The joys and sorrows of the frequent flier

    Here I am — as I write I’m sitting in first class, earned by frequent flier miles, heading for Oakland, my monthly trip to check in with our staff there.
When we started this venture in 1996, I had a backyard, a beat-up truck, some tools, a cell phone, a primitive web-site, a fair amount of expertise, and little else. Finally, after slowly building the business, two years ago I leased a shop in Santa Rosa, Calif., to produce our unique type of water-treatment equipment.
    Signing that first lease was a scary business, I can tell you. The first year in Santa Rosa was up and down – a lot of hard-earned cash going in and not much coming out, a lot of time chasing down sales leads that went nowhere – but we made some important inroads into the commercial market. We sold a few of our larger systems to small communities who faced either meeting drinking-water requirements or losing their permits. Over time, the number of contacts grew, the web widened and just the statistics dictated an increase in sales as a result.
    And then last fall, my wife and I faced a new dilemma. We needed to sell the family home in order to pay for my elderly mother’s care. It was that or start taking out loans we weren’t sure we could pay back.
    We started looking at the possibility of buying a new house nearer to the Santa Rosa office – but anybody who knows anything about California real estate knows that you can’t find a house, even one in poor condition, for less than $500,000. The idea of buying a fixer-upper in an overpriced house while also trying to grow my business made me revisit a fond notion of moving to Bellingham.
    I had been visiting Bellingham for 10 years because my oldest daughter lives here. By last fall, my two other children also had moved to Whatcom County. I started thinking about buying a house in or near Bellingham and just keeping an apartment in Santa Rosa. We could gradually move to Washington over time.
    When the time came to move, we decided, the heck with it, let’s make the move now to Bellingham and operate the Santa Rosa office remotely. This was a chancy decision. I based it on the belief that Bellingham presented a better market for our filters than California in the long run. I figured that at the beginning, I could operate the Washington business from the property we intended to buy and then gradually expand, as we had done in California. I would come to California as needed for projects and jobs as they came up. I would use the Internet, my cell phone, and call forwarding to maintain a virtual presence in California while building business in Washington.
    You can see where this led — frequent flier miles.
    We proceeded on this plan, moving to Bellingham just hours ahead of a snow storm which left 5 inches on the ground outside of our new home in Custer. We were snowed in for three days.
    A week later, I was back on a plane to California for a project.
    The whole plan accelerated in early February. Since last fall I had been corresponding with an Army Corps of Engineers project manager stationed on a base outside of Fallujah, Iraq – undoubtedly one of the most dangerous places in the world to work. He was faced with a difficult task. Thirty-six villages along the Euphrates River had never had safe drinking water. These villages suffered a 50 percent infant mortality rate to water-borne disease. The project manager had a very limited budget for bringing safe water to these villages, far less than necessary to provide high-tech water- treatment plants we might see in our major cities. He began Googling and found us. A virtual conversation began that resulted in our being awarded a $6 million contract in early February. This contract would totally change Blue Future Filters.
    Gone was the idea of starting slow here in Washington. I now had to think about ramping up in a hurry. I would need a facility larger than we had in California and a bunch of new people.
    The new place turned out to be relatively easy, and the people came into the picture readily also. We found a facility on Irongate in Bellingham that closely matched our needs at a price about the same as our much smaller facility in California, which was completely unsuitable for this new contract.
    I quickly brought in a manager for the California office, a man I have known for years who thoroughly understood our systems. In Bellingham I had a pleasant surprise. My oldest daughter, Vanessa, and my son Peter both stepped up to get involved. Peter had worked with me before on some large projects in California. He liked the work so much, he had come around to the notion of pursuing a career. Vanessa also saw the potential for growth and development and new challenges.
    Challenges — what an understatement. With this new core of people, we were facing the enormous challenge of a U.S. government project that would require us to provide large numbers of our filters, coordinate with suppliers all across the United States, ship all this stuff half way around the world into a war zone and see our filters in use to almost a million people who have never had safe water before.
    In the meantime, I expect I will continue to spend my fair share of time earning frequent flier miles – just one of the many new challenges of juggling a business that stretches over many borders.

Humphrey Blackburn is the President and CEO of Blue Future Filters, which recently moved to Custer from Sanata Rosa, CA.

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