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Small factories are big business

In a small factory near Interstate 275, RxP Products Inc. makes, packages and ships a fuel additive that motorists find on the shelves at Wal-Mart, Auto Zone and other auto parts stores.

The company, founded by Dean Johnson of Treasure Island, who invented the additive, has been in business 12 years at 1630 22nd St. N in St. Petersburg. It employs nine people full time and hires five to 10 extra workers when the bottling operation is running at maximum capacity, turning out 2{-ounce bottles at the rate of 30 per minute.

Expansion plans are in the works, and RxP is interested in clients in China and India, although it is not exporting as much as it once did.

With those facts and figures, RxP Products fits the profile of a manufacturing company in Pinellas County: a small company headquartered here that has been in business for more than a decade and is involved in international trade; a company with plans to expand.

That is the snapshot that emerged from a recent survey of manufacturing concerns by the Pinellas County Economic Development Department.

"Seventy-two percent of manufacturers have been in business 10 years," said Rich Hickman, senior business marketing manager for the department. "Fifty-five percent have between one and 50 full-time employees." About the same percentage said they planned to expand products and services within the next three years. Forty-seven percent have business outside the United States.

This profile of the majority of manufacturers obviously does not fit the larger, better-known companies such as Jabil Circuit in St. Petersburg, which makes electronic components and has several thousand employees. Nor should the fact that a majority of the companies reported the possibility of expansion in the next three years be taken to mean they have escaped the recession or consumer retrenchment since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Nationwide and locally, manufacturing peaked about the time of the last election," said Karl J. Nurse, president of Bay Tech Label, a St. Petersburg manufacturer.

"Anybody exporting is growing," Nurse said. "That has been the great source of our growth this year."

Nurse said Bay Tech Label, at 12177 28th St. N, got a contract from a clothing manufacturer in Peru to make 5-million garment tags for clothes that will end up in Old Navy stores.

"In May and June, 30 percent of our business went south" outside the United States, he said. Bay Tech also makes labels for RxP Products.

People might not immediately think of manufacturing as a strong industry in Pinellas because tourism long has been the dominant business.

Hickman said that is something he has learned over the four years the economic development department has been in the county.

"The perception is we are a great place to live but not . . . a place where business is thriving in multiple areas, especially technological areas," Hickman said.

Manufacturing ranked fourth in the county in the fourth quarter of 2001 in the number of workers employed, 41,234. By comparison, the top category was administrative and support services, which includes a lot of tourism, and employed 75,700 workers in the same quarter, according to Laura Berkowitz, senior research manager for the county's Economic Development Department. Accommodations and food services, which are everywhere and would appear to be the front-runner, ranked No. 5 behind manufacturing and employed 32,700 workers in that quarter.

In total payroll for the quarter, manufacturing ranked third, which means workers in the industry average higher wages, according to Berkowitz and Hickman.

Pinellas County ranks No. 2 in the state in manufacturing employment and No. 3 in the total number of manufacturing firms. Hickman estimates there are about 1,500 manufacturing firms.

Their products include computer equipment, electronics, signs, flashlights, industrial supplies, heat pumps, tools, gizmos to prevent and treat stains from well water sprinklers, calibration and testing instruments, cable assemblies and scissors and thread nippers for industrial use.

Roby O'Brien is the third generation of his family to run Southern Supply & Manufacturing Co. in St. Petersburg. His grandfather started the company, which makes Gold Seal cutting tools, in 1927. O'Brien said Southern Supply began as a sales office and then started manufacturing in the 1950s.

The company at 1501 22nd St. N in St. Petersburg employs 25 full-time workers, nine fewer than this time last year because of the economic slowdown. O'Brien said Southern Supply's primary market for its cutting tools has been garment and textile manufacturers.

"We've been seeing a lot of layoffs in those industries for years," O'Brien said. He added that when many of the textile jobs left the United States, Southern Supply has been lucky to follow them out, exporting its products.

"Our primary markets are the United States, Canada, Mexico and some of the eastern Caribbean and some South American market," O'Brien said.

Last year saw a downturn in some of those markets, O'Brien said, but business is improving.

The largest chunk of manufacturing in Pinellas County is machinery and computer equipment, according to the county, followed by printing and publishing, metal fabrication, plastic and rubber products, electronics and optical equipment.

At RxP Products, business gets better every year at the privately held firm, said Don Woodward, company president.

"We have grown right through the middle of it," Woodward said, referring to the economic slowdown and the retrenchment after Sept. 11. He believes one of the reasons is that in less-than-robust times, consumers tend to become more conscious of taking care of things they have, such as autos, because they may not be able to replace them.

And that is where the fuel additive comes in.

"It's about the only thing you can do for your car yourself. You can't mess up. It's absolutely foolproof. Anybody can open a jar and pour it in the fuel tank," Woodward said.

The company's product increases the thermal value of fuel and thus the horsepower of the engine, Woodward said. RxP, when added to a tank of gas, evens the rate at which hydrocarbons burn as fuel powers an engine.

RxP reduces emissions, he said, which is one of the reasons that cruise ships use it. RxP Products sells to retailers and railroads as well, but not directly to the public.

"We have a goal of putting our technology in all of the fuel in the world," Woodward said. Immediate plans include the building of a storage facility at the 22nd Street N site.