There were recurring themes during a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce panel discussion about manufacturing last week.
Freight costs are a continuous challenge; good employees are hard to find so if you have them, do what you can to keep them. And paperwork can make or break a small manufacturer.
The Chamber discussion kicked off a month-long schedule of tours and other events showcasing the Flathead Valley’s manufacturing sector.
Eric Robbins, general manager of Aluma Glass in downtown Kalispell; Spotted Bear Spirits owner Lauren Oscilowski; and Gary Snow, owner of Tabletree Montana, talked about the challenges and successes of operating manufacturing businesses in the Flathead.
Robbins joined the Aluma Glass team after his brother-in-law Curtis Bartel bought the business just over three years ago. What they found at the business — the oldest glass and window company in the Flathead — was extraordinary customer service but bookkeeping systems that hadn’t changed much since Alumna Glass was started in 1954.
“They were still using triplicate forms,” Robbins told the Chamber audience. “There were 240 boxes of 60 years’ worth of forms. When someone would misplace a measurement, because nothing was computerized, it was ‘everybody stop what you’re doing and find this piece of paper.’ It drove me nuts.”
Alumna Glass, known for its custom glass projects, quickly was brought up to speed technologically and now has full cloud computer service.
By updating and remodeling the front end of the business, keeping the same above-and-beyond customer service and beefing up marketing, Alumna Glass has nearly quadrupled its business in three years, growing from four to 12 employees.
“It’s a great small-business story,” Robbins said.
Alumna Glass’ growth has been a challenge in itself.
“We are busting at the seams,” he said, noting that the business has rented two spots behind the shop for storage and parking, and brought in a container for extra space. The showroom has been expanded twice.
The panel participants all acknowledged the value of dedicated employees.
“Good people are hard to find,” Robbins said. “We believe in apprenticeship … and helping people to realize you can find great value in apprenticeship.”
Oscilowski, who opened her downtown Whitefish distillery in December 2015, said she feels fortunate to have extremely high employee retention, though it’s a challenge for upstart distilleries to find people who understands the science of distilling.
“Across the country, not many have a degree in distilling,” she said. When she posts a position opening, the response often is “hey, I’ve been doing home distilling in my garage for 20 years.”
Oscilowski said her business is having growing pains, too. It’s quickly outgrowing its 1,000-square-foot production space. Spotted Bear Spirits operates as three businesses under one umbrella: the distillery, the wholesale distribution arm that is looking to tap into markets in Chicago and Minneapolis; and the retail store that offers drinks and Spotted Bear Spirits merchandise.
Having the right technology is crucial for a small distilling business, Oscilowski said. There’s a lot of required paperwork that tracks every step of the distilling process. Electronic filing saves time.
Technology flows into the distilling process itself in the way the stills are operated.
“It’s exciting to see how technology allows us to be more efficient,” she added.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for small manufacturers is the high cost of freight to and from Northwest Montana.
“Montana is not in a trade hub and freight costs are tough,” Oscilowski said. “People ask, ‘why are you doing this here [in the Flathead]’ but Montana as a brand resonates” with customers.
“I was in big cities before. What brought me here was the mountains. What held me here was the people. The community supports its own,” Oscilowski said.
Snow, along with his wife Susan, expanded their Canadian fruit processing and juice company, Tabletree, to Flathead Lake’s Finley Point two years ago. They also are willing to take on the challenges of manufacturing in a rural area because Montana is where they want to be.
Tabletree Montana works with Flathead Lake cherry growers to process its award-winning juices. Snow said it’s a seasonal business.
“We limped through last year with a sorting crew of five,” he said. “This year four of the five came back.”
The Snows have found success in hiring by using the “friend network,” in which employees recruit their friends for jobs. Tabletree has a dozen workers and expects to expand to 30 to 40 employees over time.
Having transitioned from doing business in Canada to operating in the U.S., there’s a different paperwork trail required here. “We’re still learning what we need to do,” he added.
Because Tabletree chooses to ship its juice products in glass bottles, freight costs are a challenge, Snow said. Accessing capital hasn’t been easy, either, though the processing business won a Montana Department of Agriculture grant. To bring their business to the U.S. they needed funding, investors and local resources.
“We turned down a B.C. (British Columbia) offer of a full-funded facility,” he said. “Montana is where we want to be.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.