New PG&E program convinces Graton company to stay

Texas, Nevada and Oregon tried to lure plastic ceiling tile maker Empire West away from its home in Graton. But the company decided to stay, thanks to a new job retention program offered by PG&E.|

Texas, Nevada and Oregon are among the states that tried to lure plastic ceiling tile maker Empire West away from the old apple-drying plant in Graton where the manufacturer has been located for more than 30 years.

“They understand they’re good jobs so they’re recruiting like crazy,” said Ed Davis, the company’s president.

But Empire West’s 30 local jobs will be staying put thanks to a new job retention and development program offered by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Davis said. Empire West, which also has two employees in Portland, Ore., has become the first business in Sonoma County - and among the first in the region - to qualify to take part in PG&E’s new Economic Development Rate program.

Under the program, the company will receive a 12 percent reduction in its power rates for five years.

Before it enrolls a company, PG&E must determine that the business would leave the state or close its doors “if this program were not offered to them,” said Jonathan Marshall, a spokesman for the utility. Both PG&E and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development screen the applications.

“It’s important to all of us in California that they stay here,” Marshall said of such businesses. “And it’s important to PG&E.”

Empire West enrolled in the program with the help of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. Tim Ricard, a board manager for business retention, said he learned about the new incentive and immediately thought of the Graton company.

“I knew they were being heavily recruited outside the area,” Ricard said. He also knew that energy costs were one of the company’s major concerns.

Founded in 1968, Empire West makes custom plastics using a process called thermoforming, where plastic sheet material is softened with heat, stretched over a mold and cooled to retain the shape of the mold.

The company has made products for several local tech companies, as well as special items that have appeared in such movies as “Ghostbusters II” and “Star Trek IV.”

But Empire West has sought to be less dependent on outside orders, so in 2002 it launched its ceiling tile business. Its Ceilume brand tiles have been used mainly for residential ceilings, but the company is seeking to expand into the commercial market - part of a $3 billion annual ceiling business in the United States.

Davis, who has been with the company for 27 years, credited Ricard and the Economic Development Board for helping Empire West receive the rate reduction.

“We wouldn’t have put this together without Tim’s help,” he said. Government officials at times gets criticized for its impact on businesses, he said, so “they need to get a gold star when they do something right.”

Asked about the significance of a 12 percent discount, Davis said that energy is the company’s biggest expense after labor and materials, “and the one over which we have the least amount of control.”

“We spend over $100,000 a year on electricity,” he said, “so 12 percent’s a real number.”

Even with the discounted rate, he acknowledged, power remains considerably cheaper in Portland. So why didn’t he move there?

“We really love Sonoma County,” Davis said.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission gave its approval to the new program in April.

By retaining Empire West, PG&E can show the commission “tangible evidence that this is a good thing,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Economic Development Board.

Quality of life remains a key factor for business retention in the county, Stone said. But the new program offers many small businesses another good reason to stay.

“Having this type of incentive,” Stone said, “is a real windfall for keeping jobs in Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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