Into The Light

Posted on Mar 1, 2011 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo by MaryBeth Matzek

Orion Energy Systems couldn’t be in a brighter spotlight. In the past few weeks, the Manitowoc energy-efficient lighting system developer saw its sales grow 54 percent during the third quarter and welcomed the leader of the free world for a factory tour.

President Barack Obama visited Orion and two other Manitowoc businesses on Jan. 26 – the morning after his State of the Union address. In a speech at Orion, he touted the company’s success and how one person’s idea led to a business that employs 250 people in just a few years.
“That’s the kind of job creation

I’m talking about,” Obama said during his visit. “We need to play to win when it comes to innovative technologies like the kind created here. The jobs here at Orion are the kind we need in America. They not only make energy cheaper, but they also make our planet cleaner.”

Orion manufactures energy efficient lighting systems, solar day lighting products and a wireless control system to reduce electrical output from its lights. The record sales –from $19.3 million to $29.7 million year over year during the third quarter – can be attributed to the company’s strong energy proposition, says Mike Harris, Orion’s vice president of investor relations.

“Businesses are looking for ways to manage their energy costs more effectively and we can come in and help them do just that,” he says. “We all see energy demands and costs going up, but if we can squeeze out every inefficiency that’s wasting energy, we can make better use of the energy we’ve already created.”

Orion’s knack for making energy efficiency easy is also an integral part of the company’s success, Harris says. “If an innovation isn’t user-friendly, no one is going to use it. If you can install technology that allows a warehouse manager to efficiently control what’s happening with just a touch of an iPad, then you’re on to something,” he says.

Less than a decade ago, Manitowoc County’s economy was nearly devastated when its largest employer, Mirro Co., closed. Today, several new businesses, including Orion Energy, now call Mirro’s former complex home. In less than two years, the county’s unemployment rate has gone from 14 percent to 8 percent.

“There’s a reason the president chose to come to Orion. We’re a good story – we grew from a one-person company to one that employs more than 250 people. We took an old distribution facility and recreated it in into a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility,” Harris says. “Our founder – Neal Verfuerth – also met the president before at an event in Washington about renewable energy. We’re a business investing in new technologies.”

Obama admitted that much during his address in Manitowoc and as he toured the facility and talked with employees. “Our American companies need to play to win and not just play defense. America needs to invest in its people and entrepreneurs – entrepreneurs like Neal Verfuerth.”

As for Verfuerth, hosting the president was a once-in-a-lifetime event. “It’s such a great honor to have him here. It’s a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how Orion’s integrated system of energy-efficient lighting systems, wireless controls and direct renewable technologies enable customers to run their facilities at grid parity or even at a lower cost per kilowatt hour than the electrical grid can provide,” he says.

The former Mirro complex is also home to Skana Aluminum Co., another Obama tour stop. Skana just received a $650,000 state grant to redevelop Mirro’s former rolling mill site. Skana is using the money to clear the site, rehabilitate the building and remediate some environmental issues.

Skana has already resumed rolling mill production that converts aluminum slabs into finished coil products, which is sold to domestic and international users and distributors for further manufacturing. For example, its neighbor, Tramontina U.S.A., uses coil metal to stamp and create frying pans and cookware items. Skana employs 70 full-time employees, as well as some temporary employees, and hopes to grow that number to more than 100 in the next couple of years, says Robert Gamba, the company’s president and chief operating officer.

Besides Skana and Orion, Obama visited another growing Manitowoc company: Tower Tech Systems, a wind turbine tower manufacturer that opened in 2003 and now employs more than 300 people.

While the president’s visit put a spotlight on Manitowoc’s industry, entrepreneurism is also flourishing. For example, Lisa Mencheski’s start-up is based in Manitowoc and is changing the way businesses communicate with customers and employees.

With, businesses can sign up to send text messages to people who have signed up to receive their messages.

“I saw how communication was changing – almost everyone has cell phones. If you use them to advertise, it’s a great way to reach customers,” Mencheski says. “Text messages are a quick, instant form of communication. You can send customers a quick note about a special offer or event and they’ll get it right away. People answer text messages faster than e-mails. Studies show that 95 percent of texts are opened within 60 seconds of receiving it. For e-mail, that percentage falls to 10 percent. Advertisers want that instant connection.” has already signed up customers across the New North, including Rose Colored Glasses Salon and Spa in Manitowoc, Camera Corner/Connecting Point in Green Bay, Little Caesars and Holy Family Memorial Medical Center.

Another small business garnering attention is Manitowoc’s PDJ Cutting and Fabricating, which provides cutting services for filters, metal and fiberglass gaskets and chip board, as well as metal cutting and fabricating services.

Less than two years ago, PDJ Cutting and Fabricating started out in a 1,500-square-foot incubator space before moving last spring to their own 5,000 square facility. And last summer, the company – which is owned by the husband and wife team of Patrick and Deanne Weier – bought Wisconsin Cutting Service, expanding its offerings.

Small businesses like PDJ work closely with the Economic Development Corp. of Manitowoc County. The public-private group has a new executive director, Connie Loden, to lead economic development initiatives throughout the county. The organization provides support to existing and new businesses, including locating financing and incentives options; tracking down available sites; researching project feasibility; and guiding employers in productivity and environmental issues.