Not all multi-million dollar businesses in Wine Country grow from the fruit of the vine. Take the case of Price Pumps. It has been manufacturing and marketing high-quality pumps from its headquarters in Sonoma for over a half-century but few people know the company is here.
'Not a lot of people know about us. We're a bit under the radar,' said Bob Piazza, the president of Price Pumps. 'But we've been in Sonoma since 1948 and we're doing better than ever.'
Manufacturing high-tech pumps may not be as glamorous as making full-bodied chardonnay, but the highly respected international company has reason to be proud of its contribution to the economic vitality of Sonoma Valley.
Founded in the 1930s, Price principally furnished pumps for the agricultural industry. But in the early 1970s, the company shifted to manufacturing special-purpose pumps for industrial use. Their new stainless-steel pumps offered superior quality and dependability, giving the company a sterling reputation but little profit. By the late '80s the company was struggling.
Desperate to staunch the flood of red ink, the family owners asked a hot-shot . production manager from Dresser Industries, a huge' Dallas, Tex.-based oil-field services company that employed George H.W. Bush prior to his presidency and has since merged into Halliburton Company, if he would be interested in taking the helm of Price Pumps.
'Before I committed, I first took a look at the books,' recalled Piazza. 'The numbers made it clear, that if we didn't raise prices, the company was doomed.'
Piazza recommended an increase of five percent. The owners wisely agreed. 'Some of our distributors complained, but we didn't lose a single customer,' boasted Piazza.
Under Piazza's stewardship, Price is now one of the nation's leading mid-size pump manufacturers with average yearly revenues of nearly $10 million, enjoying a world wide reputation for quality and service. In the last decade, Price has become a leading supplier to Third World manufacturers.
At the company's manufacturing and distribution center on Eighth Street East, advanced, computer-controlled equipment is used to create pumps designed to extreme levels of precision and quality, utilizing materials ranging from special metal alloys to exotic plastic components. The pumps are then integrated to high-performance power systems.
'Fundamentally, the operation of a pump hasn't changed since Archimedes invented the first one,' explained Piazza. 'What's changed is the extreme demand required of pumps. At Price we are continually working to develop pumps that are stronger, lighter, more durable and powerful than before, and that can be used for a variety of high-tech applications.'
Originally, Price supplied pumps for the movement of solvents and fluids for the agriculture industry, but today the firm's clients are mostly manufacturers of high-tech equipment. Nearly 80 percent of the liquid-cooled laser systems manufactured in the United States use Price Pumps. Price is also heavily involved in the semiconduc. tor industry, designing and building pumps for coolingtesting equipment for microchips.
Price is investing some R&D effort investigating the commercial viability of developing a miniature pump designed for personal computers. While the performance of PCs and laptops has advanced tremendously, they still depend on an antiquated fan generated aircooling system that is prone to failure from simple dust build-up. Piazza says the company is looking into creating a tiny, highly efficient pump for cooling the next generation of laptops and high-performance personal computers.
'We're looking into design- . ing a pump small enough to fit inside a laptop, but would use only a miniscule amount of power,' said Piazza. 'I think we've found the right design. The price per unit would be small, but it would get us into the personal computer market and that means selling a whole lot of Price Pumps.'