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Small manufacturers make it big

Crammed alongside a window-tinting shop, in a non-descript masonrybuilding on U.S. 301, may be Pasco County's model manufacturer.

Zeagle Systems Inc. is home-grown and locally owned, its production processes are clean, it exports far and wide, and it is growing fast.

The scuba-diving equipment company employs about 35 people and surpassed $1-million in sales last year, according to owner Dennis Bulin. He expects Zeagle to grow at least 30 percent in 1990.

Evidence of Zeagle's success is as close as Chancey Road, where the 11-year-old company is spending $250,000 to build a 9,600-square-foot plant, scheduled to open this month. The new building also stands as evidence of Bulin's commitment to Pasco County and Zephyrhills.

"Economically, it's better for us in Pasco County. The tax climate here is better, all my sewing machine operators are from this area," Bulin said. "The new building and land probably would have cost me 50 percent more in Tampa, at least."

The qualities Bulin enumerates are of concern to many small manufacturers, and give Pasco County a strategic advantage in recruiting similar-sized companies to the area, said Paul Griffin, executive director of the Pasco Committee of 100. Griffin touts those very things as he tries to recruit new companies for Pasco, and for the most part, the Committee of 100 is working with businesses about the same size as Zeagle's.

More than two-thirds of the companies Griffin works with would bring no more than 50 new jobs to the county. While there is a good side and a bad side to building a manufacturing base on small companies, Pasco doesn't seem to have much of a choice.

"Companies are looking at Florida in general because of the low cost of labor and I think that's particularly attractive to small companies," Griffin said. "We don't go after (big manufacturers), but we have to be cognizant of what their needs are. To be honest there aren't that many out there."

Birth of a small manufacturer

Dennis Bulin was a sky-dive bum, with no thoughts of tax rates or labor availability when he moved from Wisconsin to Zephyrhills in the late '70s. All he wanted was to jump out of airplanes year-round at the city's nationally prominent parachute center, and find enough work to support his hobby.

Eventually his odd jobs led him to a custom skydiving equipment shop, where he helped design and make parachute harness and container systems. A few years later, Bulin bought his boss' sewing machines and went into business for himself.

His product line expanded from sky-diving equipment to a full array of sewn nylon products. The change was evidence of Bulin's waning interest in skydiving, and before long he was merging his work with a new hobby: scuba diving.

First, he dabbled in scuba equipment bags, and then he moved into the more complicated buoyancy compensators that have become the backbone of Zeagle's business.

A buoyancy compensator holds a diver's air tank, and also includes a bladder that can be filled with air to regulate depth.

Bulin designed the equipment with some of his skydiving know-how, placing the bladder on a diver's back like a parachute, building a weight belt into the compensator, and creating a "rip cord" system that allows a diver to use one quick tug to dump all of the weights that help hold him down.

Those innovations have helped Zeagle establish itself in 300 stores across the country and with distributors in Europe and Japan.

Innovation remains important to the company, and Bulin frequently takes calls from customers with suggestions for improvements. Zeagle's size allows Bulin to test new designs quickly and rapidly push good ideas into production.

That's an advantage the owner hopes to maintain as Zeagle's growth begins to slow. Bulin is working to diversify into other scuba and non-diving products, but he does see a ceiling on Zeagle's expansion.

"On a scale of one to ten our business is a one or a two right now, as far as major dive manufacturers," Bulin said. "I see the rapid growth tapering off in the next five years, as the company grows there will be some stabilization," Thinking small

A relatively small, stable manufacturer is just fine with Committee of 100 executive director Griffin, who doesn't expect too many corporate giants to send their site selectors to Pasco County any time soon.

Along with low labor costs that attract small manufacturers to Florida and Pasco, several factors work against the county's chances of attracting large industrial employers.

The first of those is poor roads, with Interstate 75 as the only road in the county that would satisfy all the supply, shipping and labor access needs of some major manufacturers.

Second is the labor market, which Griffin said is often questioned by big manufacturers, even though Pasco can usually fulfill most of their needs.

Third is the simple shortage of major manufacturing employers.

While plenty of small producers are eyeing Florida, pickings get pretty slim at the 100 employee level and dwindle even more as size increases.

Jerry Coone has seen this shortage boost the stakes among different areas to land a major employer, as he leads the sales efforts at Scheer Commerce Center and West Pasco Industrial Park.

"The problem we run into with the big manufacturers is the competition from other states," said Coone, vice president of Genesis Commercial Services Inc. "We don't really have a set policy in Pasco County for what we would do for a big manufacturer if it came in."

Other southern states and counties do have set policies that include tax breaks, low interest loans and sweet land deals, all intended to help seduce new industry. These deals are not trotted out as readily for smaller companies, which is one of the reasons Griffin expects Pasco to make better progress recruiting small manufacturers.

In addition, he sees a ripe field of prospects as close as Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, where development pressures are working to push business into Pasco.

Growth in Pinellas has reached the point where many manufacturers are hemmed in with no room for expansion at their existing locations.

And when time comes to move Griffin expects them to look to southwest Pasco, where access to Pinellas markets is combined with acres of relatively low-cost land. Hillsborough is not as uniformly congested, but growth has already pushed land prices much higher than in Pasco, making Pasco attractive to companies looking to move or add a second, central location.

These factors will make existing small Tampa Bay companies one of Griffin's primary focuses in the next few years, and probably will mean a lot more work for the Committee of 100. Recruiting a small company often require as much development and maintenance as recruiting a big company, so Griffin expects to work much harder to bring the same number of jobs to Pasco that one major manufacturer would.

While the formula can prove strenuous in the short term, it could be the best thing for Pasco's economy in the long run, Griffin said. "Diversification is really a key factor," Griffin said. "Rather than having one company that employs 5,000 people, if you have 50 companies that employ 100 people each, your economy is not going to be severely damaged if there is a downturn in one of those industries."


Occupation: Owner, Zeagle Systems Inc. Born: March 23, 1950, Beloit, Wis. Family: Married, one child Residence: Wesley Chapel Hobbies: Scuba diving Last book read: Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca Latest accomplishment: Expanding the international market for Zeagle products.

Drives: Toyota pickup