Forging an unusual path
Ron Khormaei’s path from an electrical engineering doctorate to starting a kitchen knife company was an unusual one, but it makes perfect sense in retrospect.
Khormaei, B.S. electrical engineering ’88, M.S. ’89, Ph.D. ’95, was a 15-year-old high school student when he left Iran in 1983.
“I was traveling alone,” he said. “I’d left everything and everyone I knew behind. It was the first time I’d flown in an airplane, the first time I left my country, and I didn’t really speak English. It was not a comfortable position.”
A year and a half later, after sojourns in Switzerland, Germany, and Canada, he settled in Corvallis, where his older brother lived, and finished high school.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in just 2½ years and chalked up his master’s degree in nine months. Then, while working full-time as a researcher and a manager for Planar Systems (a startup that made advanced digital displays in Beaverton), he completed his doctorate in 1995.
Khormaei is quick to underscore the faculty’s contributions to his supercharged academic career. “Even though I was part of a large department in a large university, I got a lot of personal attention,” he said. “I learned how to solve problems. I was given as much rope as I needed to try new things and to succeed, and also to fail, which led to building the confidence that I would be able to figure things out.”
He also credits the unflinching support of his wife and two boys as another major factor in his success.
Khormaei parlayed the technical expertise and the business acumen he’d garnered at Planar into a string of management positions at HP and Logitech. Next, he returned to the startup world in executive roles to apply this cumulative knowledge at several fledgling companies in both the high- and low-tech realms.
By the time he was inducted into Oregon State’s Academy of Distinguished Engineers in 2012, Khormaei owned seven patents and had published 30 papers. He had been appointed adjunct associate professor at Portland State University, where he still teaches engineering technology management, and he had founded the consulting firm ADN Management Solutions.
That same year, Khormaei moved into an entirely new business arena when he founded Finex Cast Iron Cookware with a partner and a small team. The company produces premium, handmade cast iron kitchenware, all manufactured in the Portland area. Khormaei was conflicted by the prospect of reinventing a 1,000-year-old technology, and he wondered whether there was even a market for such a product. But when he started thinking about his own family’s aversion to the chemical coatings used in many pots and pans, he grasped the commercial possibilities in creating an entirely new category of modern, American-made heirloom cookware.
“It seemed like a crazy idea,” Khormaei said. “Who is going to consider American-made premium cast iron? A lot of people laughed at the idea.”
But plenty of people weren’t laughing. Two Kickstarter campaigns netted more than $340,000, and in 2014, Finex beat out 38 competitors to win a $60,000 award from the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.
Finex’s growth and success led to the company’s sale to Lodge in 2019. This freed up Khormaei to tackle kitchen knives, for which there was, once again, no premium American-made brand in any national stores. He partnered with a local bladesmith, Eytan Zias, who had over 25 years of experience forging and sharpening knives. This new foray led to Portland-based Steelport Knife Co., which reintroduced American-forged carbon steel cutlery.
“We spent two years in the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns ironing out every detail,” Khormaei said. “The blades are the highest hardness in the industry for sharpness and durability. The comfortable, contoured handles are made of Oregon bigleaf maple, so every knife has a piece of the Pacific Northwest in it.”
That Khormaei — whose education and career had leaned heavily toward high-technology — founded a pair of decidedly low-tech cookware companies seems like an unusual outcome. But when he reflects on the sequence of events that began with the abrupt geographic and cultural dislocation he endured as a teenager, the progression seems completely natural.
“When I got to the U.S., I was in an unfamiliar place, and I didn’t know how to cook anything. So, I learned how, and cooking became my comfort zone,” Khormaei said. “Finex and Steelport gave me the opportunity to build great teams and to grow local manufacturing while also giving me an excuse to cook even more.”
In 2021, Khormaei returned to Oregon State to become director of industry partnerships for the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. As a member of the advisory board for EECS, he had frequently voiced his concern that the capabilities of the College of Engineering were not well understood or fully appreciated by business and the public. When a staff position was created to address the problem, Khormaei was urged to take it.
“Someone told me that this was my chance to stop complaining about the situation and do something about it, and I said ‘Sure, why not?’” Khormaei said. “I quickly learned that increasing the visibility of the range of expertise that the school offers is a big challenge, but it’s great to have the opportunity to take action. I now get to do it at the school that’s been such a big part of my life.”
Photos courtesty of Finex Cast Iron Cookware and Steelport Knife Co.
December 18, 2023