Diverse Tripp Enterprises ready for rebound

Warren Tripp's problem: Everyone in town thinks they know what his long-time company in Sparks is all about, and most of them know only a tiny portion of the story.

As Tripp Enterprises emerges from the recession, Tripp's team is working hard to raise the company's profile in design and engineering services, metals manufacturing, custom fabrication and a multitude of other niches.

Tripp Enterprises, founded in 1949 by Tripp's father, Wally, is widely known as a plastics manufacturer with deep ties to the gaming industry.

Its president and chief executive officer today, Warren Tripp grew up in the business, sweeping floors as a kid, working part-time at night during his college career, overseeing its expansion through the 1990s.

The company's earliest success came from development of the plastic candle that sits atop most slot machines. For gaming customers, it also created a widely used Keno-calling unit and manufactures complex plastic tops for slot machines such as International Game Technology's "Sex and the City."

It's a good business, to be sure, but Tripp Enterprises needs to strengthen all of the dozen distinct businesses under its 200,000-square-foot roof at 250 E. Greg St.

In one corner of the complex, for instance, a team of engineers provides product-design services for clients, sometimes starting with no more than a sketch on a bar napkin.

An entirely separate product-development team works across the way, creating prototypes of new products and evaluating them to discover any issues that might present problems once full-scale production begins.

About half the Tripp Enterprises facility is dedicated to metals manufacturing tooling, precision sheet-metal work, CNC cutting.

Plastics manufacturing remains a big piece of the company's business, and Tripp Enterprises continues to invest heavily in fast, automated equipment that makes products ranging from small parts for medical technology gear to windshields for the vehicles that set land-speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.

The Tripp Enterprises facility also includes space for some third-party distribution, an industrial plastics division that's a wholesale supplier and a graphics team that makes products such as name badges and interior signs.

Despite its diversity, Tripp Enterprises took a hard punch from the recession.

From peak employment of about 270 and a three-shift operation before the downturn, the company now operates with 90 workers on a single shift.

The company's revenues were cut in half as contract-manufacturing deals either were lost to Tripp Enterprises' Chinese competitors or canceled entirely when consumer demand fell.

But the wheel is beginning to turn.

As labor costs continue to rise in China, Tripp Enterprises is better able to compete for price-sensitive business.

Some executives who took their manufacturing operations to offshore contractors within the past decade also are returning to the United States in search of better communication and faster turnaround times, Tripp says.

And with its everything-under-one-roof approach, the Sparks company is well positioned to attract companies that are looking to get products to market speedily, says Frank Terrasas Jr., who handles marketing and business development for Tripp Enterprises.

The company didn't lose faith even during the darkest days of the recession.

During 2010 and 2011, Tripp Enterprises invested in a new CNC lathe, a laser cutting system, new machining centers, a walk-in oven in its prototype department and a sophisticated new product-inspection system.

The company's contract manufacturing clients these days cover a wide spectrum.

It's making products for aircraft interiors. Bicycle lockers. Enclosures for electronic gear. Components for solar systems.

And it continues to pursue contracts as a supplier to numerous manufacturers of gaming equipment, building on its long relationship with IGT.

"We tell them that if we can do it for IGT, we can do it for them," says Tripp.

The company is casting a wide net for manufacturing contracts.

It signed on a team of independent sales representatives to deliver the company's message nationwide. Tripp notes the Internet opens the doors to work such as rapid prototyping of automotive components that otherwise would have been out of the reach of a company located in northern Nevada.

At the same time, the company is looking to build the portfolio of products it builds and markets itself.

The plastic slot-machine candle, for instance, remains in Tripp's product catalog.

The company pins high hopes on another of its own product lines, a fast-growing edge-lit technology for display panels such as those in movie theater lobbies and airport concourses.

For all that diversity, Tripp still runs into people around Sparks and Reno who assume that the Tripp Enterprises is just a little plastics manufacturer that relies on its slot-machine candles.

"It's not all we do," he tells them simply.


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