TUMWATER - Costco's sprawling warehouse on Littlerock Road overshadows a 55,000-square-foot manufacturing plant next door.
But the profile of the Albany International plant is just as high as Costco to the specialized customers it serves throughout the United States, Canada, South America and China.
The plant produces wide polyurethane-coated belts used on machines that make paper for a variety of uses including newsprint and packaging. The belts come into contact with paper as the machines extract water from the mixture of wood and water.
Albany International's proprietary process applies the synthetic coating around yarn that makes up the core of the belts.
"It's a niche business, for sure," says Desmond McGahern, the New York state-based comp any's global manufacturing director, who works in Tumwater. The company takes its name after the New York capital city where its headquarters is located.
None of Albany International's three worldwide competitors operates a plant like the Tumwater one throughout the continental United States, McGahern said.
A second Albany International belt-making plant that serves customers in Europe and Africa operates in Manchester, England.
All of the Tumwater plant's 38 employees work in a climate-controlled area set at 70 degrees, 50 percent humidity.
Extracting moisture to make paper can be done either with belts Albany International makes or by generating heat.
The company's advantage for paper manufacturers such as The Weyerhaeuser Co. is that its belts reduce the cost of generating energy in the paper-making process, McGahern said.
"Generating heat costs a lot of money," he said.
The belts have a finite lifespan, from as short as one day to two years, McGahern said. "It's an industrial product that wears out, thankfully for us," he said.
Albany International bought the Tumwater plant from another company in 1977. At first, it used the space only for storage.
But by about 1980, it began light manufacturing in Tumwater. McGahern said. It was a key decision in strengthening Thurston County's economy, said Michael Cade, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Thurston County.
"They've been a longtime employer in the community that brings international trade to the South Sound," Cade said.
Though he declined to discuss wages in detail, McGahern said top employees make more than $20 per hour.
Albany International's need to ship its products through the Port of Seattle helps support port-related jobs in the region, Cade said. As the Port of Olympia works to establish trade ties with China, Albany International could ship belts through Olympia, McGahern said.
The company's significance isn't lost on Doug Baker, Tumwater's city administrator. Albany International employees are active in the region, he said. McGahern, for example, is past president of the Tumwater Chamber of Commerce.
"When so much stuff is made in China these days, they're just so important to our local economy," Baker said. "They've always kept their facilities clean and well-groomed. I wish we had 10 Albany Internationals."
Where: 5700 Littlerock Road S.W., Tumwater
Makes: Polyurethane industrial belts
Customers include: Weyerhaeuser, Simpson Tacoma, Longview Fiber
Quote: "We're in such a highly competitive global market, we play close attention to the quality of our product. That's something we excel at." - Desmond McGahern, global manufacturing director, Albany International
Stock: AIN on NYSE