The Great Recession may be over and real estate values are well on the road to recovery, but many retail businesses and unemployed or under-employed workers are still struggling, especially here in Indian River County. So what can we do about it?
The answer lies in companies like Girard Equipment. Girard is the worldwide leader – yes, worldwide – in a product not found in any local store, yet key to what is probably the largest industry on earth. The product is a pressure control valve found on every tanker truck that transports oil gasoline, and hazardous chemicals. Girard Equipment is the leading producer of these valves and the company’s manufacturing headquarters are located right here in Gifford.
So why would a producer of tanker truck valves be so important to retailers and workers here? First of all, the company’s revenue comes from outside Indian River County – it does not recirculate dollars already in the local economy, but instead increases the dollars in circulation. As a small, clean, light manufacturer, it takes raw materials and creates value-added products using local labor. Manufacturing jobs pay more, so workers receive good benefits and a higher standard of living. They spend that money with local retail businesses so it is a win-win for everyone. These are what are called “target industries.”
So how do we find companies like Girard Equipment and bring them to Indian River County?
Tim Girard is the president and CEO of Girard Equipment, following in the family footsteps. His grandfather, John Girard, founded the company back in 1952 with his two sons, John and Bob, in Linden, New Jersey. Bob is Tim’s father.
As Tim Girard explains, “They started manufacturing equipment for transporting hazardous chemicals, primarily oil. Until the late 1960s, most hazardous chemicals were shipped in 55-gallon drums. Then clean air and water legislation created laws to protect the environment and that included getting rid of the drums in favor of tanker trucks which could carry a larger payload more safely and cleaner. We designed and manufactured the style valve that became the industry standard. Today we supply 95% of the market in North America, which is one third of the energy market worldwide.
“After 56 years in New Jersey it was becoming more and more difficult to manufacture there with rising costs of operation and living. I was also tired of the winter weather.”
Florida seemed to be a natural choice to relocate. While Florida attracts many visitors and residents because of its climate and recreational opportunities, for a company like Girard Equipment, the decision is more complex.
Girard first visited Vero Beach in 1986. “I was attending the University of Tampa and a hurricane was headed our way. I had a friend going to IRCC (now Indian River State College) so I came over to stay with him. Then in 2003, my wife and I were driving up I-95 and we stopped in Vero for lunch. I saw how it had grown since my first visit and we eventually decided to buy a vacation home here.”
Historically, most target industry companies come here because the CEO came first on vacation. But to conclude they brought their companies here for the same reason would be an oversimplification. According to Economic Development Director Helene Caseltine, “Typically, among the reasons a manufacturing company relocates are for lower cost of operations, move-in ready facilities, transportation options, availability of a skilled labor force and incentives. Incentives are important because they help defray the upfront expenses of relocating and they demonstrate that the community wants them.”
For Tim Girard, once he decided to move his company to Florida, he had many counties to choose from that offered incentives and a better quality of life than what he found in New Jersey. “After visiting a number of communities, we were totally impressed with the way county officials here rolled out the red carpet. County Commissioners and staff met with us regularly. We were involved with the Chamber of Commerce, but more importantly, they were involved with us. Indian River County is centrally located to airports and major Florida markets, yet it was away from the hustle and bustle of South Florida. The Chamber did a great job selling us.”
Girard was also impressed with an available property. “We found an old packinghouse up on Old Dixie Highway in Gifford with a separate storage building that seemed ideal for our purposes. The packinghouse would become our warehouse and assembly facility and the storage building became our machine shop after we acclimatized it to accommodate our precision equipment.”
Incentives played no small part, including a bonus for locating the business in the Enterprise Zone. “The county offered job grants, which were a major factor, and by locating in the Enterprise Zone we received a ten percent bonus as well as sales tax refunds on materials we bought to modify the location to our needs.”
Job grants are awarded based on having compensation levels at or above the county average. “There are no minimum wage positions here,” says Girard, “and most workers earn more than $15 to $16 an hour. They can move up in the company from a line operator to machinist and even in one case, to purchasing agent.”
Enterprise Zones are located in areas with high poverty rates. According Caseltine, “When a company in the Enterprise Zone creates a new job and hires a worker who lives in the Zone to fill that job, the company can take a percent of the new hire’s monthly wage and apply it as a credit to either their Florida corporate tax liability or their sales tax bill.”
“The people of Gifford need jobs and want to work,” Girard adds. “They have a great work ethic and morale is extraordinary. They take very few sick days and we have not had any serious injuries. Even though our workforce is complete now at around 47, of which at least half come from the Gifford community, we still have four or five people a day coming in to apply for jobs.”
Girard also works closely with Workforce Solutions of the Treasure Coast. According to Workforce Communications Director, Odaly Victorio, “We help out-of-work people by providing training for the dislocated, helping them to complete their GED if that is an issue, career planning, teaching computer skills and much more to prepare them for the job market.”
Girard Equipment still maintains a presence in Linden, New Jersey, where many of the company’s oldest customers are located. They do some light manufacturing there, but all valve parts are made here. The stainless steel casting are made in a foundry they operate in Ft. Pierce. Tim Girard currently runs the company from an office on Beachland Boulevard in Vero. He keeps an eye on everything with three television monitors, one viewing Gifford, Linden and Ft. Pierce. “I am out at the Gifford facility every day and spend time with every employee. My cousin John Girard, runs the Linden facility. We also have a sales office in the Chicago area run by my brother, David, and another location in Houston.”
Tim Girard’s office is next door to Beachland Elementary School. “I used to go over and have lunch with my kids, but now they’ve reached the age where they don’t want Dad hanging around anymore.”
That isn’t a problem at the Gifford facility where everyone seems happy to see him and he spends time with each employee. No wonder Girard Equipment received the Chamber of Commerce’s “Best Places to Work” award in 2012.