The Pacific Ocean rolls onto the beach just 200 yards from the back door at Pacific Allied Products Ltd.
Workers can watch the surf while they take breaks from making bottles and expanded polystyrene containers at the Kapolei, Hawaii, plant. On a clear day, they can see Diamond Head, just 25 miles away.
A world away, in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, nearly 13 feet of snow had fallen by mid-January. On winter afternoons at Ironwood Plastics Inc., deer come in from the fields to feed, nabbing the food that employees hand out to help the animals make it through the harsh winter.
Just beyond the city limits of Ironwood, Mich., skiers zip down the four hills surrounding the town while a few brave souls check out the 120-meter ski jump just four miles from the injection molder.
The separate families that own the operations — Pacific Allied Products and Ironwood Plastics — share many of the same concerns of how to do business in remote locations. They worry about training workers, developing a niche that fits with customers' needs and juggling the demands of everything from intermittent power outages to snow plows.
These are the costs of setting up a business where your heart leads you, rather than where the marketplace normally dictates.
"We came here because of a personal lifestyle," said Scott Stephens, whose parents opened Ironwood Plastics 21 years ago as part of his father's dream of returning to an Upper Peninsula town like the one where he'd grown up.
"There are disadvantages, but you have to find the advantages and exploit the hell out of them."
Setting up shop in out-of-the-way places bucks the trend for an industry that typically seeks out sites based on customer demands, said consultant G. David Moore. His company, Cumming, Ga.-based Moore Associates Consulting Ltd., conducted a national survey of molders dealing with site selection.
The three issues deemed most critical, he said, were the local market, labor availability and quality and utility costs.
"Most people come in and say, `I have an expertise, and this is the market that expertise serves,"' Moore said. "But you can define your way into success and fight the trend of moving where your market is."
Locating in out-of-the-way places requires a good business plan and brings a whole new set of hurdles for any processor, he said.
"There are costs that are associated with, say, opening [a facility] in your hometown, but there are advantages as well," Moore said. For example, start-up shops may do better by setting up where their personal support is the strongest, closer to financial backers, lawyers or technical wizards.
"As a small guy, sometimes it's more important to have that support than to be close to the market," Moore said.
Even larger companies are opting to locate new sites in more rural locations to take advantage of a stronger labor supply at lower costs, said site selection consultant Dennis Donovan, a principal with Wadley-Donovan Group of Morristown, N.J.
Each time a trained employee leaves, it costs companies about $2,500 in lost training, Donovan said. A more stable work force permits employers to invest even more in training and produce the specialized parts their competitors cannot.
Although Donovan does not recommend that every business seek out the back roads, he added, "You can recoup a lot of transportation costs through lower labor costs."
Improved technology, from the fax to e-mail, has helped put remote molders in closer touch with their customers, maintains Brad Weber, president of Terhorst Manufacturing Co. of Minot, N.D.
The 60-employee company is one of only about two dozen plastic processors in the state. It opened in 1926 to make metal parts of wind generators but during the years has added toolmaking, injection molding and expanded polystyrene production to keep up with changing demands from customers in the agriculture and construction industries.
Its average customer is 500 miles away, but by working carefully with trucking companies, Terhorst can meet delivery demands with custom parts produced to exact specifications by a stable employee base, Weber said.
It is all a matter of perspective, he said.
"You're only as remote as you want to be," Weber said. "It used to be, you'd have to have three, four days to get a copy of the [specifications] from a customer. Now, with the technology available, you've got a fax right away.
"It's not like you have to be right next door to get information."
Paul E. and Linda Smith had no experience in the plastics business prior to 1982. He had worked in international banking, she for the federal government's Office of Management and Budget.
What they had was a desire to live in Hawaii. The couple advertised to buy a company, finally settling on Pacific Allied Products, which at that time mostly produced foam cups and EPS forms for the construction business.
"It had a technology I could understand, a marketplace we felt was not fully served and a solid track record," Paul Smith said.
Pacific Allied eventually added PET blow molding capabilities.
Hawaiian island life is everything they had hoped for, he said. Sun, warm temperatures, beautiful views of everything from the surf to volcanoes. Their yard is filled with tropical fruit trees: mangoes, papayas, limes, oranges and tangerines.
"Anything in Hawaii comes down to the personal location preference," Smith said. "Hawaii is paradise. It really is."
But doing business there is not easy.
"The most significant part is, you are so far from any significant market," Smith said. "You're forced to focus on a small market."
Hawaii, with a population of 1.2 million, is a captive market, but even accessing all of those potential customers means shipping between islands — not just packing a load on a truck.
Pacific Allied operates more like a niche testing facility than a mass producer. On any given shift in the 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation, workers are switching over one of the three blow molding machines.
"If we get an order for 100,000 bottles of any particular style, say a clear 2-liter, that's probably the largest single order for any one bottle we'd ever get," Smith said. "Five days of anything at any time would be an excellent run."
Any foam cutter could end up with 10-12 different jobs during the course of a week — sometimes switching jobs after less than an hour.
Pacific Allied has 200 different products, including the 20-foot-tall foam Santa Claus figures used in Honolulu's Christmas decorations, roofing insulation, and the specialized packaging used by Kimo's Ono Hawaiian Food, which sells a "luau in a box" on the Internet at www.luauking.com.
That means the entrepreneurs have had to develop a work force that can adapt to changes quickly.
"Everyone in a remote location has to focus on the ability to be flexible, and do an equally good quality job on every one of those changeovers," he said.
To encourage people to stick around, Pacific Allied treats employees celebrating their 10- year anniversary with the company to a trip to the U.S. mainland.
The cost of doing business in paradise starts from the ground up. To buy a 100,000-square-foot industrial site like Pacific Allied Products costs about $26 per square foot.
"I could buy land in downtown Los Angeles for less than that," Smith said.
Warehouse space rents for 50 cents per square foot per month — forcing processors and customers alike to specialize in just-in-time delivery.
Raw material costs come at about a 10 percent premium over anything on the mainland. That includes everything from resin to the company's own shipping materials.
Electricity runs 11.5-12 cents per kilowatt hour — double the Midwest industrial average of about 5.5 cents. Hawaii has no natural gas infrastructure, so instead processors rely on propane, at $1.60-$1.80 per gallon.
With little plastics production on the islands, Pacific Allied also has to train the bulk of its work force from scratch.
"You have a lot of condo maintenance people, but almost no machinery maintenance people here," he said. "You hope to keep people for at least three to four years just to retain them long enough to pay for their training."
The strong work force was just one of the selling points that brought Ironwood Plastics to the 6,000-person community of Ironwood.
Gordon Stephens was born in the Upper Peninsula town of Iron Mountain — about 100 miles south of Ironwood — spending the first years of his life running wild through the small town and surrounding countryside.
His family moved south to metro Detroit to work in the auto industry when he was 13. He learned the plastics trade through jobs with Ford Motor Co. and Master Industries Inc.
He and his wife, Joan, were anxious to move out of the city and settled for a while in Phillips, Wis., working with Phillips Plastics Corp. Phillips had considered two sites for an expansion — Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Ironwood. It chose Chippewa Falls.
The Stephens family chose Ironwood to start out on their own and follow Gordon Stephen's calling: "To go back home," his son Scott Stephens said.
The family already was familiar with the area, taking in the surrounding slopes as skiers. In 1979, there was little else happening in Ironwood.
The town that grew up on the iron and copper mining industries was in a major depression. There was one plastics supplier in place there already, mold maker Eberson Tool. Only one copper mine remained open, and it closed in the 1990s.
"It was like a bomb went off here," Stephens said. "It was terrible. Everything was in disrepair. The only things happening were skiing and snowmobiling, and there wasn't much of that."
The family found a town ready to open its arms to any new business.
"The city was really anxious to see us come in, even though at that time, we were talking about a business with three machines and six employees," he said.
Local officials provided tax abatements and other assistance to help the family establish Ironwood Plastics. The operation also found plenty of people with a lot of experience operating heavy equipment.
"The basic education of the people here is wonderful," Stephens said. "There is a heritage of machine trades from the mining days. There are good training programs in the high school, but it kind of ends there."
Ironwood Plastics had to invest in additional training, but the community's isolation helps ensure it holds on to good people.
"There's really a good work ethic here," Stephens said. "People take their job seriously. Unlike in an urban area, jobs are not a dime a dozen.
"Because there's very little turnover, we can take our people a lot further skillwise."
Now the 150-employee company enjoys its status as a mainstay in the community. If the managers need input from the city or local utilities, they get attention.
"In the city, people wouldn't even know about your company. Here, we're a major employer."
And while Scott Stephens said he could not understand the lure of the town when he was in high school, he now appreciates the community where his own children can spend all day skiing, taking in sleigh rides and hockey games.
He is vice president of administration for Ironwood Plastics. His brother Mark runs the main operation in Ironwood while Rob Stephens oversees a second small shop in Two Rivers, Wis.
But all of the workers' skills and local support cannot help win business on its own. Ironwood is nearly a five-hour drive away from its nearest customers in Minneapolis.
Although Michigan is among the most populated plastics processors, Ironwood is far out of the auto supply loop. The city of Ironwood is 635 miles from Detroit. Washington, D.C., is closer to Detroit than is Ironwood.
That means Ironwood Plastics has to specialize to compete and survive, Stephens said. It focuses on small parts, with presses ranging from 45-250 tons. The company boasts both insert molding and continuous reel-to-reel operations.
"We do the tough projects that no one else wants to mess with," Stephens said.
And the business also has to convince skeptical customers that its employees can cope with the Upper Peninsula's extreme weather conditions. In 20 years, Stephens notes, it has closed because of bad snow fewer than 10 times.
Consultant Donovan warned that scenery and bucolic settings cannot take the place of a solid business plan. Molders need to be certain they can compete on price and meet their customers' demands, no matter where they are.
"If you want to move someplace remote, you do it because you want to, not because your customer wants you to do it or the market wants you to," said Jeff Mengel, a partner with Auburn Hills, Mich.-based consultants Plante & Moran LLP.
"You can make money, but you have to really want to be there, and you have to work hard at it."