Cree lights way to Obama's jobs vision

Posted June 13, 2011 12:09 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2011 6:47 p.m. EDT

— The backdrop to President Barack Obama's visit to the Triangle Monday to outline his plan to expand the U.S. economy is a company that has continued to grow despite the global recession and lingering sluggish business environment.

Cree Inc. makes light-emitting diodes and semiconductors used for energy-efficient lighting, cellphone communications and industrial power needs.

The company has added about 1,000 jobs at its Durham headquarters in the last three years to meet the growing demand for its LEDs, which are more energy efficient and last longer than other lighting sources. It also recently landed a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Energy to continue research in energy-efficient lighting.

Obama toured the Cree plant with company Chief Executive Chuck Swoboda and two members of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt and Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railways Chairman Matthew Rose.

With signs proclaiming "It's Time for Better Lighting," the president greeted smock-wearing workers assembling LEDs, telling a few of them, "We're proud of you."

He then met with White House advisers and members of the jobs council, which held a series of meetings in the Triangle Monday to devise strategies to boost the economy.

North Carolina's unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, at 9.7 percent in April, and the number of people working in the state is about 20,000 fewer than two years ago.

A couple hundred Cree employees and dignitaries were on hand for Obama's speech, including U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson.

Cree has been somewhat a golden child for the Obama administration. He visited the company in 2008 while campaigning, and Vice President Joe Biden toured the Durham factory in March 2010.

Ty Mitchell, vice president and general manager of Cree's LED Lighting Division, compared the company's transformation in the three years between Obama's visits. It's annual revenue has doubled, to nearly $1 billion, and LED lighting sales now account for 70 percent of its business, up from 10 percent in 2008.

Cree uses LEDs in its own facilities, Mitchell said, cutting its electricity consumption by 54 percent. Similar savings are available to others who switch to LEDs, he said.