Flir Systems, one of the few big technology companies that still calls Oregon home, said Wednesday it will open a new headquarters near Washington, D.C.
The defense contractor said it will still refer to its Wilsonville campus as a “headquarters” and will retain the 350 employees who work there. The company’s top leadership, including its chief executive and chief financial officer, will work at the new, 65-person office in Arlington, Virginia.
That continues a worrisome trend for Oregon’s tech sector, which has shed scores of locally based companies over the past decade.
The logic behind Flir’s new Virginia site is analogous to Amazon’s decision last year to put a second headquarters near the nation’s capital — like Flir, it picked Arlington. Both companies are seeking closer ties to federal agencies and a greater share of government contracts.
“Having a greater presence in Washington D.C. is critical to helping us grow our business, as it creates better proximity for FLIR to support key customers, investors, regulators, and the more than 4,000 FLIR team members around the world,” CEO Jim Cannon said in a written statement. Cannon lives in Indiana, and will move to the Washington, D.C., area.
Flir makes thermal imaging cameras and similar equipment to help soldiers, police and other security forces see at night or in other low-visibility conditions. It’s made a series of acquisitions to add military drones and similar equipment.
Last month, Flir spent $385 million on its biggest acquisition ever, buying a company called Endeavor Robotic Holdings that makes robots and other autonomous gear for combat operations.
Technology remains Oregon’s most vital economic sector, and tech employment grew by 2.6 percent last year by one key measure. With an average wage approaching $110,000 annually, the jobs pay more than double the state average.
The Silicon Forest has been losing tech companies for years. That’s in part because established Oregon companies, including Tektronix, TriQuint Semiconductor, Mentor Graphics and FEI Co., have been snapped up by larger corporations based elsewhere.
The $1 billion sale of Electro Scientific Industries last fall left just three publicly traded companies with headquarters in Oregon: Flir, Digimarc and Lattice Semiconductor.
The decline in Oregon-based tech companies reflects increased geographic concentration across the technology sector and Oregon entrepreneurs’ inability to produce new, homegrown businesses to replace the aging hardware businesses that sold out.
The Silicon Forest consists of outposts for bigger tech companies based elsewhere — Intel, eBay, Amazon, Google, Salesforce, HP and Apple among them. The outpost phenomenon has long concerned economists, who fear the lack of key corporate facilities make Oregon more vulnerable in a downturn, when executives based elsewhere have to make tough decisions about where to cut.
Fundamentally, the issues impeding local tech entrepreneurship remain the same today as they were in the aftermath of the dot-com bust: Oregon lacks readily available venture capital and a reservoir of senior executives to grow big companies; the state’s heritage in hardware technology hasn’t adapted to a leaner era of software and web services; and Oregon doesn’t have nationally renowned research universities that fuel innovation in tech hubs such as Seattle, the Bay Area and Boston.
On Wednesday, Flir sought to address concerns about the future of its Wilsonville site. The company said its controller and the head of its commercial business will continue working in Oregon, and Flir said it plans to renovate its campus beginning this spring. The company said it’s reconfiguring the Wilsonville site to accommodate recent growth.