Firms watch SARS, just in case

Employers have game plan ready if disease hits Portland

No cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome have been confirmed in the Portland metropolitan area, but the disease Ñ thought to have originated in China's Guangdong province Ñ is on a lot of people's minds in the city's business community.

Suenn Ho, an independent architectural designer who is leading an effort to redesign Portland's Chinatown, said restaurants and other businesses in the city's Chinese sector have seen fewer customers in recent weeks.

'I was told that there are noticeable decreases of business,' she said, 'and while it's hard to say if it's SARS or not, we've heard about situations in other urban Chinatowns.'

Craig Barrett, chief executive officer of Intel Corp., Oregon's largest private employer, caused a mild panic early last week when, without elaborating, he told reporters in Brazil that a sustained SARS outbreak would hurt semiconductor sales.

That was interpreted as grim news for an industry that has been suffering through one of the deepest down cycles in its history.

Barrett was merely answering a hypothetical question, said Chuck Mulloy, an Intel spokesman at the company's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

'To date, it's had no impact on our business,' Mulloy said. 'We have 15,000 employees in Asia, and there's been no effect whatsoever.'

Still, Intel remains prepared to shift supply engines if SARS shuts down any of its factories, Mulloy said,.

A mere two weeks ago, industry rumblings hinted at major changes for companies with close Asian ties. Some analysts predicted that U.S. technology companies with a heavy dependence on suppliers based in China would be forced to alter their supply and distribution chains if the disease continued to spread and evolved into a pandemic.

Yet representatives from a wide range of companies, from giant Intel to the more modest-sized Planar Systems Inc., say that while no such measures are yet necessary, they're nonetheless prepared for the worst.

One of Beaverton-based Planar's main suppliers is Truly Semiconductors, of mainland China. Planar makes and distributes electronic display products. Truly goes to great pains, however, to verify that its workers are protected from the virus, said Stewart Clark, Planar's investor relations director.

'Their temperatures are taken every morning on the way in, they're required to wear masks, they use disinfectant wipes on every surface they come in contact with and have lots of ventilation,' Clark said. 'None of the 5,000 employees have had a problem.'

That's not to say Clark is jumping on the next plane to Beijing. Like many companies, Planar has restricted travel for nonessential activities. With SARS still rampant in China, the company's executives have scrubbed dozens of trips to the region. For Nike and Intel, the number of canceled trips numbers in the hundreds, their spokesmen say.

Adidas America also has ordered Portland-based employees to avoid travel to mainland China, Hong Kong and Toronto.

To compensate, adidas is relying more on videoconferencing, with six facilities in its new North Portland digs, said spokeswoman Anna Quarrell.

But if the SARS epidemic worsens in Asia, the region hardest hit by the disease, most companies have contingency plans for shifting production to areas not affected by SARS.

'In some cases Ñ like the political stability in Indonesia in 1998, or a natural disaster, like a recent big earthquake in Taiwan Ñ we've shifted our production elsewhere,' said Vada Manager, Nike Corp.'s director of global issues.

'In most of these instances, we did not lose any significant production days during that time,' he said.

For some local businesses, SARS might even generate new business.

If the disease spurs more videoconferencing, a beneficiary could be InFocus Corp., whose projection systems beam videoconferenced images through many of the nation's boardrooms. However, company spokesman John Fread was loath to talk about it.

'Videoconferencing because of SARS is not part of our marketing plan,' he said.

SARS jitters also could have a salutary effect on sales of the thermal imaging and detection systems made by Portland's Flir Systems Inc., which also has gotten new business as a result of the war on terrorism.

Flir's handheld ThermaCAM sensor Ñ featured a few days ago on NBC's 'Today' show Ñ can take facial temperature readings. It works reliably (within one degree) and unobtrusively in public places such as airport disembarkation points.

Andy Teich, Flir's senior vice president for sales and its marketing director, says the concept is the same as checking one's forehead for signs of a fever.

'The face is a good indicator of core temperature, particularly around the areas of the ears and eyes,' Teich said. 'I can't say for sure that we've sold any for this purpose, but we've had a lot of calls on it.'

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.