The past year showcased the increasing diversity in Sonoma County economy.
The growth in the medical devices field and the spin-off of a major technology company highlighted how Wine Country is turning into a more balanced place to do business, especially in finding niches in the high-tech industry.
Make no mistake: the county’s agricultural roots continue to play a vital role in the regional economy. But local manufacturers have spread far beyond Sonoma County’s vineyards and pastures, producing products that are used in homes and restaurants all across America. The rapid growth of Amy’s Kitchen and Lagunitas Brewing Co. in 2014 are proof that Sonoma County is increasingly known for more than its wine.
As part of our look back, here are the top 10 local business stories of the past year:
1) Keysight Technologies spun off from Agilent
Keysight Technologies became the largest company ever headquartered in Sonoma County when it made its debut in November. While the name may be new, the company has been a part of the community for four decades.
Agilent Technologies created Keysight last fall by spinning off its Santa Rosa-based electronic measurement division, forming a standalone company with $3 billion in annual sales and 9,500 employees worldwide, including 1,200 in Sonoma County.
Keysight traces its roots in Sonoma County back to 1972, when Hewlett-Packard moved its electronic measurement business to Santa Rosa. In 1999, Hewlett-Packard divided itself in half and formed Agilent, a move mirroring the split that would create Keysight 15 years later.
Agilent will focus on life sciences and chemical analysis while Keysight is emphasizing electronic measurement. Agilent said its stock was undervalued by Wall Street because of the combination of the different businesses.
Keysight intends to focus its growth efforts in three areas: products for wireless communications, “modular” products that allow the combining of components for customized measurement devices, and software testing programs. More than 50 percent of its engineers in Sonoma County are assigned to developing software, up from about 15 percent 30 years ago.
“It’s not just that we’re big and we make money,” Keysight President and CEO Ron Nersesian said in an interview. “We have to create value.”
2) Shifting fortunes among local casinos
The new Graton Resort and Casino just outside Rohnert Park quickly made an impact on Sonoma County in its first year.
The casino rang up $190 million in net revenues — or $1 million a day— during the first six months of the year, according to a filing last August by Station Casinos, the Las Vegas firm that manages the gambling complex. The figure includes profits from gambling on its 3,000 slot machines and 144 card tables as well as food and beverage revenues at the casino, which opened in November 2013.
The casino, owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is “easily one of the most profitable and highest-margin regional gaming operations,” financial services company Credit Suisse wrote in a June research note.
With 2,000 workers, it is the second-largest private employer in Sonoma County, behind only Kaiser Permanente.
The new casino has drawn customers away from Sonoma County’s first Indian casino, River Rock, which opened in 2002 near Geyserville. In September, tribal leaders said River Rock’s revenues had dropped 50 percent since the Graton casino opened, causing the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo to default on payments to investors and miss a $3.5 million payment to Sonoma County.