Flathead Valley manufacturers make a wide range of products while facing a number of challenges

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Manufacturers are a unique piece of the Flathead Valley economy.

They run the gamut from multi-generational companies that have been here for more than a century to startup companies that have been around for a year or so. The products they make are sold locally and internationally. There’s an incredible variety in their products, including nutritional supplements, wood products, tactical vehicles, firearms, beer and rocket ship parts, notes Jenn Cronk of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a whole ecosystem of job opportunities for our valley that these companies provide,” Cronk told people gathered Tuesday for the chamber’s October luncheon. “And they buy in from companies for services and their employees’ wages are reinvested back into our economy here.”

The chamber shone the spotlight on the industry during the event at Flathead Valley Community College with a panel discussion featuring representatives from FH Stoltze Land & Lumber, Defiance Machine, RightOn Trek and Glacier Hops Ranch.

Manufacturing is often forgotten in Flathead Valley, noted Paul McKenzie of FH Stoltze Land & Lumber.

“Flathead Valley isn’t just a tourist destination,” said McKenzie, vice president of the logging company. “You have to work before you can take a holiday. We love visitors, but we are also an important part of the economy.”

Manufacturers outlined some of the operational challenges they face, including shipping in and out of the Valley, delays and bottlenecks in the supply chain, and finding and retaining labor.

RightOnTrek’s Rachel Covey said that as a start-up company, it was difficult to deal with supply chain bottlenecks. The company rents out backcountry gear and trip planning services, but also sells packaged dry meals.

“As a startup, the long lead times for orders were a challenge,” she said. “We have to order pre-printed packs more than six months in advance without knowing how many of these we need to bring and we have no sales forecast for them. So you’re trying to look into a crystal ball and say how many packs of chicken alfredo we’re going to sell?

Defiance Machine also faced supply chain challenges as part of its work producing custom bolt rifle actions. Kevin Peterson, the company’s chief operating officer, says the company has a 50-week lead time for the steel used.

“We need to know how much metal we’re going to need next year, and that’s a particular challenge given that the company has grown by over 20% over the last three to four years,” he said. “The other thing I see is that the delivery truck doesn’t always want to come that far north either because there aren’t any goods to take back.”

Some outlined the challenges faced by delays in shipping their products overseas, and also how supply chain issues have resulted in older equipment requiring maintenance because buying new products was not an option.

LEARNING to adapt to change has kept Stoltze going, McKenzie said, and some of those changes mean a difference in hired employees. The company employs about 120 people, but has been understaffed by about 10% in the last three to four years.

“Maybe in 1923 we were looking for people with strong backs,” McKenzie said. “Today we are looking for computer programmers and electricians as well as self-motivated people. A lot of training is required and we have to work to ensure that people know that working in a sawmill is no longer stacking logs by hand.”

One of the ways to find future workers is to better tell the story of manufacturing, he later added.

“We need to talk about the value of manufacturing — these are professional jobs that are just as valuable as a doctor or a lawyer,” McKenzie said. “We need to sit at the dinner table and talk about manufacturing jobs instead of telling our kids to make something of themselves by doing something else.”

At Glacier Hops Ranch, Tom Britz said the focus has been on creating a culture that begins with him as founder and CEO and extends through all of his employees.

“If I don’t follow it, it means nothing,” he said. “The best way to find new people who fit this culture is through referrals.”

Additionally, in terms of employee retention, the company has had success with its employee share plan, which allows them to earn equity in the company over a period of time.

“I think that helped a lot because everyone feels like they’re pulling the rope in the same direction,” Britz said.

RightOnTrek produces approximately 1,000 meals per day with a goal of scaling to 50,000 meals per day. According to Covey, finding employees who could adapt to a changing environment was crucial.

“We think it’s really important to have a workforce that is multi-talented and able to handle these transition plans, especially when it’s a startup,” she said.

Defiance Machine’s goal was to find the right people who fit the company’s culture, Peterson says, noting that the company would rather work with fewer employees than hire those who don’t fit. The company attends job fairs at colleges across the country to recruit prospective employees and takes the step of letting current employees go out to lunch with potential employees during the interview.

“We are ready to take anyone and we can train people to operate the machines,” he said. “We just need the right people.”

The company has had to raise employee salaries because of rising housing costs, Peterson added.

“We lost people because they had to move back home because of housing costs,” he said. “You have to have a place where people can live.”

Feature Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected]

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