Twice in the past five years, Forbes has ranked Thurston County as one of the top 10 places in the U.S. to do business.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the county is seeing a number of companies find quiet success within its borders. Thurston isn’t discriminating when it comes to progress, either; recently-established startups and longstanding companies alike are experiencing progress. Here, we profile three such companies – the first entry in a series shining a spotlight on South Sound businesses making unheralded, but notable, growth.

Healthy home sales

One well-known family startup, un-splashy in both image and business philosophy, is Rob Rice Homes.

With nearly a dozen residential communities and more than 3,000 residences constructed in the past 30 years, the company has not only claimed a niche in the home building market, but it has also managed to survive through – and thrive – after the recession.

“The hard part was the last five years, but because of Rob’s experience, he’s very conservative,” said business co-owner Helene Rice. “And now, especially after the recession, people want to make good investments in their home.”

The niche that Rob Rice Homes has seized, she explained, is that taking residential communities all the way from property purchase through razing, home construction and landscaping, final sales, and post-sale maintenance.

In fact, during construction, her husband walks every house two or three times a day – not to mention that the couple lives in one of their own neighborhoods, and they practice hands’-on, daily attention to detail. They also encourage prospective buyers to take a look at their older communities.

“We want people to see how well the houses and landscaping have aged, because that’s a huge selling point,” Rice said. “Some customers have bought four or five homes from Rob because we’ve been here, we live here, we’ve had kids here, and we’ve always made a commitment to that attention to detail.”

That Rob Rice Homes completes the full circle of land purchase to home sales and beyond is definitely different than the business model for the typical “spec” builder. In a normal spec builder market, a developer buys a piece of land and clears it, and then might sell the lots, or design and develop them, but then sell them to homebuilders.

Rob Rice Homes purchases the land and develops it. And the company is active in local homeowners associations and other related community groups to make sure they’re on par with their prospective buyers’ needs.

They also are the bread and butter for roughly 25 employees who directly work for the company. When asked to estimate the greater impact of those employed by Rob Rice Homes in management and for 10 different construction teams, Rice said that it was, “in the hundreds. And we’re fine where we are. We don’t need to grow.”

These days, 80 percent of Rob Rice Homes’ sales are houses that are complete. And the company has total control of how each home is designed.

They’re also raising home sale prices in every community except Lewis County, Rice said, which is, “a really positive sign.”

The next project? The company is nearing final plat phase for Chestnut Valley, settled at the corner of Yelm Highway and Rich Road. There’s also more to come as the housing market expands once again in the near future.

“We just want people to have longstanding value in their communities,” Rice said. 

Energy efficiency sparks sales

Upon first glance, you might think that Sunset Air is a new startup airline.

However, the longstanding company actually came to life in the garage of Pete and Kathy Fluetsch in 1976.

As the Fluetsch’s say on their website, “Pete came from humble beginnings and always had a dream of bettering himself. From day one, he had a vision of what he wanted his business to be: (something) that not only provided its customers with quality service, but was also a positive presence in the community.”

Now his business has thrived in Thurston County and beyond for more than 35 years.

And, as of late, given the economy and the demand for “green building,” Sunset has been able to capitalize on business and residential desire for greater energy-conservation.

Notably, they’ve transitioned to installation, repair and replacement services for electrical, water heater, windows and door systems in buildings.

“We decided to take a different direction over the last few years, when the economy took a hard left,” said the Fluetsch’s son, Brian, who now mans the family business. “There’s definitely been a push toward energy efficiency in commercial and residential work.”

One of the smartest moves Sunset Air made, Fluetsch said, was securing ESO status, a privy designation granted to only 12 other businesses in Washington state. It was a rigorous process, and one that requires renewal every biennium. However, ESO status also allows companies like Sunset Air exclusive access for work on state-owned facilities such as government buildings and schools, as well as a channel into state grant funding.

Another bonus of the ESO designation is that it draws private investors, who can pool money. From that funding, ESO companies can place energy-saving equipment on a public building; then, when the building gets the benefit of savings from those products, investors get a rebate.

With this change in project focus and the ESO designation, Sunset Air now takes on contracts ranging from solar work for the Olympia Farmers Market to geothermal applications and other energy-efficiency projects for residential landlords and local schools.

Due to this, they’ve added roughly 30 percent more workers since 2008.

“Experts predict that in Washington state, 50 percent or more of the buildings will be renovated with energy-efficient systems, rather than turn to new construction with emphasis on energy efficiency,” Fluetsch said. “So, I think we’ll continue down that road, because we have a bright staff, and they know what they’re doing.”

Projecting the future

One young company poised for business success in Thurston County is a true newbie. Just weeks old, and run by four corporate staff who are between the ripe old ages of 21 and 22.

That would be Project Wedge inventors and business owners Kyle Wiese, who’s also the research and project coordinator for the Thurston County Economic Development Council, and the company’s front man and instigator, Rob Anthony. Through the University of Washington’s Jones Milestones/Foster Accelerator Program, they managed to secure a place in the seven-team competition – out of 150 submissions – for tech advancement.

Their great idea: the first truly portable projector made specifically for tablet devices.

“Project Wedge is the actual product, and the name of our team, and the business name,” Wiese said. “We do have our business license, so we’re an incorporated company with our four cofounders. The idea was Rob’s, but it just developed along the way.”

In short, Project Wedge is a plug-in-and-play projector for tablet devices, smart phones and other electronic devices that have HDMI video-out capabilities. The projector’s casing doubles as a presentation stand, without impeding any of the tablet’s functionality. The battery life on the projector is estimated to be four hours on a single charge.

Shelf price once it’s released? $99.

The draw to the UW competition was the opportunity for mentoring from a committee of entrepreneurs and investors, as well as connections to the Seattle entrepreneurial community and a dedicated workspace in the new Herbold Innovation Lab at the University of Washington. On top of that, if Project Wedge meets its business goals, the team receives up to $25,000 in startup funding.

“So it’s the EDC by day, and Project Wedge on my nights and weekends,” Wiese said.

The next targets for Project Wedge are a marketing plan, and a crowd-funding effort set to launch in November.

But with the drive to win the competition and meet their goals to secure the $25,000, plus the legitimate business license, are the home-based entrepreneurs already staking out office space in Thurston County?

“We haven’t done an in-depth search yet, but we have started that conversation,” said Wiese. “Right now we’re just very excited to be part of this, and to bring a new type of product into the market.”