of cumbersome axes and power saws, his instruments would be drilling machines accurate to within one-thousandth of an inch.
To his shocked bankers, who knew Praegitzer as a tough logging man, it seemed that the moon had reversed its orbit around the earth. It was one thing, they felt, to lend him money for timbering the mountain slopes. It was quite another to finance him in a business that they knew nothing about. "My banker," Praegitzer says now, "couldn't understand any business proposal that reached his desk without tree bark on it." His banker might have returned the barb. Unlike hundreds of other high-tech entrepreneurs, whose pedigrees reach back to the computer labs of Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University, Praegitzer knew almost nothing about the technology of his new venture.
Indeed, only a dizzying boom-and-bust cycle seemed to link logging and circuit boards. Fortunes in logging are made and lost on movements of the housing market. Makers of circuit boards, poised on the fringe of the electronics industry, are even more vulnerable. In the two years since he opened his new plant, Bob Praegitzer has learned much about this similarity -- the hard way.
Praegitzer, who is 53, prospered from the ups and downs of the logging business; he says that logging made him financially secure 20 years ago. Even so, he is not a man given to show. His only displays of wealth are his brown Porsche and the recreational vehicle that he drives to Palm Springs, Calif., or to the Oregon coast to angle for salmon. And although he employs three of his four children, giving them a start in manufacturing and custodial jobs, they labor under his expectation that they, like him, will be self-made.
Dallas, Ore., where Praegitzer grew up, is a universe removed from the high-tech whirlwind of Silicon Valley. Nestled against the Coastal Range 60 miles south of Portland, it is a rural community in which cows sometimes graze on front lawns. In the fall, one of Praegitzer's associates takes afternoons off to drive a combine.
Praegitzer's first job as a boy was on a local farm, where he earned the $70 he needed in 1944 to buy a green Model A Ford. Only 13, he fibbed about his age to obtain a driver's license. During the war, even a vintage Model A was impressive. "Anybody who drove his own car to school was a pretty big wheel," says Praegitzer with a chuckle. A school buddy, Vern Perry, remembers how they used their cars: "We chased girls and drank booze." But Praegitzer had a serious side, too. "When we were kids, there wasn't a lot of money around. Bob always wanted a better life, and he started working for it," says Perry, who now owns his own logging company in Dallas.
Bored by school and fired up by the idea of earning a living, Praegitzer dropped out at age 14, after the ninth grade. In those glory days of Oregon logging, sawmills hugged the road almost every mile, welcoming burly young men who could handle the huge logs in the yard. Again lying about his age -- this time to obtain a work permit -- Praegitzer got a job in a sawmill working on the "green chain," pulling cut timber off the line and stacking it.
Praegitzer became a boss at 18, and he has never forgotten the experience. Promoted to foreman of a mill work crew despite being the youngest of the group, he found that the men laughed at him when he gave orders. Frustrated, he went to the mill owner, intending to quit. "He said I should go out and fire someone, that if I wanted to be boss I should go fire George," says Praegitzer. "Well, it was a tough thing to do. I went out and told George that we didn't need him any more. From then on I was boss. It was a helluva good lesson in my life."
In 1951, at the age of 20, Praegitzer quit his job. "I decided that I couldn't stand to work like my father, going to work at the same place at the same time every day for 40 years," he says. "I needed a challenge." At the time, two uncles were cutting timber from a 450-acre tract near Dallas, and Praegitzer asked them for the rights to mill the logs. Commitment in hand, he and a partner from school days bought a small portable mill on credit for $1,500.
The partner sold out six months later to Vern Perry, Praegitzer's old buddy; together they borrowed another $8,000 to buy a much larger, stationary sawmill. The new mill was their entry into the big-time logging business, and the two men, still in their early twenties, invested all they had to increase their capacity by 40% in only two years. "We just worked hard and didn't spend much money on booze," says Perry.
With a strong market going, the partners felt ready to make their fortune. They hired a hardworking crew of mill hands, who lived with their families close by in a small shantytown of rough lumber and tar paper. Then, one day after work, Perry and Praegitzer went five miles down the road past other mills to look at a stand of timber. Looking back, they saw a column of smoke -- and it seemed to be billowing from their mill. They raced back in time to see the last of it consumed in flames. Praegitzer is still saddened by the loss nearly 30 years later. "We were ready to cut a fat hog that year, and then the mill burned down," he says mournfully.
Their insurance was meager, so the pair were suddenly $50,000 in debt. They cut that in half by selling timber. Then Perry quit, feeling he could do better as a paid hand than as an owner. "My accountant said I was crazy to take over the business," Praegitzer says. "But I had faith in myself." Times were hard. "I hunted from necessity," he says. "My kids ate a lot of venison."
His break came when he discovered a niche in the timber business. All the local loggers were cutting the majestic conifers, like Douglas fir; Praegitzer saw a market opening for the smaller and scrubbier hardwoods, such as alder, which are used to make furniture. But at first, he couldn't get the logs to the hardwood mill in Eugene, because the truckers refused to haul them. "The truckers would haul one load and never come back," he says."They didn't want to be seen with these logs. On the road they'd pass their buddies, who'd be carrying stately Douglas fir, while they'd have brush on their own truck." Other truckers wouldn't even bother loading his wood. "They'd say, 'I'm not going to haul that shit.' They'd see my wood and drive off."
The sawmill eventually sent its own trucks to pick up the wood, and Praegitzer finally made money, netting $21,000 that year and nearly eliminating his debt. That was an important turn in his fortunes: From then on, his business grew, although there were difficulties along the way. In bad economic times, which arrived frequently in the 1970s, he had to lay off some of his roughly 130 employees. He bought a veneer mill in southern Oregon in 1974, but shut it down 18 months later in a depressed market.
What bothered Praegitzer more than uncertainty, however, was his success. "I'd had visions that I was going to be the biggest logger in the area," he says. "When I was one of the biggest, there wasn't anyplace else to go. The challenge was gone. The excitement was gone." More and more disaffected with logging, he looked around for another business opportunity. He found it, entirely be serendipity. Praegitzer's friend Sally Evans, then a real estate agent, met an engineer named Ed Brown one day in the fall of 1980 at a local watering hole. They got to talking, and Evans asked Brown what he did. Brown, she learned, owned his own circuit-board company. And he was looking for backers.
Ed Brown, who had 20 years of experience in the business, had moved from California to Oregon two years earlier and, with two partners, had started a circuit-board shop called Marion Electronics on a $40,000 shoestring. With so little capital, he had to buy broken or obsolete equipment from the "bone yards" -- the backyard dumps -- of other board shops. He wanted to inject more capital into the business, and he asked Evans if she knew of anyone who might want to invest.
Within days, Brown met with Praegitzer to give him a tour of his facility. Nothing could have prepared the logger for Brown's ramshackle shop inside an old concrete cherry cannery with a Quonset roof. Because they use large quantities of acids and metals, even the best board shops can smell like a petrochemical plant.
"There was water all over the floors," Praegitzer remembers. "It was a mess. It stank. I was very turned off by the smells. I knew nothing about acids, and here I was walking around with a guy [Brown] who had lost his sight in one eye from acid."
Brown sensed he was in trouble, so he rushed Praegitzer up to Tektronix Inc., the large electronics company in Beaverton, 50 miles away. Tektronix had a much more impressive board shop, filled with shiny stainless steel equipment. For Praegitzer, it was a vision of what a well-capitalized shop could look like.
The two men didn't meet again for several months. Slowly, Praegitzer became more intrigued by the growth potential in electronics. Although circuit-board makers are as invisible to consumers as the folks who supply the buns for a McDonald's hamburger, they produce a sophisticated product that has contributed much to the dramatic miniaturization of electronics. To eliminate individual wires, which take up a lot of room, engineers developed techniques to "print" the wires on the surface of a board as extremely fine lines of conductive material. These printed wires connect hundreds of tiny electronic components plugged into the board. Sophisticated boards -- which have helped make possible products from satellites to desktop computers -- may have up to 22 layers of printed wires.
Figuring he could gain a stake in circuit boards inexpensively, Praegitzer offered Brown a guaranteed $50,000 line of credit at the bank in return for an option to buy 60% of the company's stock. But Brown's partners sold out to a Canadian company instead.
Within a few weeks, Brown moved into a back office of Praegitzer's logging shop to draw up a business plan and a layout for a new production facility. Now it was his turn to be shocked by an inside look at another industry. "I saw the loggers go in and out," recalls Brown. "They were roughneck guys. They had to talk twice as loud as normal because they still had buzz saws ringing in their ears."
These two men from different worlds, in their marriage of convenience, conducted an informal marketing survey of circuit-board demand in Oregon. They calculated that local electronics plants were using about $50 million worth of circuit boards each year, but only about 10% of that came from shops in Oregon. "We were looking at building a $3-million-to-$5-million-a-year plant," says Praegitzer, "so there was plenty of market to service."
Geography is an important factor in the business, because circuit boards involve both service and manufacturing. When electronics companies develop a new product, circuit boards are usually the last component designed but among the first needed. Board shops build prototypes, which often require many revisions, and teams from both companies often meet on short notice.
Praegitzer also learned why the circuit-board business has the same kind of boom-and-bust cycle as logging. The total market for circuit boards this year is $4 billion, with a 15% annual growth rate, according to Philip Lapin, an associate at Technomic Consultants, a market research firm in Redwood City, Calif. Half of the dollar volume comes from captive circuit-board shops, owned by electronics companies, which provide boards for their parents. Merchant shops make up the rest of the market, but only three companies -- Hadco, Tyco Laboratories, and the Photocircuits Division of Kollmorgen -- are in the $100-million-a-year range in annual sales. Only a handful of the 800 or so merchants have sales of more than $5 million a year.
Life for the merchants is a constant balancing act on the precipice. In times of economic expansion, the electronics companies look beyond their captive shops to fill the excess demand. The merchant shops expand their capacity and raise prices sharply. When the economic downturn comes, though, the electronics companies cut off the merchants first; they save the available work for their own shops, which are often able to keep running at full tilt. "That leaves the merchant shops high and dry with even more capacity than they had in the last cycle," says Brian Patterson, president of Kollmorgen Corp.'s additive products division. Board makers are battered, too, when specific products go sour. Kollmorgen rode the video game craze for several years, then saw the business nearly disappear. "We lost half our business in a year," says Patterson.
Having learned much of this from Brown, Praegitzer decided to accept Brown's plan to build a state-of-the-art board shop that would aim at the high end of the market. Multilayer circuit boards -- used in business computers and other sophisticated equipment -- constitute a more stable and profitable market than the relatively simple boards used in many consumer products. Within a few months, Praegitzer's bid for a stake in circuit boards had soared from an option to buy control of Brown's threadbare operation into a $2.5-million investment in a top-of-the-line shop. Praegitzer Industries was born.
By permitting Brown to act as midwife, Praegitzer demonstrated a new management style. He had run the logging company himself, relying on his deep knowledge of the business. He knew little about circuit boards, though, so he delegated most of the decision making. Taking charge of the finances, he ran the rest of the business by consensus, entrusting the technical matters to Brown and other recruits from the circuit-board industry. "I was going on the faith that Ed Brown could produce people that would make it all possible," he explains.
Praegitzer's banker of 14 years didn't share his faith, and refused to lend him money for the new enterprise -- figuring, apparently, that circuit boards had short-circuited his brain. "The business was more Greek to them than it was to me," says Praegitzer," and it was pretty Greek to me." But another bank in town lent him the money, all guaranteed by his personal assets. "I felt that this plant would be an asset for electronics companies in the area," he says. "I figured I could sell it at a profit if I couldn't make it work." Built on part of the 75 acres of industrial land Praegitzer owns in Dallas, the plant opened in October 1981.
Although a recession was then gripping the country, the new company flashed across the sky like a meteor -- and for almost as short a time. In Beaverton, Tektronix was having big problems with a merchant shop it was dealing with in California. The company asked Praegitzer Industries if it could produce an important board. Praegitzer said it could, and eventually its engineers shipped the order. Then, like first-time authors submitting a manuscript, they waited with a combination of fear and expectation.
The telephone call finally came. "They said it had failed the simple inspection," recalls Brown. "It felt life-threatening to us, because it was our first product shipped." While the failure seemed devastating to the start-up company, it was hardly noticed at Tektronix, a billion-dollar corporation. "During that time, we were experiencing some really bad performance from some of the people we were dealing with," explains Gene Hendrickson, a general manager at Tektronix's circuit-board manufacturing plant. "If we got a shipment from Praegitzer that didn't work out, it would've seemed like just some noise on the line."
In a surprise move, Tektronix came to Praegitzer with a tantalizing proposal. The company was phasing out its circuit-board shop while building a more modern one, and it thought that Praegitzer Industries had the equipment and talent to help take up the slack. The deal: Tektronix would buy virtually all of Praegitzer's output for the next 18 months. For Praegitzer, it would be like skiing St. Moritz after an avalanche warning: The ride was sure to be exhilarating, but if the mountain collapsed he would be in real trouble. Before agreeing to do the work, Praegitzer got a commitment from Tektronix not to cut off the work precipitously when the big company opened its new board shop. Instead, Tektronix would reduce the work by only 10% a quarter, a rate that would enable Praegitzer to find other customers.
That commitment died in the recession. Its business eroding, Tektronix cut off all of its business with Praegitzer in June 1983. "They warned us about it," says Praegitzer. "We were lax in getting out in the market-place sooner than we did to drum up new business." Bill Bailey, Praegitzer Industries's vice-president of marketing, adds: "We didn't react quickly enough. We could have said we're not going to take the next order [from Tektronix]. We should have found other customers." It had been a sensational ride for the company, but now the mountain had collapsed. Sales plummeted 67% in one month. Expensive equipment was idled. The company laid off 20 people, more than a quarter of its work force. So unprepared was the company that it didn't even have a sales force to scout for new business. Scrambling, two marketing executives hit the road to call on prospective customers.
What really helped save Praegitzer Industries, however, was the vigorous economic recovery, which buoyed the circuit-board business by the late summer of 1983. Within months of losing Tektronix, the company had replaced the business, and then some. "By October," says Praegitzer, "we were well-enough known and the business climate had improved. We were swamped with orders."
At the moment, Praegitzer's business is strong. He expects sales to reach $8.5 million this year, only his third full year of operation, and $25 million two years hence. He is investing another $2.5 million in plant and equipment, and plans to have triple his present capacity by the end of 1985. The reasons for expansion were compelling. The production people argued that they needed more capacity to smooth out bottlenecks and that a line for making prototypes of new boards would be a service to customers. The marketing people pointed to the orders they were turning away because all of the company's present capacity was booked.
Even so, history cautions that what is compelling in circuit boards isn't always wise. By expanding so rapidly, Praegitzer risks trapping himself deeply in the boom-and-bust cycle of the industry. Although the company has contracts that run a year into the future, recessions have often bloodied the business for longer than that.
The company's work in the high-end, multilayer part of the market, which is not highly dependent on fickle consumer spending, may shield it a little from a general downturn. However, Praegitzer Industries still looks vulnerable because it has not diversified its sales by product lines.
Although diversification is a goal, says vice-president Bailey, "Right now we're reacting to the market. We don't have to go out and look for work. It comes to us." As a result, the company does half of its business in circuit boards for computers. It does little work in the fast-growing communications market, and at the present time it doesn't have certification for defense work, an area that is growing rapidly under the Reagan Administration's military budgets.
Nor is diversification the only unrealized strategic goal. Bailey says that devoting more than 20% of the company's capacity to one customer is "asking for trouble." But Praegitzer Industries now does 50% of its business with Hewlett-Packard Co. and 25% with Tektronix. The business with HP is spread among six different divisions of the company, which lessens the risk. But a deep recession could cut the need for circuit boards throughout HP, or a corporate decision could send the work either in-house or to another supplier.
Troubled by his inherent vulnerability as a supplier, Praegitzer plans to become an equipment manufacturer someday. "As long as you're a subcontractor," he says, "you're dependent on somebody else, on whether your customer's product will sell." He already owns 35% of a company that makes industrial printers, and he is looking at other products he can manufacture in-house.
For Praegitzer, who always wanted to be his own boss, that would be another major step in his business career. One metamorphosis in a lifetime apparently isn't enough. Not every business proposal, as he says, has to have tree bark on it -- or circuit boards, either.