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Innovation Nation

At Eureka! Ranch, American manufacturers find creative ways to grow.

There are no cattle at Eureka! Ranch. There are no horses and no lingering dusty prairie. And when the sun sets in the west, it's far from the West. But that doesn't matter. When visitors mosey up, they're going to meet Doug Hall. For two decades, Hall, 49, has made his fortune helping Fortune 500 companies such as American Express, Nike and Procter & Gamble come up with everything from new products to unique ways to market them. His Cincinnati-based company, named after a historic homestead next to his house, is in the center of the innovation universe.

But since starting to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce Manufacturing Extension Partnership last year, Eureka! Ranch added an ambitious mission to its innovation agenda: saving America's manufacturing base. Hall just might do it, too. His apprentices are fanning out across the country, working with manufacturers to study the resources they have and find innovative ways to improve efficiency and create new products and services. One recent encounter paired Hall's team with a company that provides waterjet and laser cutting for use in manufacturing. Bill Sumner, 53, and his staff at Arcadia Supply Inc., as well as some of the company's vendors, traveled from Albany, New York, to see what Hall could teach them.

During the sessions, everyone breaks up into small groups to brainstorm. This is punctuated by energetic minilectures by Hall. The ideas--perhaps hundreds of them--are whittled down to four, which Hall feeds into a program he designed called Merwyn to decide which ones should be pursued. In Arcadia's case, Sumner and his team pared down their ideas to finding ways to service two additional markets, expanding their ability to create custom topiary designs and making it easier for their customers to get instant updates on projects.

Weeks later, Sumner reported progress on three of the four projects, albeit slower progress than Hall's recommended 30 days for testing ideas. But, Sumner says, "we firmly believe in the process. Now we have a process for achieving what we need to do, and that's unbelievable. I never thought of us as being a world-class organization . . . "

He trails off, maybe emotional or just in awe of the idea, and one can't help but think that Hall's sentiment about manufacturing is correct: "This may not be sexy, but these are the guys that are making things, the last guys in the country really making things," Hall says. "This is America."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the June 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Innovation Nation.

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