Buckling down

Ken Stringer couldn't have picked a less auspicious time to have purchased a gift and novelty business than October 2001.

The former president of Intermedia Software was going through the due diligence period prior to acquiring Siskiyou Buckle Co. Inc. of Ashland when al-Qaida terrorists struck New York and Washington, D.C.

I had wavering thoughts at the time, admits Stringer, now 50. It added a couple of things to the process when I was looking at sales.

But the specialty belt buckle and pewter gift business has rebounded nicely ' to the point that it has run out of elbow room in Ashland and is headed for roomier quarters in Medford.
— Siskiyou Buckle plans to occupy a new 22,000-square-foot building in the southwest corner of Navigator's Landing across Biddle Road from the airport sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. Stringer estimates the cost at more than &

36;1.5 million.

We're not too far from submitting plans, says Stringer, whose company is one of 13 that has received preliminary approval for inclusion in Medford's electronic enterprise zone.

Navigator's Landing developer Reggie Breeze says 11 lots in the 50-acre office park have now been sold or are in escrow with another 31 remaining.

The location close to the airport works well for a company like that, said Breeze.

The quarter-century-old Siskiyou Buckle is one of the world's preeminent decorative buckle makers and has branched out into an array of pewter products and gifts, from bolos and pins to glassware and automotive decorations.

After several years of declining sales, Siskiyou Buckle saw a 20 percent revenue gain, topping &

36;5 million in 2002. An expanded marketing and Internet presence and more aggressive distribution led Stringer to anticipate rapid and sustained growth over the next few years.

We've run out of space here, Stringer says of the 17,000-square-foot quarters. One of our salesmen has to work out of his home, our warehouse is split into two pieces and it's a little disjointed. This will make it more efficient for a higher volume of business.

The company had as many as 60 employees and revenues as high as &

36;8 million in the early 1990s. Office automation led to reductions in staff a decade ago, and the payroll has been fairly steady at 35. Stringer expects to see another eight to 12 jobs created in the next two or three years.

Siskiyou Buckle moved from Williams to its present quarters on Benson Way in 1990 and traces its roots back to California's San Fernando Valley, where it was begun by Mark and Karen Mihaljevich. The founders moved to Williams in 1976.

The new location will cut down on commute time for employees; most are from Medford and several commute from Josephine County.

Under Stringer, the company has added a marketing department, expanded its penetration on the Atlantic seaboard and pushed to get its wares into major retail outlets such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's.

Typically, we have to go through representatives and distributors that have access to those markets, Stringer says. It's hard to crack those chains without a large sales staff.

A wider selection of company products makes it more attractive to distributors to sell to retailers.

It's hard to get buyers to focus on a supplier with a narrow range of products, Stringer says.

There are more than 3,500 items now available on Siskiyou Buckle's Web site and more than 50 percent of the company's sales are via the Internet.

The company produces licensed products bearing Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League and NASCAR logos. Licensed college products are another lucrative market.

Nebraska, Texas, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are high on the list, because they have such a huge fan base, Stringer says. Colleges with the biggest fan bases are typically the ones we bring out the soonest.

Pacific-10 Conference schools weren't even on the radar until recently, when Siskiyou Buckle added the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies to their line.

We have the Ducks, but the Beavers are a little further down the line, Stringer says. Some schools are not very strong in terms of buying products.

Company joins 12 others in electronic commerce zone

Siskiyou Buckle is one of 13 companies that have gone through the approval process to become part of Medford's electronic commerce zone.

A report prepared recently by Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. shows that as many as 1,242 jobs that could have been exported out of the area will stay because of the designation granted in 2002.

Another 447 jobs have or will be created by the applicants, and the average hourly wage will be &

36;14.43, excluding benefits.

The report says the local economy will see &

36;13.6 million in new salaries and &

36;110,115,778 invested in expansion. Companies participating receive property tax exemptions on their expansion projects for three years.

An additional &

36;1.2 million in income tax revenue is projected as well.

The companies that have applied through February are:

ICWUSA.com Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of ergonomically designed mounting systems; Professional Solutions, a child-care management software maker; Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, an HMO call center; Bear Creek Corp., a mail-order company; Motorcycles USA, an after-market accessories retailer; Yamanouchi Consumer Inc., Bear Creek's parent company; ICCI, a transportation broker; Musicians Friend, a music supply business; Poltech International LTD, a maker of photo law-enforcement equipment; Clinical Research, an allergy and asthma clinic; Falcon NW Computer, a mail-order firm that makes high-speed computers for video games; Siskiyou Buckle; and ComNet Marketing, a marketing firm for nonprofits.