Pacific CA Systems

Innovation leads a Washington state distributor to a fruitful niche market.

Putting apples to “sleep” is not exactly a phrase one would find in most specialty gases distributors’ everyday vocabularies. But for Yakima, Washington-based Pacific CA Systems, it’s the bedrock of the company’s success and provided the foundation for its entrance into other, equally successful new markets. However, Pacific CA’s rapid growth isn’t merely due to its founders’ understanding of a little-known market. It’s also a testament to the company’s spirit of innovation, and its knowledge that innovation plus excellent service is a formula for long-term success.

Apples to Apples

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President Jim Wooldridge was inspired to co-found Pacific CA Systems when he and a partner designed an innovative tool for the Washington state controlled atmosphere market.

The “CA” in the company’s name stands for “controlled atmosphere,” a system in which the temperature and mix of gases in a given storage area are carefully controlled. Pacific CA co-founder and President Jim Wooldridge was first introduced to the concept of controlled atmosphere through a previous employer who did some work in that field for the Washington state apple industry.

“A lot of people don’t realize that in the fruit industry, most apples, pears and similar kinds of fruits are ‘put to sleep’ to allow them to be stored for months at a time and still retain their freshness prior to shipment,” Wooldridge explains. “The process involves putting the fruit into an airtight room, then adding nitrogen to reduce the 20.8% oxygen in the air to between 1.5% and 2%, which is the level at which the fruit is stored. This slows down the respiration of the fruit, so it goes into a hibernation process. The fruit can be stored for up to 12 to 14 months under those conditions, and it will still have the same sugar content, pressure and other characteristics as it had when it was put into the room.”

In the late 1980s, the controlled atmosphere market for the apple industry was dominated by major gas companies that sold large, permanent tank installations. Wooldridge and a co-worker, Steve Houston, saw an opportunity in the market for a portable nitrogen workstation, which would be able to service smaller customers who couldn’t justify the expense of a large, permanent installation. The two set about designing the workstation, based on the concept of a liquid nitrogen tank on a trailer, and including a vaporizer and all the associated piping. However, after a disagreement with their employer about the potential success of the project, the two decided to strike out on their own, founding Pacific CA Systems in 1990 with a third partner, Bill Gast.

COMPANY SNAPSHOT
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President: Jim Wooldridge
Year Founded:
1990
Year Joined GAWDA:
2004
Headquarters:
Yakima, Washington
Employees:
38
2005 Sales:
$5,000,000
Web Site:
www.pacificca.com

The three men moved into three separate regions of the state and worked out of their homes, so that the new company would have a presence in each of the three major apple growing areas in eastern Washington. “It was hard at first,” Wooldridge recalls. “We each pitched in $3,000—which makes people laugh and bankers shake their heads, because it’s unheard of to start a business on that kind of money. Our first company vehicle was purchased at a junk yard!”

In its first year in business, the company sold membranes for on-site nitrogen generation and introduced its nitrogen pull-down service, using a portable nitrogen workstation the men constructed based on a new, improved design. The three founders began to market the service to apple growers in eastern Washington, and it proved a hit, especially with smaller growers.

“Previously, there was a cut-off line in the apple industry where if you didn’t have enough bins, a permanent nitrogen tank was too expensive,” says Wooldridge. “But the process we developed leveled the playing field, because we charged on a per-room basis instead of a per-warehouse basis. Now the smaller players in the apple market had access to the same technology as the big warehouses.”

After 18 months in business, Pacific CA Systems opened an office in Yakima, Washington, and Bill Gast parted ways with the other two founders. Wooldridge and Houston continued to service the apple industry, building the young company’s reputation.

Berry Good Service
Word of Pacific CA’s services to the apple market began to spread, and the company’s customer list grew. In its second year in business, Pacific CA added a second portable nitrogen workstation. In the third year, it added several more. Today, the company controls 70 percent of the controlled atmosphere market for the Washington state apple industry.

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The company's motto, "Delivering Customer Service," is a concept Pacific CA employees take seriously.

As a result of the growth Pacific CA experienced in its early years, word also got out to other fruit producers, including berry farmers in the region, who in turn began to contact Pacific CA for berry freezing services. With this entrance into the berry market, Wooldridge became increasingly aware that the company’s gas supplier lacked the infrastructure to provide Pacific CA with timely delivery of the volume of nitrogen its growing customer base required. As a result, Pacific CA acquired a nitrogen transport, enabling the company to transport its own nitrogen from the supplier’s plant and allowing Wooldridge control of the process from pickup to delivery. “That went extremely well for us,” says Wooldridge. “The first year we had the transport, we were able to haul all of our own product and felt like we could move forward again.” Today, the company owns a fleet of 29 transports.

It was also at this time that Wooldridge began to realize the importance of the service—not just the product—Pacific CA was offering its clients. “We were building portable workstations that allowed us to go into the field, set up very quickly and be up and operating within 24 hours, whereas setting up a permanent installation can take months of planning and work,” says Wooldridge. “And we weren’t just giving our customers nitrogen: We turned the valves on, turned the valves off, and completely did the process for them. It dawned on me one day when I tried to convert a customer from the nitrogen pull-down service to a membrane-style piece of equipment, and he wasn’t interested in making the switch. He said to me, ‘If I want CA, I call Pacific CA, and that’s all I have to do. My guys don’t have to worry about it, and I don’t have to take care of it.’ At that point, I realized what we had done.”

“Service” quickly became a company mantra, and Pacific CA took the experience to the next level for customers. Because the vaporizers on the portable nitrogen workstations generate ice on the trucks, drivers began carrying soda, which they would put on top of the trailers to chill, as well as candy to share. “It was a big hit,” Wooldridge recalls. “We’d go to Costco and buy soda and jars of candy. Even today, the first thing customers ask is, ‘Where’s the soda? Where’s the candy?’”

Service is something that is stressed at every level of the organization at Pacific CA, and the drivers are the most visible embodiment of that strategy. “I recently got a call from a customer who said he wanted to tell me personally that my drivers are the most helpful and courteous he’s ever worked with,” says Wooldridge. “We train our drivers to be flexible and to care about our customers. They have to care about the job they’re doing, because it’s their jobs that create our business. We have no sales staff because our reputation already brings us more work than we can take on.”

Pacific CA has earned its reputation in the region not just for its high level of service, but also for paying drivers well and providing top-of-the-line equipment with which to work. As a result, the company has a waiting list of potential employees eager to join Pacific CA’s 38-person staff.

“Part of my personal belief is that it’s my role to make sure that everybody who comes in the door here is a better person if and when they leave,” says Wooldridge. “We’ve had a number of welders and other employees come through here and gain good knowledge, then go on to grow in even larger companies, and we’re proud of that.”

Taking Root in New Markets
With Pacific CA’s rapid growth in the fruit market came a desire to expand beyond the company’s roots in eastern Washington state. As word spread among apple growers about Pacific CA’s capabilities in the mid-1990s, the company began to receive inquiries from Australia and other overseas markets. “We put together packages of equipment—things a customer needed to make a building controlled atmosphere—and sent them in containers,” explains Wooldridge. “Then we’d send one or two employees to help install all of the equipment and teach people how to do controlled atmosphere.”

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Pacific CA Systems' portable nitrogen workstations, which consist of a liquid nitrogen tank on a trailer, a vaporizer and all associated piping, brought controlled atmosphere capabilities to a new market segment.

For nearly six years, the company worked on an international scale, sending systems into nations as far-flung as China, Korea, New Zealand and Turkey, and even establishing an office in Australia for close to three years. However, although Pacific CA took a large share of the CA market for the apple industry in Australia, the entire Australian apple market was still only one-quarter the size of the market in Washington’s Yakima Valley. In the end, Pacific CA shut down the Australian office and curtailed its overseas activity.

“By the time we did all the travel and the effort it took to work worldwide, it wasn’t really good money,” says Wooldridge. “We decided to stop and refocus on our own backyard, where there was still a lot of good business to be had. But instead of going back to our existing customers and trying to get more out of them, we decided to go after new customer bases.”

By this time, Pacific CA was receiving requests for CA service for other varieties of produce, including blueberries and onions, but the company also opted to test the waters in another market entirely: oil fields. As the oil industry experienced rapid growth in the early 2000s, Wooldridge saw a potential growth market for Pacific CA Systems in the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracing,” process used in the drilling of oil wells.

“In the fracing process, the ground is broken up around a newly drilled oil well to let the oil flood back to the head of the well, where it is pumped,” says Wooldridge. “In talking with people in the industry, I learned that up to six truckloads of nitrogen are used per well, and that there weren’t a lot of carriers offering the same level of service that we could.”

The first oil field work the company did was in Canada, and soon—as with the fruit markets—Pacific CA’s reputation spread. “There wasn’t a learning curve with oil fields the way there was with controlled atmosphere,” notes Wooldridge. “All we really had to do was get the nitrogen there for the customer to use, and make sure it was there waiting for the customer, and that the customer was not waiting for the truck.”

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Pacific CA Systems owns a fleet of 29 nitrogen transports, enabling the company to maintain control of the process from pickup to delivery.

Over the last five years, thanks in part to the oil industry boom, the company’s markets have shifted from 75 percent fruit-based to 75 percent oil field-based. More important, it has helped Pacific CA Systems maintain an annual growth rate of 100 percent over the last four years.

Growing Wisely
Growth has not been without its challenges for Pacific CA Systems. The company frequently adds new equipment and new employees to keep up with demand. A recent technology initiative saw the implementation of new computer programs to track trucks and loads, streamlining the entire process, and the company’s staff has expanded in new directions, including the addition of service technicians dedicated to servicing equipment that’s been operating in the apple industry for a number of years.

Pacific CA continues to serve the fruit market, as well as a variety of other niche markets that require nitrogen, such as wineries and food packagers, and maintains a large shop at its headquarters in Yakima where employees build the portable nitrogen workstations that fueled the company’s initial success.

With the 2003 departure of co-founder Steve Houston, today Jim Wooldridge is the sole owner of Pacific CA Systems, and he looks forward to sustaining the company’s impressive growth. “The oil field market will probably still be our biggest growth area for the next couple of years,” he says. “We’re not looking to enter any other new markets at this point, because there’s still a lot of growth to be had in this one.”

Given its well-earned reputation for providing an innovative product coupled with world-class service, there’s no doubt that specialty gases and equipment distributor Pacific CA Systems will be enjoying the fruits of its labors for many years to come.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association