Vt. native prefers Upper Valley to Silicon Valley for company expansion

  • Lewis Cole, left, Brian Longley, middle, and Kyle Delabruere, of Vermont Protective Coatings, prepare to put a second coat of epoxy sealant on a section of floor at the future location of KAD Models in East Randolph, Vt., Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. The business is moving into the former site of LW Greenwood and Sons agricultural equipment mechanic shop and sealing the floor is a component of the environmental remediation required by the State of Vermont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Ron Greenwood, 81, clears snow in East Randolph, Vt., Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, from the entrance of the property where he ran LW Greenwood and Sons, an agricultural equipment supply company, until leasing the property to Champlain Valley Equipment in 2014. Champlain Valley Equipment left the site in 2018 and Greenwood is now working toward selling the property to Tunbridge native Brian Kippen who has plans for a second location of his business KAD Models that builds product prototypes. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tunbridge, Vt., native Brian Kippen, shown in an undated photograph at his KAD Models and Prototypes shop in Alameda, Calif., is hoping to open an East Coast satellite of his company in East Randolph, Vt. (Courtesy photograph)

  • KAD Models and Prototypes owner Brian Kippen works in his shop in Alameda, Calif., in an undated photograph. Kippen is hoping to open an East Coast satellite of his company in East Randolph, Vt. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/7/2019 10:32:21 PM
Modified: 12/7/2019 10:32:18 PM

EAST RANDOLPH — Brian Kippen left Vermont 16 years ago to seek his fortune in California. Now the former Tunbridge resident and 2001 graduate of South Royalton High School wants to bring that fortune home to Vermont.

Kippen, 36, has been working since July to open an East Coast satellite facility of his California computer-aided machine shop at the former L W Greenwood & Sons construction equipment site in East Randolph. Kippen’s company, KAD Models and Prototypes, designs and builds product prototypes and components for a variety of manufacturers and companies, ranging from automotive drive axles to silicone heart valves and fully functioning consumer product models.

Kippen is currently navigating the state’s environmental regulations and has an agreement in principle to acquire the 3.6-acre property and three buildings at the corner of Route 14 and Route 66 that is only 5 miles from Vermont Technical College

If the plan comes to fruition, KAD Models will become that latest advanced tech manufacturer to plant itself in the hills of east-central Vermont.

The Randolph area, home to injection mold maker GW Plastics, diode lighting company LEDynamics and security technology firm Applied Research Associates, is an attractive place to locate a tech-oriented manufacturing company because employers can find a local workforce that has the skills for the job, according to Joshua Jerome, director of economic development with the town of Randolph.

“It makes a lot of sense to locate here because of the advanced manufacturing program at VTC and ties to Randolph Career Technical Center,” Jerome said, pointing to the Orange Southwest School District’s program that has an advanced manufacturing “career path” for high school students. “That will help Brian find the people he needs.”

Since it launched in 2012, KAD Models, which is based in Alameda, Calif., has made 2,800 prototypes for 30 clients, including Tesla, Medtronic, Google parent Alphabet and hydration backpack maker Camelbak. The company now has six employees, all of whom Kippen — a self-taught machinist, product modeler and prototype builder — has trained himself.

(“KAD” in the company’s name stands for “Kippen and dog,” a reference to Atlas, Kippen’s estimated 10-year-old rescue dog who “supports KAD by holding the floor in place with frequent naps,” according to the company’s website.)

Despite Kippen’s ties to the Upper Valley, the opening of a facility in Randolph is the result of a bit of serendipity.

Kippen said he had been exploring a second site for KAD Models in Detroit or Philadelphia — lower-cost regions than California, where there is ample vacant manufacturing space — but found it difficult to get through the local bureaucracies.

Then one day last summer, when he traveled home to the Upper Valley for a friend’s 40th birthday, he drove past the vacant L W Greenwood & Sons site on Route 14 in East Randolph, and it hit him that the empty buildings could work as second location for KAD Models. The site has been vacant and listed for sale for $375,000 since Champlain Valley Equipment, which took over the business from Greenwood, closed its East Randolph store in 2018.

Sitting in the Burlington airport waiting for his flight back to San Francisco, Kippen emailed the real estate agent selling the property along with Jerome, whom Randolph had recently hired away from civic booster group The Barre Partnership to become the town’s first director of economic development.

By the time Kippen landed at JFK for his layover, he had responses from both Jerome and the real estate agent.

Critically, a big selling point on Randolph is the presence of Vermont Technical College.

“VTC, that’s why Randolph,” explained Kippen, though he added that there was an element of “personal pride” also factored into the decision, given his Vermont roots.

“They have an advanced manufacturing program that is taught by people who understand what advanced manufacturing is,” he said. “I’ve seen other places that teach it, but VTC does it the right way.”

That “right way” combines theory and practice, according to Jeremy Cornwall, chairman of the mechanical engineering technology department at VTC.

Five years ago, VTC introduced a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering that combines the program with classes in automation, design, computer-controlled machining and 3D printing. Importantly, he said, apprentice-like education is built into the curriculum.

“Every course we offer has a lab component, so students not only learn material in the classroom but get practical experience,” said Cornwall, who noted that students spend about 15 hours per week in a lab that VTC built four years ago with help from $1 million in state funding. “That’s one of the real contrasts between our program and others. Employers know our graduates have a level of hands-on training and experience.”

Other factors weighing in Vermont’s favor are lower living costs than the Bay area, where the rent for a one-bedroom apartment can average $3,800 per month, and the difficulty in finding employees because the demand for tech workers in California makes it difficult for smaller shops like Kippen’s to compete for talent.

“Everyone’s a startup here,” he said.

The bicoastal expansion is a big step for the eight-year-old, six-employee company currently working out of 3,600 square feet of space that was formerly a pencil factory.

He estimated it will take about $2 million to get the former L W Greenwood & Sons site ready for occupancy. That includes everything from purchasing the property from the Greenwood family, installing $600,000 worth of advanced manufacturing equipment, renovation costs of the three buildings, and the cost of an environmental assessment and any remediation.

The town already helped Kippen steer through a zoning change — light manufacturing was previously limited to 4,000 square feet at the site, and it is now cleared for 25,000 square feet — and he has hired Kacie Merchand (whose brothers Mike and Justin Merchand own Merchand Brothers Garage in White River Junction) as director of growth and business strategy.

Among Merchand’s assignments is coordinating the environmental assessment of the site — there’s some contamination from oils and solvents in the ground — and to work with the state’s Brownfields Reuse and Environmental Liability Limitation Act program at site remediation before the company closes on the property.

She is also helping to write grant applications and to secure funding from Vermont’s Agency of Commerce through its Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program, Kippen said, which will help to offset employee costs.

Kippen said he is targeting October 2020 to open the Randolph site. The first year he is looking to hire two to five employees, but by the third year he expects the site could employ between 10 and 15 people.

While it may not be quite the job creator of Amazon’s second headquarters Arlington, Va., KAD Models’ facility in Randolph might help to keep a few Vermonters from immigrating to the Golden State.

“I still see a new Vermont license plate every week here,” Kippen said by telephone from Alameda, Calif., last week. “There are Vermont people everywhere.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

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