Manufacturers are a unique part of Flathead Valley’s economy.
They run the gamut from multi-generational companies that have been here for over a century to startups that have been around for about a year. The products they create are sold locally and internationally. There is incredible diversity in their products, including health supplements, wood products, tactical vehicles, firearms, beer and rocket parts, notes Jenn Cronk of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.
“These companies provide a whole ecosystem of work opportunities for our valley,” Cronk told those gathered for the chamber’s October lunch on Tuesday. “And they make purchases from companies for services and the wages earned by their employees are plowed back into our economy here.”
The chamber focused on the industry at the event held 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 the Flathead Valley, noted Paul McKenzie of FH Stoltze Land & Lumber.
“The Flathead Valley isn’t just a tourist destination,” said McKenzie, vice president of the lumber company. “You have to work before you can take a vacation. We love visitors, but we are also an important part of the economy.
Manufacturers described some of the operational challenges they face, including shipping in and out of the Valley, supply chain delays and shortages, and finding and retaining workers.
Rachel Covey of RightOnTrek said that as a newly created company it was difficult to deal with supply chain shortages. The company offers backcountry equipment rental and trip planning services, but also sells packaged dehydrated meals.
“As a startup, the long order times have been a challenge,” she said. “We have to order pre-printed packaging more than six months in advance without knowing how many of them to bring and we don’t have sales forecasts for that. So you’re kind of trying to look into a crystal ball and say how many packets of chicken alfredo are we going to sell? »
Defiance Machine has also faced challenges in the supply chain in its work manufacturing custom bolt-action rifle actions. Kevin Peterson, the company’s chief operating officer, says the company has a 50-week lead time for the steel it uses.
“We need to know how much metal we will need next year and that is particularly difficult because the business has grown over 20% in the last three to four years,” he said. declared. “The other thing I see is that the delivery truck doesn’t always want to come that far north because there’s no product to pick up.”
Some described difficulties in delays in shipping their products overseas, and also how supply chain issues have meant keeping older equipment as buying new doesn’t is not an option.
LEARNING to adapt to change has kept Stoltze running, McKenzie said, and part of that change means a difference in the employees he hires. The company employs about 120 people, but has been understaffed by about 10% over the past three to four years.
“Whereas in 1923 we were looking for maybe employees with strong backs,” McKenzie said. “Today we are looking for computer programmers and electricians, as well as motivated people. There is a lot of training involved and we have to work to make sure people know that working in a sawmill is no longer about stacking logs by hand.
One of the ways to find a future workforce is to better tell the story of manufacturing, he later added.
“We have 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 around 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 corporate culture that begins with him as founder and CEO and extends to all of his employees.
“If I’m not, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “The best way to find new people who fit that culture is to recommend them.”
Also, in terms of retention, the company has had success with its employee stock ownership plan where, over a period of time, they can earn shares in the company.
“I think that’s helped tremendously because everyone feels like they’re pulling the rope in the same direction,” Britz said.
RightOnTrek produced approximately 1,000 meals per day with targets set to reach 50,000 meals per day. Finding employees who can adapt to a changing environment has been key, Covey said.
“We really find it’s important to have a workforce that is multi-talented and able to handle these changing plans, especially as a startup,” she said.
Finding the right people who fit the company’s culture has been Defiance Machine’s goal, Peterson says, noting that the company would rather operate with fewer employees than hire the unsuitable ones. The company has participated in career fairs at colleges across the country to recruit future employees and, during the interview process, takes the initiative to bring current employees out for lunch with potential employees. .
“We’re 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 increase employee wages due to rising housing costs, Peterson added.
“We have lost people because they have to go home because of the cost of housing,” he said. “You have to have a place where people can live.”
Managing Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected]