Sawbones Worldwide: 30 years on the island and still going strong

Foss Miller was fresh from graduate school in 1972 and looking for work as a mechanical engineer in Seattle — a city hit hard by the country’s recession — when he spotted an ad for K2 in a ski magazine while he was in a waiting room filling out a job application.

“I called,” Miller said about K2, “and asked if they ever needed any engineers.”

Another person soon got on the line and said to him, “You’re an engineer? Get over here.”

Those words were the sum total of his K2 interview, Miller said, and no one had so much as asked him his name.

It was a phone call that changed the trajectory of his life and ultimately put him at the head of his own company. Today, some 30 years after its start, Sawbones Worldwide, known to locals as The Bone Factory, is thriving. Last summer the company started running two shifts instead of one; 130 people work there, up 30 percent from one year ago, and a considerable expansion is in progress with a new 40,000-square-foot building under construction.

The building, scheduled to be finished this summer, according to Miller, will have offices on the second floor and shipping, receiving and raw materials storage on the first floor. It will allow the company to consolidate the offices from two buildings to one and create more manufacturing space in the process.

The company, which began in the 1970s by Miller making a few bones for the University of Washington, now makes a range of products for health education: thousands and thousands of bones, according to Miller, as well as hearts, livers and lungs and ultrasound and endoscopy training supplies.

“Last year was a really big growth year for us,” Miller said. “The economy was rolling, and we got swamped with orders.”

At the time, to keep up with demand, the company added a second shift.

In recent years, many companies have taken their work overseas to keep costs down. Although Miller says Sawbones gets some raw materials from international sources, its new building is a sign of its commitment to staying on Vashon.

There’s a plus and a minus to having a large company on the Island, Miller said. The minus, of course, is the expense of transporting raw materials here. But the plus, he said, is the dedication, loyalty and camaraderie of the people who work there.

“You won’t find that kind of environment in Seattle,” Miller said, noting that the people who work at Sawbones, including himself, appreciate being able to work on the Island, where the commute is short, and there are no ferry lines to navigate. Fewer than 10 people commute from off-Island, he said.

After Miller had worked at K2 for a few years and learned a lot, he said he wanted to create his own business, struck out on his own and began making plastic parts for a variety of businesses. He learned that the orthopedic department at the University of Washington was looking for a small number of plastic bones for its residents to practice on.

At the time, Miller said, there was nothing of the sort, and residents learned procedures via the look-over-the-shoulder method, an approach not adequate for orthopedic medicine, which is a mechanical branch of medicine with saws and drills and screws. Studies showed that when residents left their programs, their skills were not perfect yet, and it took them a few years of working with patients to become proficient, he said.

The lack of training supplies was a problem for seasoned physicians, too. A new procedure would be developed, Miller said, and physicians would have no way of learning it until they saw a patient with that particular problem, and the physicians learned by performing the procedure on the patient.

Not long after its first order of bones from Miller, the UW developed a course for its residents, where they practiced techniques, and Miller made 100 bones for that course, thinking he would do that and move on to other work.

But the university followed its residents when they left their training and found that the residents, who’d had the chance to practice on the plastic bones, were proficient when they left and did not have the two-year learning curve that other residents had. The university published an article with its findings, and soon every medical school as well as orthopedic companies called Miller wanting bones, he said.

Two to three years after he began, Foss’s long-time friend Denzel Miller joined him. Denzel Miller has focused on sales and marketing, and Foss Miller has focused on the engineering.

The business has grown consistently over the years, Miller said, with the only significant downturn coming when the Clinton administration tried to reform health care in the 1990s.

Big companies did not know what was going to happen overall, including to their profits, and held on to their money more tightly, Miller said. Given that experience, Miller suspects that the election in November may effect Sawbones because, as he said, each of the candidates is talking about how he or she will drive down costs, and the orthopedic companies may again be uncertain how much money they will have for training purposes.

Highs and lows are the ways of business, Miller said, and hopefully companies are nimble enough to weather them. As he looks ahead to the next 10 to 20 years, Miller said he believes the prognosis for his company is a good one.

“There are 17 million baby boomers,” he said, “and many of them will need new hips and knees.”

Here on Vashon, the people of Sawbones will make the products that will train the doctors to care for them.

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