Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



New investment helps Wood Village equipment fabricator forge ahead -

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULL - A KCR employee welds drip torch parts at the company's Wood Village factory.In a nondescript tin building tucked away in a corner of a Wood Village industrial park, the repetitive but meticulous work of a young crew of employees plays a key role in saving hundreds of thousands of acres of forest from wildfire destruction around the world.

Founded in 1980, KCR Manufacturing, 2233 N.E. 244th Ave. in Wood Village, specializes in making drip torches — those tall, red fuel containers used to set a controlled burn line — as well as other equipment for the U.S. Forest Service and other firefighting agencies.

As KCR co-owner Chris Holden displays a drip torch in his cluttered, utilitarian office, the metal container with a long, heavy-duty, welded-on handle suggests a coffee Thermos the Incredible Hulk might take to work — or as Holden suggests, an industrial-strength beer stein.

“The drip torch is the one a lot of people recognize,” he says. “You fill them with flammable liquid and drip fuel to set controlled burns. This has been our main product.”

With the help of a three-year property tax abatement through the Wood Village enterprise zone, KCR has invested about $450,000 in high-tech milling and lathe equipment to ramp up the company’s output. Holden, 50, is hopeful the hulking machines — a CNC five-axis mill and dual-spindle CNC lathe — will help employees make the company’s projected $1 million in sales this fiscal year a dependable baseline.

“Our mission is to be the cost leader with this particular group of products for the Forest Service,” Holden says. “(Equipment investment) is where we see the opportunity to do that. You have to invest in automation to reduce labor costs.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Chris Karn, a KCR Manufacturing employee, assembles completed drip torches awaiting metal powder coating at the company's Wood Village factory. Faith in the future

The investment results from a recent Wood Village City Council decision to modify its enterprise zone criteria. The change brings tax abatement opportunities to businesses with smaller payrolls and benefit packages that nonetheless provide valuable training opportunities that ultimately benefit the community.

KCR is not looking to cut its workforce, which currently includes about 10 employees, but rather to attract specially trained and skilled employees. Many of KCR’s hires come through work-training programs at Gresham’s Center for Advance Learning and Mt. Hood Community College.

“I think CAL is a fantastic program for students to get their foot in the door,” Holden says of the career-oriented charter high school.

Under the city guidelines, KCR is exempt from property tax obligations until 2020.

“We modified our criteria to acknowledge that very small employers like KCR don’t have those (fringe) benefits in place,” says Wood Village City Manager Bill Peterson. “However, if they invest in people and employees ... (KCR’s) just got a fabulous approach to nurturing and training individuals. Our criteria allowed employers like Chris and KCR to invest in training and people’s futures.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Chris Holden, co-owner of KCR Manufacturing, holds part of a drip torch made by his company as he explains the ins and outs of his business. Learning experiences

The Holdens, who live in Corbett, purchased KCR in 2007 from Kevin and Carol Rolph, who formed the company in 1980.

While serving as a volunteer firefighter, Chris Holden worked in his father-in-law’s pattern-making foundry in Portland. When the Rolphs’ business came up for sale, Chris started thinking about combining elements of his two jobs.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool thing to own my own business and make firefighting equipment,’” he says. “It was my interest. I really enjoyed it.”

Since taking over the business, the Holdens have experienced some decidedly lean times. The personal financial sacrifices they’ve made to keep KCR afloat, however — along with diversification, marketing and targeted reinvestment — are beginning to pay off.

“We’ve been trending in the right direction since 2012-13,” Chris says. “Part of it was realizing the skills I have, and the things (we) could do for others (in) tooling design and product design to bring in income.”

Chris Karn, a 2015 graduate of Sam Barlow High School, went on to learn machine tooling skills at the Center for Advanced Learning before joining the team at KCR. As the 19-year-old steadily assembles and pressure-tests drip torches before they’re sent offsite for a special powder coating, Karn admits his job is a labor of love.

“I’ve been interested my entire life in building things,” he says. “Taking things apart and learning how they work has always fascinated me.”

Karn, a Damascus resident, praises the CAL program as well as Holden for giving him an opportunity for which he feels so well-suited.

“I think the CAL program is fantastic for getting your foot in the door. I really want to thank Chris for having (CAL graduates) work here,” he says. “He takes a chance (and the experience) really helps you to grow.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The wick of a drip torch made by Wood Village-based KCR Manufacturing is used by the U.S. Forest Service for wildlands firefighting. Overnight success

As Holden gazes at his two new investments, the CNC five-axis mill and dual-spindle CNC lathe in KCR’s new 3,500-square-foot warehouse section, he brightens with enthusiasm.

“This is the piece of equipment I’ve always wanted,” he says of the automated milling machine that holds metal parts in place while tilting in multiple direction for shaping. “The idea is that (the machines) run all night and make parts.”

The ramped-up productivity will accommodate orders to KCR from the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest logistics combat support agency. KCR is contracted for five years, an opportunity Holden says could “double the amount of sales” for his company.

Reflecting on the recent spate of positive indicators, Holden admits the past 10 years at KCR have been a roller-coaster of challenges, near defeats and hard-won successes. Lately, he’s become more appreciative of the lessons he’s learned in that time, setting more sustainable goals chief among them.

“I always wanted to own my own business, and I always wanted to build my own house,” he says, a rueful grin crossing his face. “I should have said I wanted to own my own profitable business — and build a house I can afford.”

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