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Mold Maker Finds Niche D8’S Positive Energy Welcome In Town Still Struggling After Sawmill’s Closure

D8 Inc., a company that makes molds, has broken one in rural Latah County.

It’s a manufacturing enterprise in a timber town, but has nothing to do with trees.

It’s surrounded by farmland but does not deal in edible things.

Employees are chosen not for their strong backs or skills - they must prove their passion.

“We ask, ‘What is your goal in life?’ It’s the ones who don’t have a clue, you realize they might not work out,” said D8 co-owner Suzanne Lamon.

“We come at them from every angle,” said her husband and business partner, Barry Ramsay, explaining that a team of employees interviews prospective co-workers.

“We want to find out who this person is.”

The couple’s own passion for their growing business - which makes molds for other industries - and what Ramsay calls “this corny place to live” have paid off for them and the community.

Despite a controversy over the location of its plant, D8’s jobs are welcome in Potlatch.

The town of 800 has never fully recovered from the closure of the Potlatch Corp. sawmill in 1981.

“I wish we had five more like them,” said Del Cone, a Potlatch real estate agent and relentless booster of his hometown.

Potlatch resembles a lot of North Idaho towns in its traditional dependence on logging and sawmill jobs. The rolling farmland of the Palouse provides a second leg of the local economy.

But this former company town has a third economic leg.

It’s a bedroom community. Lower rents and quiet settings attract many people who work 17 miles away in Moscow, home of the University of Idaho, or across the state line in Pullman.

Ramsay and Lamon met in graduate school at Washington State University. Both were artists - he from Illinois, she from California. They ended up living at the end of a gravel road, eight miles north of Potlatch.

They became loggers, at first so Ramsay would have wood for his sculptures. They did small cleanup jobs for the U.S. Forest Service. But 12 years ago they found themselves competing for jobs against laid-off loggers, Ramsay said, so they looked around for other work.

A friend in the San Francisco area was designing protective packaging. The couple began a home business that was an extension of the friend’s business.

“We thought it was going to be a mom-and-pop shop in the garage,” Ramsay said. “We hired one employee, then another, then another.”

Their business makes aluminum molds, which other companies use to produce specialized foam shapes, such as the packaging around computer equipment. Originally, it was called Protech Package Tooling Division.

The company name changed in 1996 because only about half of the molds were being used for protective packaging, Ramsay said. He and Lamon say the replacement name “D8” has no particular meaning.

About 75 percent of the world’s bicycle helmets are made from D8 molds, Ramsay said. Jobs now in the D8 shop include molds for a Starship Enterprise toy and for a weather balloon instrumentation pack.

When their business outgrew their garage, Ramsay and Lamon had trouble finding a location.

A goal of the Latah County comprehensive plan is to “conserve the rural nature of Latah County and the agricultural base.” The only land around zoned industrial is the old mill site, said Cone, and Potlatch Corp. wouldn’t sell and wouldn’t offer more than a 10-year lease, Cone said.

So the couple bought 80 acres of farmland along U.S. Highway 95. They convinced the county to rezone 20 acres of it industrial.

Nearby residents objected, decrying the loss of farmland and change in atmosphere. A petition against the rezoning got 127 signatures, and eight people sued the county commission, saying the “spot zoning” violated the comprehensive plan.

Meanwhile, the plant was built. Its doors opened in July 1994.

The lawsuit dragged on. It wasn’t until December, Ramsay said, that a final ruling came down in the company’s favor.

Roger Nowack was among those who sued. He lives 600 feet from the red-roofed D8 plant, which is small and quiet as manufacturing sites go. Still, Nowack is bothered by the traffic it brings to the wheat fields.

“Cars are going in and out all the time,” he said. “I moved to the country for peace and quiet. … They should keep businesses in close to towns, where they belong.”

Nowack fears D8 will sell some of its property to other companies. There’s always a chance of that, Ramsay said, but “currently we have no plans or interest in selling any of the property.”

Ramsay enjoys the difference between the Potlatch countryside and his hometown of Chicago.

“It’s so manageable here,” he said. “I can drive from my house to work. I can wave to the neighbor’s dog and know the dog’s name. I think that’s what those people who were suing us were trying to defend: the quality of life.”

Quality of life is one benefit that D8 can offer the workers it needs to run its design computers, its foundry, its lathes. A company wellness program includes half-time pay to “do something good for yourself” such as jog or ride a bike, for up to an hour each day.

It can be tough to get skilled people in the Northwest to come to Potlatch, when companies like Boeing are hiring every machinist around. D8 would add 10 workers tomorrow if the right people were available, Ramsay said.

Sawmill wages are in the $9-$12 hourly range. While D8’s lowest-paying jobs pay less, Lamon said, her company offers more opportunity. Top pay is $16 per hour.

Fewer than 10 of the current 35 workers grew up around Potlatch, Ramsay estimated. He’d like to see a local vocational program aimed at producing more skilled workers.

So would Donald Armstrong, superintendent of the Potlatch School District. With only the Bennett Lumber Products sawmill still operating, graduates’ local job options are limited.

“For many of our kids, there’s still that lure of, ‘I can work in the woods. I can work in the mill.’ We tell them that may not be there forever. It’s a limited resource.”

At Ramsay’s suggestion, the Moscow-Latah County Economic Development Council has started to push for a training program. But even with the right skills, not everyone would be cut out for working at D8, Armstrong added.

“They want very open people - open to try anything.”

Employees don’t even have job titles. Sandpoint native Marina Piatt, who has a psychology degree, is an office worker. But if needed, she might help out in the foundry.

“It’s not like a management structure that everyone’s trying to get up in. The jobs require problem-solving skills,” said worker Tasche Strieb.

Trained as a mechanical engineer, Strieb was hired to “do whatever is needed.”

Trained as an artist, Ramsay seems a bit amazed by his role as industrialist. He said his goal isn’t expansion, but having a fun place to work.

“It’s about as hard for me to admit I’m a businessman as it is for me to admit I’m a responsible adult.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos