Growing South End company touted as 'example of how government can do it right'

By Steve Urbon
NEW BEDFORD — With the word “jobs” on everyone’s lips, U.S. Sen. Scott Brown visited the city Monday to celebrate the expansion of a South End business that is one of the world leaders in recycling silicon wafers for semiconductor manufacturers.
An ambitious expansion of North East Silicon Technologies Inc. was made possible because of a federal loan program that targets economically distressed communities, called the New Markets Tax Program.
“It’s an example of how government can do it right and we should be getting these types of dollars out the door. It’s a direct line and helps businesses like this expand,” Brown told The Standard-Times.
Brown, the freshman Republican who succeeded Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, toured the facility that for 15 years has been resurfacing used silicon wafers. The products resemble large compact discs and are sacrificed as manufacturing quality control checks and would be discarded without the recyclers.
It’s a highly competitive business with tight margins, explained company Vice President Chris Weeks. Ten of the company’s biggest competitors around the world have gone under during the past five years, and that gave the company the chance to pick up some of the most cutting-edge equipment for pennies on the collar.
The problem was that banks are uneasy with investing in such technology, especially in distressed economies. Enter the New Markets Tax Credit, which Brown said deserves reauthorization by Congress.
Rockland Trust, the bank that administers New Markets in this region, loaned the family-owned company the $1.5 million to buy at a steep discount from a failed Japanese competitor the equipment needed to resurface 300 mm silicon wafer discs, the largest and most advanced in the industry. The loan also financed a “clean room” for the process. (Two years ago, the company obtained its first New Markets loan, that one for $2.3 million, said Weeks.)
The end result: 10 to 20 new jobs to add to the 70 already there, 25 temporary construction jobs and an expected revenue increase of $3 million within 24 months, the company said.
Brown, wearing his trademark leather barn coat and carrying a tablet computer, toured the 50,000-square-foot production facility with an entourage of company officials, his staff and representatives of Rockland Bank.
They saw how the silicon wafers, which provide the under-layer for the making of microprocessors, are stripped, polished, inspected and graded to suit the needs of chip makers around the world. Company President Rob Weeks explained to an outdoor gathering that this business is being squeezed by “Moore’s Law,” the phenomenon in which information storage capacity doubles every two years, with a resulting decline in costs and stiffer competition among manufacturers.
The $120,000 in interest payments saved by the discounted loan will make it possible for North East Silicon Technologies to remain competitive “and avoid coming to the same fate” as their competitors, the company said.
November 01, 2011 12:00 AM
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