A low-profile company with an amazingly durable history

Typically, other companies use Richlite in their own products, which range from skateboards to guitar fretboards and from cutting boards to exterior walls.

Richlite’s product comprises layers of resin-soaked thick paper that are dried and then compressed under hellish pressure to produce an impermeable slab of material, easy to machine, of whatever specified thickness meets a customer’s needs.

The first needs served the wartime aerospace industry and the company has gone on to enhance its reputation among architects and in the world of skateboards and skateboard parks. That sporting product, Skatelite, is used to manufacture and shape indoor and outdoor skateboard ramps used by amateur and professional skaters and BMX riders.

The News Tribune spoke recently with Atkinson at the Richlite headquarters and manufacturing plant on the Tacoma Tideflats.

Q: What do companies do with your product?

A: Where we partner with other companies they’re turning our material into (products that include) guitars and iPhone cases. Another partner produces longboard skateboards. We’ve seen eyeglass frames, three-ring binders. I’ve seen chopsticks. In automotive, Mercedes has tested for interior use.

Q: So how’s business?

A: It’s going really, really well. Between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2012, our revenue grew 70 percent. In addition, year-to-date for 2013 we are 25 percent greater than we were at this time last year.

Q: How are you planning to celebrate your anniversary?

A: We’re about two or three weeks away from starting a big campaign for an event we have coming up with our Skatelite division. We’re inviting pro skateboarders and BMX riders to Lopez Island to help dedicate a new skate park. It will be open to the public, free. We’re bringing out all of our distributors, and the pros, about 150 people. We’ve rented 40 homes on the island. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Q: Where did the company get its start?

A: In aerospace. Before computer-assisted design, Boeing would use it to prototype parts. When the 747 was being built, we used it to build a nose cone for wind tunnel tests.

Q: What’s been the progression from aerospace to other uses?

A: In the ’60s we did get into food service, food preparation, back-of-the-kitchen stuff. I’ve seen it in so many restaurants. Architectural is our largest growth area. We’ve been working with a lot of high-profile companies. I’ve sat down with the Tacoma Art Museum. I’d love to be part of the Haub addition, the exterior surface. We’ve done extensive testing and we’re just getting into the marketing phase. We’ve tested in Duluth, Minn., and gone through bitter cold, and hot summers, commercial and residential.

Q: What kinds of shapes can you produce here?

A: We can do any thickness from one-eighth of an inch to three inches thick. Different (varieties) go under names like Black Diamond, Browns Point, Grays Harbor, Rainier, Adams, Little Tahoma – all local areas. A new product, “Stratum, ” has imbedded bamboo.

Q: What about your R&D?

A: Our biggest goal, one of the reasons we’re successful, is that we really go after areas where we can help solve a problem. With the fretboards, about four years ago one of our reps was working with a small guitar-repair company that does a lot of work with Martin. They put two and two together.

Q: Where are you seeing the greatest growth?

A: Architectural, and a bigger piece as more and more of these other options help us grow, and we’ll expand the Skatelite surface material. We’re looking at sub-flooring for rail cars, and there’s also the bus industry. We’re growing faster in Europe than in the U.S., especially with architectural. We’re starting in Asia.

Q: What about cost? I’m guessing you’re more expensive than plywood.

A: In general, no matter what market we are selling into, our product will end up on the premium end of the spectrum. For countertops, an installed price is equivalent to high-end granite.

That said, the benefits can far outweigh the expense. Our Skatelite product is probably the simplest comparison. Compared to regular plywood that people put on skate ramps, our material is four times the amount. A plywood surface may need to be resurfaced two times per year. There are Skatelite-surfaced ramps out there that have been in operation for 12-plus years.

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