Greenbrier Grows with Innovation in Manufacturing and Expansion of Services

Published Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Most Oregonians have seen barges traveling down the Columbia River, but many of those observers are unaware that Portland is home to one of the largest U.S. barge-makers.

Gunderson Marine, a subsidiary of Lake Oswego-based The Greenbrier Companies, builds barges at a manufacturing facility on Front Avenue in the Northwest Portland waterfront industrial area. Gunderson and other Greenbrier units also make railcars and equipment and provide related services. Greenbrier’s Portland manufacturing facility, Springfield repair shop and Lake Oswego headquarters, with a combined 1,138 employees, are the heart of a company that is well-known in its industry but often overlooked in its home state.

Like many of Oregon’s largest manufacturers, Greenbrier has deep roots in the state. Its Oregon origins trace to 1919, when the Gunderson brothers opened Wire Wheel Sales & Service Company, a steel fabricator business, in Portland. Manufacturing operations have been housed at the current NW Front Avenue location since 1941. Greenbrier purchased the operations, which previously been sold to FMC Corporation, and restored the Gunderson name in 1985.

“Our Portland operations are Greenbrier’s foundation,” said Jack Isselmann, Greenbrier senior vice president for external affairs and communications. “Without the long-standing talent and innovative ideas they provide, we would not be the company we are today.” From its Portland roots, Greenbrier has grown into a global leader in rail and marine transportation equipment. In addition to its operations in Oregon and elsewhere in the United States, the company has a presence in Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. It had global revenue of $2.1 billion in 2017.

While manufacturing is a vital component of Greenbrier’s business model, one of the keys to the company’s success has been the wide range of services it offers to support its products. The company provides railcar repair and wheel maintenance as well as railcar leasing and management services to diversity its revenue mix and increase stability through different business cycles.

Greenbrier has grown by being an innovator in its industry. In 1985, Greenbrier Leasing Company designed the Twin Stack® intermodal railcar, which revolutionized rail transport across the United States. More recently, has Greenbrier has introduced new railcar and barge designs, including some of the safest tank cars available in the U.S. and Saudi Arabian markets.

In addition to a commitment to safety, Greenbrier strives to be an exemplary environmental steward. It reduced electricity use by about 2 million kilowatts annually at its Gunderson manufacturing facility by replacing all indoor and outdoor lighting, covering almost 1 million square feet, with high efficiency LED lights. The reduction is the equivalent of more than 300 homes worth of electricity consumption. Another Greenbrier project took a more innovative approach to environmental preservation. Employees built a 1,000-square-foot rooftop habitat at Gunderson that creates an island of habitat for a broad population of insects and birds within the industrial area.

Greenbrier also strives to be involved in local communities. In the past fiscal year, the company donated $457,000 to more than 60 organizations, over half of them based in Oregon. Additionally, Greenbrier’s Portland facilities organized three volunteer days at local clothing and food distribution shelter, Sunshine Division and one with Habitat for Humanity.

The biggest challenges facing Greenbrier are familiar ones for manufacturers: trade tensions and workforce development. The company is doing its part to develop the workforce of the future. For example, Gunderson has a welder training program, which takes 8-12 weeks to complete. It rewards trainees for taking permanent positions at Gunderson after graduating from the program. This program has attracted dozens of new high school graduates to the company. The company’s geographic and products diversity put it in a better position than some to weather the current trade storm.

Greenbrier’s track record of innovation provides confidence that the company will continue to thrive and grow to the benefit of Oregon’s economy and the communities in which the company operates.