A Lifetime of Secrets: Securing Intellectual Property a World Away

Manufacturer Lifetime Products fiercely protects its intellectual property. Now, an expansion into China will prove to be the firm's biggest challenge yet.

Hidden within the blue-collar landscape of an industrial district near Salt Lake City, manufacturer Lifetime Products Inc. churns out basketball hoops, tables and chairs all day long -- except on Sundays, when the factory is closed, as ordered by the company's Mormon owners.

Outside, it's December, and the temperature dips to 9 degrees when the sun goes down. A night-shift worker on her break squats alone in the cold air, dragging on a cigarette. But it's mostly the snowy Wasatch mountain range rising visibly to the west, along with its highest peak, Mount Nebo, meaning the "Sentinel of God," that makes the entire place feel like a fortress.

Inside, Lifetime is guarding its secrets.

Lifetime's corporate offices, which were used as a military center during World War II, are a maze of narrow corridors and low ceilings. The manufacturing plant is adjacent. It stinks with the sharp smell of fresh paint, the final step of a process that began with a coating of mysterious black dust.

That dust is IP -- intellectual property that, like proprietary manufacturing processes, new product drawings, planned patents and computer-aided designs, helps differentiate the company's products, which are quickly moving toward commoditization. "We have a lot of patents that are protecting us and that we've spent a lot of money enforcing," says Richard Hendrickson, Lifetime's president who started out as a graveyard-shift welder in the late 1980s.

His CIO is John Bowden, a soft-spoken vice president with a track record of making tough IT decisions. Hard choices include the technology that helps create and protect Lifetime's IP. Bowden has built a kind of IT vault that makes it nearly impossible for employees to spirit away data. Slick mobile devices with limited storage capacity and network computers lacking removable disk drives have replaced traditional laptops. All data and applications are kept in a central data center at Lifetime's headquarters and under Bowden's watchful eye.

This was first published in March 2006

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