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BUSINESS WAVE IN BEACH TOWN : Once-Drowsy Huntington Beach Begins to Attract Developers, Small Companies

January 10, 1988|JOHN O'DELL | Times Staff Writer

A quiz:

Of the 500 fastest-growing privately owned companies in the United States, 11 are in Orange County.

But which city in the county has the most? And what kind of companies are they?

Irvine and high technology are answers that readily come to mind.

But they are wrong.

One city was home to four of the 11 county-based firms ranked among the nation's fastest growing by Inc. magazine, and all four are decidedly low-tech: a security alarm installer, a golf club maker, the manufacturer of a line of spa and hot tub controls and a firm that fabricates and installs plastic liners for storage tanks, industrial ponds and the leaching pads used in many gold mining operations.

And that city wasn't booming Irvine or bustling Anaheim or even born-again Santa Ana.

It was Huntington Beach, the laid-back home of surfers and sunners, a place where the "business" community is most often thought of by outsiders as an agglomerate of beachside bikini shops and strip commercial centers.

But the once-drowsy bedroom community--the county's third-largest city with 185,000 residents and 8.5 miles of some of the best and most accessible beach in Southern California, has woken up to the realities of late 20th Century.

The need for a stable source of revenue has propelled the city into active pursuit of business development after nearly 20 years of explosive population growth that fostered a large real estate industry but little else.

And while city-sponsored redevelopment is a major element in Huntington Beach's commercial awakening, private entrepreneurs operating without benefit of redevelopment funds have been making inroads of their own in recent years.

None of the Huntington Beach-based companies that were ranked among the nation's fastest-growing private firms last year is in a redevelopment area, for example.

Two of them, Brett Aqualine, the spa controls maker, and Greater Alarm Co., which installs electronic alarm systems, were founded in 1982; Slotline Golf began in 1975, and Serrot Corp., the plastic liner company, was founded in 1978. All began in Huntington Beach, and all four are in small developments in the two areas of the city set aside for light industrial development.

Both Jim Brett, co-founder and president of Brett Aqualine, and Bill Torres, founder and president of Serrot (Torres spelled backward), said they have found the city's business climate to be a comfortable one and that city officials are generally easy to work with.

Brett, a Huntington Beach resident, said he chose to start his company there largely because he found an acceptable facility before he had to go looking in another town.

Least Costly Rents

Torres, who lives in Newport Beach, said Huntington Beach provided the least costly rents within a reasonable drive from his home when he began looking for a site. And five years ago, when he bought a lot and began building his own facility, he chose Huntington Beach--and the same industrial park in which he had been renting--because land costs were still less there.

It says something about the city's growing desirability as a business site that land for light industrial buildings now runs about $17 a square foot, contrasted with $6.90 a square foot when Torres bought in 1983.

Those prices, and the leasing rates for commercial and industrial space in the city, are competitive with rates in other cities, including Irvine and Newport Beach, which are considerably more visible as commercial centers.

Being located in Huntington Beach has also apparently helped companies such as Serrot and Brett Aqualine find and keep a stable corps of workers.

Serrot grew from a few dozen employees and $3.8 million in sales in 1985 to $9.3 million and 60 employees in 1986, for which it made the Inc. magazine listing. In 1987, Torres said, the company posted another quantum leap, ending the year with $15 million in sales and 100 workers.

Brett Aqualine grew from five workers and $104,000 in sales its first year to $9.4 million and 50 employees in 1986 and $15 million in sales and a payroll of 75 at the end of 1987.

The sizable increases in employment, particularly at companies that need skilled production and manufacturing people, can be a problem in some areas of the county, where soaring housing prices have forced out lower-paid semiskilled workers.

But neither Brett nor Torres recall difficulties in finding workers locally. Because the city offers a fairly broad range of housing, almost all of their companies' employees live in Huntington Beach, the two said.

Formerly Pacific Beach

That wide range exists in part because the city is old by county standards. It was founded in 1901 as the resort town of Pacific Beach, to be renamed two years later as part of a successful effort to flatter magnate Henry Huntington into extending his Pacific Electric trolley line into town.

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