Portland Business Journal
"2009 Manufacturing Awards, Small Business Winner"
By Adam Worcester
If the city of Portland wants a poster child for sustainable business, it need look no farther than Eleek Inc. The Northeast Portland manufacturer of custom lighting, sinks, hardware and finishes promotes sustainability in a variety of ways:
- It uses recycled metals to make its castings, and at least 70-percent discarded or salvaged wood to make its patterns.
- It makes one of its hardware lines from 100 percent discarded or salvaged wood to make its patterns.
- It makes one of its hardware lines from 100 percent post-consumer scrap purchased at the ReBuilding Center, less than a mile from Eleek’s shop at 2326 N. Flint Ave.
- It buys 80 percent of its supplies from within 50 miles of headquarters.
- It operates its shop and office on 100 percent wind power, and runs its delivery truck on biodiesel.
- It purchases offsets for all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its natural gas use.
- It recycles nearly everything, and allows employees to bring materials from home that they cannot leave for curbsite recycling. There is even a composter in the company kitchen.
- It provides subsidies for employees who bus or bike to work, and has interior hooks for workers to hang their bikes.
“They’re just a remarkable group. They have such a deep and complete commitment to sustainability. It comes through in everything they do,” said Clark Brockman, an associate principal at Sera Architects. Eleek’s efforts have certainly been well-recognized. The company has earned numerous awards in its nine-year history, including a recent honor for a service—lighting restoration—rather than a product. Eleek can restore or retrofit both historic and modern luminaries by taking them apart, then cleaning, refinishing and replacing parts and wires. “We believe that using what you already have is a more sustainable choice that purchasing something new, no matter how ‘green’ that new product is,” said Sattie Clark, Eleek’s co-founder and vice president. Clark’s husband, Eric Kaster, is a third-generation designer and pattern-maker whose grandfather, Willie Kaster, once owned Willamette Pattern Works. For each light, sink or cabinet fixture, Eric first makes a detailed wood positive, from which a mold for metal casting is then created. He calls the process equal parts precision woodworking and engineering. Kaster estimates he has crafted lights for more than 100 residences, businesses and hotels in the Portland area. Today about a dozen employees make each piece of Eleek “jewelry” by hand. About 90 percent of the business is custom commercial and residential sales, although the company does offer several lines of retail products. Lighting restoration accounted for about 10 percent of the business last year. Growth has been steady, from $836,000 worth of gross sales in 2002 to $1.8 million last year. Although Eleek sells and restores nationwide—even internationally, with a project in Thailand this year—Clark said they do not envision Eleek as a big corporation in the future. “We really see ourselves as an artisan-based business,” she said. “We have a small staff (12 employees). Staying small means that Eric can have his hands and his eyes on every single product we make. That’s very rare these days.” One idea Eleek rejected from the start was the belief that outsourcing manufacturing to companies such as China was the cheapest business model. Clark and Kaster were convinced that sustainability reduces costs. Clark’s commitment to sustainability extends beyond Eleek’s walls. She is a founding board member of a new nonprofit group called VOIS—Voice for Oregon Innovation & Sustainability. VOIS has leased meeting and exhibition space at the Leftbank Building, and Clark said about 250 businesses are engaged with the group at some level. “We want to inspire other manufacturers to get on the path of sustainability,” Clark said. “It can look intimidating at first but it’s like anything else. If you break it into achievable steps and get started, it gets easy…and even addictive!”