Grow: Aircraft Carrier Production Is a Family Affair

Posted March 30, 2012 at 10:54am

Just before the start of every school year, the ritual was the same. Before we headed to the store to pick out our new school clothes, we headed to the fields — specifically the strawberry fields. We picked them to earn the money to buy our clothes.

As the youngest of 14 children growing up in the 1960s and ’70s just outside Hillsboro, Ore., my family was not desperately poor, but money was always tight. Don’t get me wrong, my folks earned a good living, but do the math, feeding 16 hungry folks plus our various pets was no cheap endeavor.

One summer, 1973, my machinist father saw an opportunity to strike out on his own. He identified a customer who wanted him to do some work independent from his employer. He knew it would be profitable. The problem is he didn’t have the funds to buy the equipment he needed to fill the order. So, instead of turning to the bank for a loan, he turned to his kids. He borrowed our strawberry money.

He took a vacation, used that money to install equipment in our basement and did the job. By summer’s end, he’d lined up enough orders to enable him to quit his job and open Suburban Machine Works Inc.

He even paid us back in time to buy our school clothes.

That first order was machine fittings for a foundry in Portland, the end user of which was a great American company, Newport News Shipbuilding. That company, which today is part of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is largely in the business of building some of the most amazing machines ever devised including the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that form the backbone of our nation’s military defense.

As our role in supporting that company’s vital work deepened, our company grew. By 1975, what started with one man in a basement had hired several new employees and moved to a 3,300-square-foot building in Aloha, Ore. In a few years, we doubled that space. In 1986, we started working directly for Newport News, and by 1989 we were in a 12,500-square-foot building and we changed our name to AMMCON Corp. Since 1989, we have grown to more than 50 employees in 50,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

It’s a life story I’m proud of for many obvious reasons. I’m proud of my dad for his only-in-America entrepreneurial spirit. I’m proud of my company for performing so well that we have grown and grown and grown in this land of opportunity. I’m proud of our biggest customer for its crucial role in supporting America’s national defense.

I’m also proud that we’re not alone. You hear a great deal of criticism of the “military-industrial complex.” The business is painted as some cloistered community on the banks of the Potomac trying to figure out how to overcharge American taxpayers for military toilet seats and screwdrivers.

What you don’t hear about are the thousands of small companies, some started in their family basements, some that are little more than a big metal shed with manufacturing equipment humming away inside, that are the core of the industry.

These small American businesses, which are located across pretty much every state in the country, are one of the keys to our success as a nation. They make the parts that build the ships, planes, tanks and trucks that our servicemen and servicewomen rely on every day to protect us.

We build ships, or at the least some key components that go into the building of ships. We build other things, too, but I’m very proud of our role in supporting the American aircraft carrier fleet because I understand how vital that fleet is to our safety and security as a nation.

With Congress contemplating massive cuts to the defense budget, it is certainly important to my business that our representatives don’t take the path of least resistance and cut carriers due to their nature as a big-ticket item. It’s also important to our nation’s security.

When my dad came to the 14 of us and asked us to prioritize his entrepreneurial ambition over our school clothing allowance for that year, we knew immediately it was the right thing to do. The massive list of competing priorities facing Congress these days isn’t as simple to understand as what my family faced in 1973, but the need to employ a little budgetary common sense is the same.

Darrell Grow is vice chairman of the Aircraft Carrier Industrial Base Coalition.