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October 15, 2012

Columbia's Recipe: Web, Different Markets, Talent

PHOTO/EMILY MICUCCi Chris Coghlin, CEO: “It's all about capturing good, qualified customers with a steady stream of innovation …”

If you want to grow your sales by 281 percent in a sputtering economy, all you need are a few key ingredients: a stellar web presence, a diverse customer base, and the right talent.

So says Chris Coghlin, CEO of Columbia Tech/Coghlin Companies in Worcester. He, his father James Coghlin Sr., and brother James Coghlin Jr., watched revenue grow at their 127-year-old manufacturing business from $42 million in 2009 to $160 million in 2011, earning Columbia Tech the No. 1 spot on our Top Growth list of private companies for 2012.

"Every single day today, we get new business leads from all over the world," Coghlin said at company headquarters on Briden Street.

Columbia Tech manufactures equipment for three market sectors: LED lighting, semiconductors and medical devices.

All three are poised for exponential growth, according to Coghlin. The semiconductor business, for example, is being driven by the massive consumption of smartphones. There's a continuous push to switch from incandescent to LED lighting, and the medical device market, which is relatively new for Coghlin, makes tools needed for cosmetic surgery and home health monitoring — which will serve an aging population.

Perhaps more important than the growth potential of its client base, Coghlin said, is Columbia Tech's investment in its online presence.

In the depths of The Great Recession, the Coghlin family was as dubious as any business about future prospects. But Coghlin knew the company could strengthen its odds by creating a top-notch website, complete with search engine optimization (SEO), fresh content and a rebranded image.

It worked wonders. The company soared from 100 to 200 hits per day on its website to between 4,000 and 5,000, Coghlin said, vastly expanding its reach around the planet. It was one thing to envision how a revamped website could create new business, but watching it unfold was something else.

"It's amazing to watch a vision come alive like that," he said.

To accommodate growth, the Columbia Tech workforce has more than doubled since 2009. Today, the company employs 330 people, running the gamut from mechanical engineers to technicians to support staff. Coghlin noted that without a qualified workforce, SEO efforts and a healthy customer base would be fruitless.

"It all comes down to having people who can execute the business that you win," Coghlin said.

Steven Rothschild, co-owner of Applied Interactive, the Worcester-based firm that revamped Columbia Tech's web presence, was inspired at how successful Columbia Tech was coming out of the recession.

Rothschild said his relatively young company was focused on creating e-commerce startups and making them successful through web marketing.

Once it was clear the Columbia Tech project was a hit, Rothschild refocused his company's efforts on providing similar services to others, rather than building sites.

Rothschild, a native of the area, has gotten to know Columbia Tech inside and out.

"I was sort of like the rest of the public, and what I've learned is that while many of the industrial families and manufacturing leaders moved on, the Coghlin family hasn't," Rothschild said.

Columbia Tech's greatest asset, said Rothschild, is its global procurement relationships. The company has access to high-quality materials, and it can get them faster than most, he said.

"It gives them a huge edge over anybody trying to manufacture something on their own," Rothschild said.

After three years of blissful growth, will it level off for Columbia Tech? Coghlin said it's hard to say. Despite the rosy picture in the rear-view mirror, the company is still faced with an uncertain economy.

"For us, it's all about capturing good, qualified customers with a steady stream of innovation, then being able to execute their orders quickly as demand rises for their product," Coghlin said. n

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