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Santa Barbara News-Press: Safety up in the air: Goleta company a pioneer in specialized rescue equipment

January 20, 2013

Safety up in the air: Goleta company a pioneer in specialized rescue equipment

Reviewing plans for CMC’s new corporate headquarters are company executives, from left, Rich Phillips, Debbie Horne, Beth Henry and Joe Flachman. STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Santa Barbara, Calfornia – Published 1/20/2013
Santa Barbara News-Press
Safety up in the air: Goleta company a pioneer in specialized rescue equipment
By Steve Sinovic, News-Press Staff Write

A Goleta manufacturing company was born out of a need to provide highly specialized rescue equipment that simply did not exist 30 years ago.

The business, CMC Rescue Inc., was launched in founder Jim Frank’s garage because Mr. Frank — an engineer and a member of a South Coast volunteer search-and-rescue team — was frustrated that emergency responders like himself had to rely on gear for mountain rescues made mostly for sport climbing.

That prompted Mr. Frank to get down to business.

He figured out that when rescuers had to rappel down steep cliffs to rescue fall victims, their equipment had to be stable, secure and strong enough to support the weight of the victim, a litter and the rescuers, said Rich Phillips, president and CEO.

Warehouseman Jeff Galvin wheels a cart of the company’s rescue products to the loading dock.

With roots dating back to 1978, CMC (originally known as California Mountain Co.) still produces equipment to help pluck lost, stranded or injured people from the sides of cliffs — as well as niche-specific gear for workers operating at great heights.

These new markets, said Mr. Phillips, have been driven by rising social and regulatory focus on worker safety.

“This is a good example of government regulations that have stimulated business for us,” said Mr. Phillips, adding that only a couple of companies in the nation are in the specialized business of making rescue equipment.

It has been many years since Mr. Frank moved out of his garage and into a small manufacturing plant in Goleta where he began designing harnesses, straps, packs and belts to sell to fire departments and search-and-rescue organizations.

The 70-employee company (the workforce has doubled in the past dozen years) makes equipment and gear used by workers doing maintenance and repairs on tall structures such as wind turbines, off-shore oil platforms, dams and water treatment and industrial plants.

“Many customers essentially have to have their own rescue crews since they are so far away from the nearest fire department,” said Mr. Phillips. “Our customers want their employees to operate safely in these vertical environments.”

Customers include Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and stunt teams on Hollywood movies.

Increasingly, the company is generating more sales by looking overseas.

“We have dealers in over 50 countries; a sizable part of the business (now) is export-driven,” Mr. Phillips said.

Maria Lucio stitches together a piece of equipment in the production plant.

The company’s emergency rescue products are popular in China and Japan. In a command-and-control economy such as China, CMC reps sell directly to the country’s national fire bureau. One recent order heading to the Beijing fire department was valued at $300,000.

“We feel real positive about putting a tiny dent in the trade imbalance” with China, smiled Mr. Phillips, who is an engineer by training and became friends with the company founder when both were attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

On a recent tour of the plant, the place was humming as highly skilled sewers stitched together harnesses and bags with fireproof materials such as Kevlar.

“That’s the sound of progress, the sound of commerce,” said Mr. Phillips of the manufacturing that was under way.

“As you can imagine, we use millions of pounds of rope each year,” he said, demonstrating one strand that has a 9,000-pound breaking strength.

Upstairs in the product development department, the crew has created such equipment as a firefighter escape system — a pocket-sized, self-rescue tool that can be deployed by firefighters if a roof caves in or a ladder falls away. By hooking a small harness to a windowsill, a firefighter can descend to the ground in seconds.

Not only does the company make equipment, it also runs a rescue school with an extensive curriculum. To reinforce the skills learned, CMC has also gone digital, creating a field rescue guide app for smartphones.

“There have been tens of thousands of downloads so far” of the app, said Joe Flachman, the company’s marketing director. Like many of the people in the company, away from work Mr. Flachman is a volunteer in search-and-rescue and has a keen understanding of the needs of the end user.

Both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Flachman are part of a team that is shepherding another high-wire act of sorts for the company — a move to a larger work space this August.

“We’ve been really squeezed here,” said Mr. Phillips of the current plant at 41 Aero Camino.

With the help of brokers from Radius Commercial Real Estate & Investments, CMC decided to purchase a facility at 6740 Cortona in Goleta as the site for the new corporate headquarters. The building was acquired for a reported $7.6 million.

“We have strong roots in Goleta; we wanted to stay here,” Mr. Phillips said.

The company acquired the building with the help of a Small Business Administration loan, he said.

“It’s a huge deal for us and allows us to configure our work spaces and production areas in a more efficient way,” he said.

Employees now have a stake in the company, since the owners instituted an employee stock ownership plan, Mr. Phillips said.

As a result, everyone is conscious of the little things that can impact the bottom line. That means flipping off light switches, being better recyclers and putting into place other cost-saving measures and efficiencies.

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