Three red, white and blue flags American, Australian and British fly in front of ECCO Groups modest headquarters in Southeast Boise off Federal Way.
They represent the companys manufacturing and sales sites in Leeds, England; Launceston, Australia; and Idaho.
ECCO was founded in 1972 in Boise as one of the first companies to make beeping back-up alarms for commercial vehicles like construction and mining equipment. It now also designs and manufactures a range of products that includes the lights you see on police cars and camera systems for commercial and emergency vehicles.
With sales in more than 80 countries, ECCO claims revenues of about $100 million. Chris Marshall, president and CEO, says the company has set records for profitability in each of the past couple of years. He estimates that the company serves more than 25 percent of the global amber warning and alarm market.
Competitors in lighting include Federal Signal and Public Safety Equipment, both in the United States. In alarms, the competition includes Brigade in the United Kingdom and other non-branded, low-quality Asian imports.
A lot of the growth is outside the U.S., Marshall says. In China, we doubled our business last year, and were going to double it this year.
The company hired its first sales representative in China four months ago, he says. It also is expanding in South America, especially among mining operators.
But ECCO also is strengthening its local relationships. When the Boise Police Department redesigned its marked police cars for the first time in 25 years, officers and ECCO engineers created a lighting system that includes small LED lights embedded in the front bumpers. Their brightness and placement make them more noticeable to other drivers.
Weve had very few (traffic) incidents with them, says Capt. Eugene Smith, a Boise patrol division commander who worked on the new design. We just feel safer.
The cars were introduced in May 2011. The overall design won Best Dodge Charger in September in the International Police Vehicle Design Contest sponsored by Law and Order Magazine.
Smith says having ECCO in Boise has enabled the department to work closely with the company to create systems and add emergency lights to a variety of vehicles from unmarked cars to motorcycles. Marshall says: Were standard equipment in all the Boise police cars.
EVOLVING INTO A LEADER
ECCO traces its roots to 1947, when brothers Carl and Edwin Peterson founded Peterson Rebuild and Exchange Co. in Downtown Boise, servicing and replacing engines at construction sites. That business continues today as Preco, a manufacture and seller of electronics and semiconductor equipment.
In the 1960s, Edwin Peterson invented a beeping electronic backup alarm system after he visited several dam sites and saw workers killed or injured when heavy equipment backed over them, says his son, Mark Peterson, owner of Preco Electronics Inc. In 1967, Edwin Peterson sold his first system to Boise-based Morrison Knudsen, an engineering and construction company thats now part of URS Corp. Edwin Petersons backup alarms became part of the brothers business.
But the brothers decided to go their separate ways in 1969, with Edwin buying out Carl, Mark Peterson says.
After the buyout, Carl Peterson had no interest in owning another backup alarm manufacturing business. But he changed his mind when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration decided in 1971 to require backup alarms on certain vehicles, Mark Peterson says.
In 1972, Carl Peterson founded Electronic Controls Co. ECCOs original name and used the Preco technology to make backup alarms. That led to litigation and bitter competition between the brothers companies, Peterson says. The brothers didnt talk until shortly before Edwins death in 1999. Carl died that year, too.
Preco became one of the best-known brands in backup alarms and lighting. ECCO, meanwhile, struggled with debt and operations, according to author Bo Burlingham in Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, published in 2007.
In 1984, Jim Thompson of Boise bought 50 percent of ECCOs shares from Carl Peterson with money from the sale of his stock in an employee stock-ownership plan at a food-service company, Burlington wrote. Thompson had moved to Boise from Chicago to work for Boise Cascade before working for the food-service business. He and two friends bought the remaining ECCO shares in 1985. In 1988, they set up an employee stock-ownership plan.
The new owners decided that to compete with bigger companies, they needed more than a good product and competitive prices. They decided to focus on getting to know their customers well and meeting specific needs.
For instance, ECCO cut the time between ordering and shipping to within 24 hours. The industry norm was three to five days. When other companies were switching to automated answering systems, ECCO decided to keep having people answer the phones. When the company got bigger and margins improved, ECCO shared its bounty with distributors by cutting prices.
The companys share of the backup alarm market rose from 5 percent in 1984 to 33 percent in 1993, when sales reached $9.5 million, up from $640,000 in 1984, Burlington wrote.
ECCOs business continued to expand in the 1990s. It was the first manufacturer of emergency warning products to receive ISO-9001 certification, Burlington says. ISO-9001 quality management standards are developed by the International Organization for Standardization.
But by 2007, the companys ability to expand was limited. The business was fine at the time, Marshall says, but it needed some investment capital.
So employees sold ECCO to Berwind, a private investment management company owned by the Berwind family in Philadelphia. Berwind owns manufacturing and service companies in pharmaceutical, specialty chemical, pet-supply and office-supply fields. Its holdings include glue maker Elmers Products Inc., National Pen Co. and WellPet.
ADAPTING TO THE TIMES
Since the sale, ECCO has centralized its finance, information technology, product engineering and development, purchasing and marketing support at the Boise headquarters.
ECCO bought the Preco backup alarm and lighting product lines in 2008 and has an agreement to use the name. Preco Electronics Inc. continues to design and manufacture electronic industrial-safety products, including a pulsed radar detection sensor that detects objects in blind spots to reduce accidents for mining, construction and other industries.
ECCO also bought several companies, including Nova Electronics, in 2009. Nova, a designer and maker of LED and strobe warning systems for emergency and construction vehicles, was moved to Boise from Colchester, Conn.
Novas Twinkle Works designed and created the lights for Disneys World of Color lighted fountain show with music, lasers, projections, fire and fog at Disneys California Adventure Park in Anaheim.
But 2009 was a difficult year as the recession hit ECCOs customers, including big equipment makers Caterpillar Inc. and John Deere. Orders declined, Marshall says. About 20 percent of the 200 Boise employees were laid off.
We had to tighten our belts and reorganize, he says. It allowed us to refocus. Its made us stronger.
ECCO now has 155 employees in Boise and more than 300 worldwide. It plans to add up to eight new professional positions here in 2012.
Marshall says 2010 was a good year, 2011 was exceptional, and 2012 should still be good, but the level of growth is down some from 2011. Theres still a real lack of confidence in the market, he says.
Still, he says, the pace of recovery has been perfect for the companys needs. If the market kept up, we couldnt have kept up with it, he says.
The company leases an 80,000-square-foot warehouse office building and a nearby warehouse for storage, but expects to need larger quarters in a few years.
KEEPING THE MOMENTUM
ECCO is constantly innovating and expanding its line of products, Marshall says.
Many of its lighting bars, warning lights and beacons have been redeveloped with LED lights, which are smaller, brighter and more energy-efficient than earlier versions. LED technology is taking over the world in lighting, he says.
In honor of its 40th anniversary, the company will introduce 40 new products in September at Automechanika, a trade fair for the automotive industry in Germany. Normally ECCO shows one or two new items.
Worklamps, a new line of lights that can be mounted in various ways or on trucks to flood darkened areas or night-time work spaces with white light, have exceeded sales projections in the U.S., Marshall says.
They more than doubled our expectations, he says.
ECCO continues to hunt for businesses that it can buy and bring to Boise, Marshall says. Berwinds website says it plans to invest more than $1 billion in companies during the next three years.
Were on the lookout for acquisitions, Marshall says.
Sandra Forester: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_Sandra