In a world where consumers want the newest product at the cheapest price, they may not end up with the quality they deserve. American technological manufacturing is largely outsourced. But, Steve Barber of Oakridge Global Energy Solutions is doing his part to bring manufacturing back to American workers.
A big supporter of “on-shoring,” Oakridge truly embraces the Made in America mission, producing all its high-quality batteries in a 70,000 square-foot Palm Bay facility. It is the only significant producer of lithium-ion batteries in the United States, with a staff of about 52, that the company will eventually double with a full second shift.
A native of Australia, Barber comes from both a technology and business background, with the schooling and experience to prove it. Barber holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Queensland, bachelors and masters degrees in law from the University of Adelaide and a masters degree in diplomacy from Norwich University.
Barber joined Oakridge in 2013 as Interim Chief Executive Officer after seeing first-hand the potential the Brevard-based manufacturer possessed. He is currently Executive Chairman and CEO and also serves as the Chairman & Chief Investment Officer of Oakridge’s major shareholder, Precept Fund Management.
If you ask him directly about keeping manufacturing in America, Barber’s explanation will dive deeply into his financial expertise and understanding of international economics. Barber believes if companies do things right, they can produce technological products domestically that are better quality, more reliable, safer, cleaner and cost competitive to any produced anywhere else in the world.
Balancing Quality and Cost
The Oakridge management team is committed to several mission drivers, including ensuring that their products are cost competitive. The Chinese market produces most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, but balancing quality with cost has always been a big challenge for Chinese manufacturers. The team at Oakridge focuses on quality, reliability and making the best product possible. “We felt that if we made the best possible product, the customers who needed that quality and reliability would seek us out,” Barber explained.
Battery power is an imperative in virtually every aspect of modern life, from phones and watches to radio controlled devices, to cars to military-grade systems. Electric powered concept cars have been in development for decades, but it’s always the battery that presents the biggest challenges. Power, range, weight, safety, infrastructure for recharging and clean disposal have always confounded manufacturers.
“We make cool batteries for really cool stuff,” says Barber. “We ask our clients exactly what they are looking for in a battery and then what they would pay for a product like that.”
Steve Barber describes it as a “19th-century” approach to business and investment. The Oakridge effort is financed, for example, through Precept Fund Management, a private, family-owned investment house the Barbers control; which means the company’s operation and growth are funded not by outside investments or venture capital, but by family resources.
This allows Barber to maintain a controlling interest in the company and management to optimize corporate strategy with maximum flexibility.
They have invested more than $40 million in the facility so far, custom designing their manufacturing operations with a combination of skilled labor and robotic automation that allows them to scale and customize shop floors according to whatever specifications customers require.
Oakridge’s environment has also been leveraged. Barber smiles and shakes hands with all his employees, calling them by name as he walks through the building. His staff all seem genuinely happy to be there.
Oakridge is working on expansion projects along the Space Coast Tech Corridor that include moving into existing facilities and building new ones on three adjoining properties, each at more than 20 acres in Palm Bay. The vision is for the Oakridge building to become the Oakridge campus. This industry leader is grounded in the present but looking to the future for more. ◆