Founded in 1949, Rogers Machinery is a great business success story of friendship and service. Ned Rogers was born into the compressor business as a member of the Gardner family, who founded Gardner Denver, a mature, respected mid-West industrial equipment company. Rogers joined the United States Navy during the Second World War and served on a light cruiser called the USS Reno in the South Pacific Ocean. It was here that he befriended Walter Novak, a mechanical engineer and hard-working son of Polish immigrants. Together they made plans to be business partners if they made it through the war. In spite being assaulted by torpedoes and having an Imperial Japanese Navy torpedo plane crash into the USS Reno’s fantail, both Rogers and Novak were able to make it home safe.
Following the war, Novak returned home to Seattle where he worked several jobs. As a mechanical engineer, he found work at a steel fabricator, designing pressure vessels and liquid tanks installed at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the original Olympia Brewery, and other sites. Meanwhile, Rogers was proceeding with his plans and established a machinery company in Portland, Oregon. He began with a few product lines including Gardner Denver, Quincy Compressor, and several pump equipment manufacturers. Eventually, Rogers recruited Novak to come from Seattle to Portland to be his partner.
In the beginning, they had to create a sustainable business model, and Novak brought with him a work ethic and a business sense that paired well with Roger’s charisma and connections. Together, they began to build the company into a very profitable venture.
The company established themselves as a key equipment and service provider to the dominant industries in the market. The timber industry in the Pacific Northwest was thriving during the post-war years. Lumber sales in that region were exploding. Families were setting down roots, and there were many homes to build. Since Douglas firs of the Pacific Northwest grow quickly and can be harvested for lumber within fifty years, the timber market in this region became prosperous very quickly. Air compressors have important applications in lumber mills, such as for driving pistons that can be used to move logs, debarking and dust control.
Leadership made a strategic decision to open a second location in Eureka, California to be closer to customers in that market. Being accessible to customers for support and service became a deliberate strategy of the company, and Rogers Machinery continued to expand according to where support was needed. Eureka was soon followed by a third location in Seattle, Washington.
In the mid-sixties, after a successful career in the business, Ned Rogers passed. “Ned was a warm, visionary leader and his legacy of generosity lives on in the business today.” says Andrew Ragen, Rogers Machinery President/CEO and grandson of Novak.
The next major development in the history of Rogers Machinery was the advent of the stationary rotary screw air compressor. Rotary screw compressors replaced the highly efficient, but maintenance intensive double-acting reciprocating compressors as the technology of choice for lubricated plant air system. At Rogers, the development of the Quincy Northwest rotary screw style air compressors represented a huge opportunity to upgrade systems throughout their marketing area.
During this growth period, Novak realized that if Rogers Machinery made service a central focus, the company would be better positioned to compete with some of the larger East Coast suppliers. “If he could build a good machine and have a thoughtful approach to service, then he might gain a competitive advantage” says Ragen. “He committed to having a significant inventory, beyond what any accountant would consider reasonable and to over-serving customers.” Novak developed a rebuild program and worked diligently at providing the best possible service program.
To reach their goals, the Rogers Machinery opened a series of new locations. It established branches in Centralia, Washington and, shortly after, in Spokane, Washington, and Boise, Idaho. Today, the company has nine locations throughout the Western United States. Expansions were always made with the intent to be more accessible to customers and limit the amount of travelling employees would have to do. “He remembered being in the war and knowing the feeling of being separated from family,” says Ragen about Novak. “He wanted his people to go out and work hard, but to be able to go home and be with their families. Putting branches close to customers made sense to him.”
Care for the well-being of employees has always been fundamental to Rogers Machinery. Novak believed in providing good benefits packages and healthcare coverage. He also developed a profit-sharing plan that paid an amount equal to fifteen percent of a worker’s salary into a retirement fund whenever profits were available. These values remain at the core of the Rogers Machinery culture to this day. “Financial independence is an essential element of the American dream,” says Ragen. “We’ve had success working with people who can appreciate the concept of getting rich slow and having a nice retirement someday.”
In the middle of the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest was in a period of significant change. Environmental activists had filed lawsuits related to the management of national forests, and this cut off access to these sources from the logging industry. Prior to this, national forests had been a primary resource for smaller lumber mills, and the sudden shift toward environmental protection, decimated the lumber mill sector. Rogers Machinery’s traditional customer base was shrinking and the company needed to consider new markets.
Fortuitously, it was around this time that technology companies began moving into the Portland metropolitan area to take advantage of low-cost power. Intel and Tektronix were among the first to locate in what eventually became known as the Silicon Forest. These companies demanded a new standard in compressed air quality, and Rogers Machinery quickly began working to meet that demand. Rogers found a partnership with Kobe Steel’s Kobelco machinery division and their oil-free compressor offering and began distributing its products into this new market.
Rogers Machinery began importing Kobelco products and modifying them to meet United States standards, but Kobelco soon became confident in the prospect and built a manufacturing plant in the U.S. to support Rogers. Rogers started to build these compressors from the ground up, incorporating Kobelco’s essential technology of a two-stage, oil-free, rotary-screw air compressor. Today, Rogers offers the only oil-free rotary-screw compressor that is manufactured, designed, tested and assembled in the United States.
By selling this new machinery, Rogers Machinery moved into another growth period. They began building a distribution network across North America. Today it offers these products through seventy-five distributors throughout the country.
This capacity to adapt to a changing marketplace has helped Rogers Machinery achieve a great deal of success. “What we’ve found is that saying yes really matters,” says Ragen. “The ability to meet a technological requirement and deliver on it is important.”
Since 1949, the company has been building loyalties by following the lead of its founders. “The story of Rogers Machinery is one of friendship and great business success.” says Ragen.