Close this search box.

Log in

Top Stories

Southwest Florida will never be mistaken for the Rust Belt when it comes to manufacturing. The area and the state are far more likely to tout the beaches and sunshine, and the jobs that support the tourism and retirement industries.

Manufacturing is a small portion of the state’s economy, making up 4.5% of jobs; October employment numbers show 423,000 manufacturing jobs. Southwest Florida’s numbers are even lower than the state’s. Manufacturing makes up 2.5% of Lee County’s workforce, 3% of Collier County’s and 1.2% of Charlotte’s, according to October employment numbers.

The manufacturing done in Southwest Florida is a far cry from the large, sprawling, assembly-line factories of the industrial northeast. Most of the manufacturing companies here are small, often mom-and-pop machine shops with a handful of employees.

But that is changing. Local governments are making more of an effort to attract manufacturing, which comes with better-paying jobs. The number of manufacturing jobs in Lee County has grown by 29% since 2018, double the growth rate of all jobs.

Manufacturing is needed because it’s one piece of the puzzle to create a diverse economy, said Ted Bill, president of Pelican Wire, based in Naples.

Finding the Workforce

The reasons why the state and Southwest Florida have never been a haven for manufacturing are numerous: Geography, workforce, the lack of incentives and recruiting are cited.

“We get overrun by the South Carolinas, Georgias and Alabamas,” says Dave Gammon, executive director of the Charlotte County Economic Development Office. “They’ve always done it. They’ve recruited better than Florida, so Florida as a manufacturing state has never really ranked high.”

Rob Harris, who leads the Southwest Regional Manufacturing Association, used to think the state’s anti-handout philosophy was the main reason why there wasn’t more local manufacturing. He pointed to Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina attracting foreign car makers. He has changed his opinion. The biggest problem is a lack of a qualified workforce, he said.

Talk to many manufacturers and they agree. There’s a shortage of workers, especially skilled ones. It’s more difficult to find the right employee in Southwest Florida than it is in the Rust Belt, Pelican Wire’s Bill said.

Everyone who wants to work is working, said John Talmage, executive director of Lee County Economic Development. About 82% of the workforce between ages 25 and 55 in Lee County is working, which is above the national average, but the size of the workforce between ages 18-24 and 56 and older is below the national average.

“We have to find ways to get the younger 18- to 24-year-olds into the workforce and find ways to get 56-year-olds back into the workforce as managers or teachers,” Talmage says.

The negative perception of manufacturing also needs to change, Harris said. Many parents who moved south grew up in the Rust Belt and remember smokestacks lighting up the night sky. Harris called its atmosphere grease, grime and smokestacks.

But manufacturing overall has changed, said Keitha Daniels, economic development director for Hendry County. The buildings are air-conditioned, the work is clean, more technology is involved.

The workforce is out there, said Lee Zaiser IV, CEO of Azimuth Technology, but you have to think differently to find them.

Many of his employees are from Southeast Asia and Japan, and 50% of them are women; an estimated 90% had never seen this type of machine before joining the company, so they need to be trained.

Finding enough space was more of an issue for Azimuth, Zaiser said.

Space Constraints

Geography is a barrier in Southwest Florida. Land is scarcer for manufacturing and more expensive, said Chris Westley, dean of Florida Gulf Coast University’s business school.

“You have to have a really specialized good, [and] high demand for it, so the revenue will be sufficient to cover the cost of production,” he says.

Charlotte County never had facilities for manufacturing, Gammon said, so if a manufacturer wanted to build in Charlotte, they would have to be real estate developers first.

That is changing, especially around Punta Gorda airport, where developers are constructing buildings on spec. “So, now these manufacturing companies can come and not have to play the real estate game,” Gammon says. “All they have to do is lease the space they want and start doing their manufacturing.”

The Florida Factor

There would be even less manufacturing in Southwest Florida if it weren’t for the alluring palm trees, beaches and sunshine. The area boasts a who’s who of manufacturers that have started or moved their companies here because families had homes here or vacationed here.

Pelican Wire, Azimuth Technology, My Shower Door, Nor-Tech, Addman and Pravada Private Label are a few of the businesses owned by entrepreneurs departing more northerly climates.

Arthrex is the biggest and best-known. Reinhold Schmieding moved his business from Germany to Naples in 1991 after vacationing in the area with relatives, and it has since grown into one of the biggest medical device makers in the world. Arthrex employs more than 6,000 people worldwide, 3,000 in Southwest Florida.

Medical device manufacturing has become one of the biggest industries in Southwest Florida. Tyber Medical, Merits Health Products, Structure Medical, Sutumed Surgical Sutures, Lenkbar and Emcyte call Southwest Florida home.

Arthrex’s investment in the area has created “labor agglomeration”—one business makes a large investment in the region, and it attracts talented and skilled people, FGCU’s Westley said.

“More and more people come here, and then there’s enough labor to justify further investment by other firms, and the next thing you know you have a little industry going,” he says.

Tyber Medical, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, purchased Bonita Springs’ CatapultMD in 2021. The company makes orthopedic instruments and implants.

Having Arthrex as a neighbor is a good thing, said Toby Borcoman, Tyber’s chief people officer. Arthrex needs to turn to contract manufacturers, Tyber included, to provide some products.

The French company Intech purchased Lenkbar in September. The Naples-based company designs and makes surgical devices, and 50% of its business is with Arthrex, said CEO Erik Papenfuss. He calls Schmieding a mentor.

“We still would be in medical,” he says, “but we wouldn’t be as big as we are. Obviously, they helped us grow.”

Looking Ahead

Manufacturing is only going to expand as the population grows. The Florida Chamber of Commerce’s goal is to make this one of the top five states for manufacturing jobs by 2030.

The jobs need to be more than basic manufacturing assembly jobs that pay $14 an hour, said the manufacturers association’s Harris. “We want high tech,” he says. “It has to go that way.”

The association held a panel discussion in November talking about automation, agreeing that manufacturers need to become more sophisticated and take advantage of advances in technology.

“If you’re not automated, at least in part, by 2030,” says Harris, “you’re going to be out of business.”

Growth Afloat

Trond Schou and Nils Johnsen turned their love for speed and boats into a business.

They started Nor-Tech Hi-Performance Boats in Cape Coral in 1991 after building boats in their home country of Norway. Today, Nor-Tech employs about 200 workers in three factories in North Fort Myers and Cape Coral.

“We have grown with the town,” says Schou, who started his business in Cape Coral for the same reason so many others have started Southwest Florida businesses: A family member (his father) lived here.

Nor-Tech builds about 100 boats a year, Schou said, and revenues are growing about 10% to 15% annually. The company has a two-year backlog of orders.

Nor-Tech has the same problem other manufacturers have when it comes to finding labor. Schou recruits at technical schools as far away as Orlando.

“It’s very hard to find workers because they have a couple of different types of workers,” Schou says: “You have workers who retired from up North and want to come to Florida and kind of hang out … and then the people who are younger and more entry-level, it’s tough for them to find affordable housing in the area.”

Nor-Tech pays between $15 and $30 an hour, depending on experience. The boats aren’t cheap. They cost from $500,000 to $2.5 million, he said.

Schou feels good about the company’s future. “I hope that we’re here to stay,” he says. “We’ve been through some shady times, and we made it through that. So, I think at the moment we are stronger than ever.”

Medical Movers and Shakers

Build them and they will sell. That’s what tends to happen to medical device companies in Southwest Florida.

Lenkbar owner Erik Papenfuss sold his company to the French-based company Intech Medical in late 2023, and then bought back 20%. He remains CEO of the East Naples-based company.

Papenfuss and his father sold Hansa Medical, which made a heart stent holder in 2011. He used the proceeds to start Lenkbar.

Papenfuss was a child when his parents moved from Rochester, New York, to Marco Island to escape the cold winters. His father started his tool and die business that eventually morphed into Hansa Medical.

Lenkbar started to grow rapidly after Papenfuss’ noncompete agreement

to do contract work with the buyer of Hansa expired in 2016.

Arthrex called not long after; now 50% of Lenkbar’s business comes from the medical instrument giant.

Lenkbar still would be in the medical business but not as big as it is if it wasn’t for Arthrex, Papenfuss says: “They’re really what started us.” He called Arthrex’s owner, Reinhold Schmieding, an inspiration.

The company’s revenue was about $26 million in 2023. It’s expected to reach $31 million this year, Papenfuss said.

Lenkbar, like most Southwest Florida manufacturers, scours the region for workers. Papenfuss won’t hire workers from Arthrex unless they’ve been gone from the company for two years.

Programmers can make more than $100,000 a year, he said; hourly wages range from $18 to $33 an hour, depending on the job.

Headhunters find about 5% of the workers, and many engineers have been with him for decades.

“I look for passionate people,” Papenfuss says. “You can train good, smart, passionate people.”

Pelican Power

Larry and Theresa Bill weren’t sure their business would survive when they moved Pelican Wire to Naples in 1976. They were a mom-and-pop operation in the truest sense: Theresa took the orders and Larry manufactured the products.

Larry even started some side businesses because the Bills didn’t expect the business to survive.

They were wrong. The business didn’t just survive, it thrived. Pelican Wire is still going strong, making resistance and thermocouple wiring for companies such as Boeing and Caterpillar.

The company’s revenues are about $40 million annually, and growing between 5% and 10% annually, said company President Ted Bill, Larry and Theresa’s son.

The company created a holding company, the Wire Experts Group, to place Pelican Wire and its acquisitions under one umbrella. Pelican has about 65 employees in Naples and 150 in total.

Bill, 52, joined the company in 2008 after his father died, leaving his job as an industrial engineer working for Disney in Orlando. The company became employee-owned at the same time.

“After my father passed away, we really struggled with what to do with the business and where it was going, because at the time I wasn’t planning to come back and run the company,” he says.

Being in Southwest Florida has its advantages; the sunshine is one of them. It also helps that Pelican is close to Florida’s ports to send its exports, mostly wiring for “green energy” companies.

The location also has its challenges; the big one is the workforce. “The employee pool is definitely more difficult to find,” Bill says. “You’ve got to find the right person, then you’ve got to train them and then you’ve got to try to keep them here—because it continues to get more expensive to live here.”

Pelican pays about $25 an hour for a machine operator.

Made in Charlotte County

Products used by consumers and industry are being manufactured in Charlotte County. Some of the companies were founded elsewhere, but for various reasons, their owners and corporate leaders chose the county for their centers of operations.

Inflatable indoor parks and rides, fencing around pools, heavy equipment and roof racks for vehicles are things you see every day, but may not realize were manufactured in and shipped from Charlotte County.

Positive Inflation

The Whincup family’s Galaxy Multi Rides got its start in the U.K., after Robin Whincup started a side business renting out a bounce house that he purchased in the 1980s. At that time, he and his wife Kate, a nurse, were running a contracting business, installing flooring for hotels, nursing homes and other large commercial projects.

“But we were always looking for a second income,” he says, explaining that the couple had five children to support. His son Mike later joined the family business and “we saw the potential as our inflatable business grew,” he says.

The family decided to concentrate on its inflatable enterprise and began to manufacture custom-made rides and inflatable games. Then large orders came in for indoor amusement parks. If you’ve ever taken a child or grandchild to a Sky Zone, Castle Fun Center or the Jumpin Fun Inflata Park in Sarasota, you have seen a Galaxy Multi Rides-made product.

The move to the U.S. began when, on a trip to an industry convention held in Dallas, Robin Whincup realized that most of his business was coming from the U.S. Having vacationed in Southwest Florida for a number of years because the family enjoyed the beach, outdoor spaces and American culture, the Whincups packed up and moved to Charlotte County in 2008. There, they found a warehouse in Port Charlotte that would accommodate their manufacturing enterprise on a large scale.

The demand for indoor inflatable amusement parks grew. “We manufactured and sold 75 of these parks over the last five years,” he says.

Although U.S. companies and individuals provide the firm’s biggest purchasers, the company’s products have been shipped to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Falkland Islands, Guyana and Kazakhstan.

The company also makes inflatable mechanical bulls whose heads can be exchanged with other animal heads. This year an order came in for a number of mechanical reindeer. The good thing about inflatable mechanical bulls is that everything is soft, and if you’re thrown from the bull, you land on a soft, inflatable floor.

Safety for Sale

Baby Barrier manufactures pool fencing from its warehouse in Punta Gorda and ships the potentially lifesaving product nationwide.

“Most of our customers are from Florida and California,” says co-owner Michelle Walter. Her partner, David Flury, said a number of customers also install pool fencing to protect their pets that can’t swim.

According to the CDC, more children ages 1-4 die from drowning than from any other cause of death, and it is the second leading cause, after motor vehicle accidents, for children ages 5-14.

Heavy Duty

Marden Industries and Supertrak, whose manufacturing firm is located near the Punta Gorda Airport, is a dealer for the Fat Truck brand, which manufactures an amphibious vehicle. Company President Tom King said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission purchased a Fat Truck, and it crossed the Peace River during Hurricane Ian.

Marden Industries/Supertrak manufactures components to armor vehicles for the U.S. Army, whose humanitarian demining group searches for landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in war-torn countries.

The company also makes “mulchers,” heavy machinery that clears vacant lots, farmland and ranchland, and mows under power lines. It purchases Caterpillar equipment and makes upgrades, including enhanced hydraulics for customized machinery, King said.

Recently, a new fiber-optic cable system was being installed in Punta Gorda, and “if you see a pickup with a compressor,” chances are you’re seeing a Marden Industries/Supertrak machine at work, he said.

Fantastic Voyage

Another company with a recognizable brand name manufactures customized roof racks for Range Rovers and other vehicles. Andrew Nix’s Voyager Offroad LLC specializes in the design and fabrication, which is completed at the company’s Port Charlotte warehouse.

Nix brought his company from Portland, Oregon, where he founded the company in 2001, to Port Charlotte in 2006. “We only use American alloys and we do not outsource any of our work to foreign entities,” he says.

The name “Voyager” is the company’s registered trademark. But there is a more glamorous side to what Voyager does: “We provide filming crews with the gear they need to film movies, commercials and music videos,” Nix says.

That movie equipment includes roof racks, side ladders and metal cages. He said a Voyager rack was used on the “fastest film car on earth,” holding the camera that filmed Netflix’s “Stranger Things” Season 4, Bad Boys for Life, Jumanji: The Next Level and dozens of series and movies. A Voyager rack and side ladder also was featured in the Marvel movie Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Voyager racks have been shipped as far as Australia, Japan and Europe, Nix said. But, more importantly, his vehicle racks “have saved lives in rollover accidents and are used taking thousands of families on road trips,” he says.

Drawing Focus

In November 2023, Economic Development Director Dave Gammon spoke to a group of Southwest Florida business professionals about the amount of commercial development happening in Charlotte County, and where future growth is headed.

He said several national companies have shown interest in an 800,000-square-foot spec building near the Punta Gorda airport. “Between last year and this year, we have more than 840,000 square feet now being built or finished,” Gammon says.

He also said that during the airport’s first 70 years, about that same amount of commercial space has been built, so the square footage has doubled in just the last two years.

Gammon said that within the next three years, some 1.5 million square feet of commercial space is expected to be filled. He credits Cheney Brothers, which in 2015 completed its 345,000-square-foot distribution center adjacent to the airport, with paving the way for other large firms to follow.

Nancy Semon

Taking Aim

LeNor “Len” Zaiser III is the godfather of manufacturing in Southwest Florida. Azimuth Technology is the seventh manufacturing company he has started, this time with his son Len Zaiser IV.

Zaiser started manufacturing in Naples in 1975. The family discovered Naples the winter before, Zaiser IV said, after going as far south as they could in their motor home to get warm. “We fell in love with it,” he says.

The older Zaiser, now 86, moved his company, Engineering Research Inc., to Naples. The company made parts for the Sidewinder missiles on fighter jets. He then moved on to Defense Research Inc., Southern Research, Inovo, Structure Medical, CatapultMD and Azimuth.

“We were way before Arthrex,” Zaiser IV said about making medical components.

Father and son started Azimuth in 2012, after selling Structure Medical; it sells precision gun parts to the Department of Defense, gun manufacturers and foreign governments, defense forces and law enforcement. Azimuth employs 240 people, Zaiser IV said. He didn’t want to reveal its annual revenues.

Zaiser IV said finding employees hasn’t been a problem if you are creative; Southwest Florida has enough hard workers. Azimuth looks for people it can train.

Technological Edge

B&I Contractors is different than most other manufacturers in Southwest Florida; it started as a construction company in 1960, installing heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems in large buildings. In the last 20 years or so, it has become its own manufacturer, making the plumbing and electrical systems it uses on jobs. It does not sell to other companies, said Gary Griffin, CEO since 1995.

Manufacturing your own systems has its advantages, he said: Instead of having workers put together the materials in the field, they can cut and weld using automated equipment and move them with overhead cranes.

“As good as many of our welders and tradespeople are who put systems together in the field, we don’t have as many as we need to get the job done,” Griffin says.

The company wouldn’t be able to do the amount of business it does if it didn’t make its systems, because it can’t find the workers it needs in the field. But doing the work in-house has created a different problem: finding skilled workers who can do computer-aided design and drafting.

“It’s a little bit easier, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lot easier,” Griffin says. “But there are more people who certainly want to work in technology with computers.”

B&I, which also has offices in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, has about 130 employees in its Fort Myers office. About 50 employees work in manufacturing. It’s an employee-owned company.

Some of the company’s projects include the FGCU Water School building, the Gulf Coast Hospital expansion and Great Wolf Lodge Resort in Naples.

Welcome to Hendry

Miami-Dade County’s loss is Hendry County’s gain. The rural county with fewer than 400 manufacturing jobs gained 50 when Custom Stainless moved there; owner Tony Carnero hopes to add another

30 employees.

Carnero, whose family started the business 44 years ago, needed to expand and couldn’t do it in cramped Miami. About 10 years ago, he and his family picked LaBelle as a place they wanted to retire. They fell in love with the small town, and when they started looking to expand the company, they looked to see if it was feasible in LaBelle. “Everyone was very receptive, very, very happy to bring in some manufacturing here,” he says. “It’s been a very pleasant experience.”

The move wasn’t as pleasant. Carnero sold his building in Miami and leased it back, expecting to be in it for a year until the factory could be built in LaBelle. Three months later, COVID-19 shut down the world. A big portion of Custom Stainless’ business comes from restaurants and hotels, but the company survived thanks to being diversified enough by supplying medical laboratories.

One year turned into three. “We went $3 million over budget because of the devastation that COVID caused,” Carnero says. “But we survived it, thankfully, and now we’re here and we’re very happy.”

The bigger facility will allow the company to grow revenue, which now is between $6 million and $8 million, Carnero said. The goal is to increase it to $12 million and $15 million in two years.

Custom Stainless sells around the world. It has done projects from California to the Keys, and internationally in South Africa, Singapore and Japan.

Carnero has had little problem finding workers, and said he has a stack of resumes sitting on his desk. “It’s a really good demographic for manufacturing,” he says. “The people are eager to work.”

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

Don't Miss

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Please note that article corrections should be submitted for grammar or syntax issues.

If you have other concerns about the content of this article, please submit a news tip.