Three men embraced Butte-Silver Bow County in their middle age for reasons that centered around business.
Today, two operate companies in the community that are tied to the wide and wild outdoors.
The third man moved about three years ago from California to manage Montana Precision Products, a regional aerospace manufacturing company that is going great guns.
During recent interviews, all three said doing business in southwest Montana has more pros than cons. Two also acknowledged related challenges.
Both sectors — outdoors-oriented businesses and high-tech manufacturers — play vital roles in southwest Montana’s economy, according to Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp.
“Outdoor recreation is a huge segment of our local economy and a sector that the BLDC is actively pursuing,” he said.
And Willauer said larger employers like Montana Precision “are incredibly important to the economy of Butte, and we recognize the unique opportunities and challenges that larger employers face.”
He said the economic development organization understands the significance of outdoor recreation “in terms of tourist dollars,” but also welcomes the contributions of outdoor recreation manufacturing businesses such as UDAP Industries, whose products include pepper spray designed to deter bear attacks.
Willauer and others said southwest Montana’s proximity to world-class outdoors recreation bodes well for recruiting businesses in that sector and for helping to draw workers for other industries.
Mark Matheny’s life changed dramatically one September morning in 1992 when he and his hunting partner were mauled after encountering a sow grizzly with cubs while bowhunting northwest of Yellowstone National Park.
Matheny was 39 years old that day and a general contractor with an impressive resume of custom work. An account of the mauling and the aftermath on UDAP’s website, bearspray.com, notes that Matheny found it difficult to focus on his contracting business after the attack.
“All I could think about was bears and bear stuff. I needed to make my peace with it.”
Two years later, he founded UDAP Industries on home property in Gallatin County. At the time, the company offered a full line of self-defense pepper sprays, including bear sprays. When founded, UDAP was an abbreviation for Universal Defense Alternative Product; today, UDAP is the company’s official brand.
In 2008, Matheny moved the business to Butte-Silver Bow County, where he had purchased land and built a building to house UDAP on Water Line Road near Lydia’s restaurant.
UDAP’s general manager, Tim Lynch, 43, has been with UDAP since 2001. He said Matheny, the company’s owner and president, had several reasons for moving the business to Butte.
“He was wanting to get the business away from his house,” Lynch said. “At the same time, I was looking at moving back to Butte.”
Lynch and his wife, Amy Bone Lynch, are Butte natives and wanted to come home to raise a family.
Lynch said property prices were attractive in Butte and that the region’s reputation for employees with a strong work ethic was a draw.
“It’s just known for its hard-working people. I’m a little bit biased because I was born and raised here. But it really feels true,” he said.
He said he could not think of any significant drawbacks associated with UDAP being headquartered in Butte. Lynch said Matheny became enamored of the city over time and eventually established a home in Butte.
This week, UDAP had nine employees in Butte. Lynch said that number can swell with temporary workers from Express Employment Professionals during peak season or in the wake of a bear attack that can sometimes temporarily spike demand for deterrent spray.
Today, UDAP’s product offerings also include personal pepper sprays, including the “Jogger Fogger” and “Mugger Fogger,” as well as holsters for the spray canisters, stun guns, bear resistant food storage bins and portable electric fences designed to protect camps from bears.
Lynch said the proximity of Interstate 15 and Interstate 90 has been positive for UDAP and can yield “pretty good shipping rates out of Butte.”
He said the company’s building is about 6,000 square feet, which includes a shipping facility added in 2014.
“We’ve been growing pretty steadily,” Lynch said. “There were some years when it was sorta flat. But we haven’t gone backwards.”
Less than a mile away, housed in a hangar at Bert Mooney, a unique outdoors-oriented business draws both special operations forces soldiers and civilians for specialized trainings in southwest Montana’s mountains, rivers and lakes.
Rod Alne, now 58, began to imagine the business that became The Peak while deployed in Afghanistan. Alne had noticed that many fellow soldiers were suffering symptoms of altitude sickness in Afghanistan’s mountainous regions.
The U.S. Army has referred to altitude sickness, sometimes described as “mountain sickness,” as “the invisible enemy of the Afghanistan mountains.” Reaching elevations of 8,000 feet or more can create the potential for “acute mountain sickness,” or AMS. Medical experts say the best way to decrease the chance of developing AMS is acclimatization.
That reality played a role in Alne’s decision to establish The Peak in Butte after he retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant after 27 years in pararescue. The nearby Highlands and Tobacco Root ranges offered a high-altitude training ground of peaks of 10,000-plus elevation.
At the time, Alne was 45 and had been stationed in Florida with his wife and two daughters. An acquaintance from the Air Force, Dr. Gus Varnavas, a neurosurgeon, helped convince him Butte was the place to start his business and Varnavas was a partner in The Peak for several years. Today, Alne is sole owner.
Alne moved to Butte in May 2005 and his family followed a few months later. He said his wife and daughters resisted leaving the beaches of Florida for a city where snow was still flying in May.
“I was in the doghouse for about a year and a half,” he said, smiling. “No, for about three years, really.”
The family had become accustomed to regular paychecks during his Air Force service and launching a new business put an end to a predictable income stream.
The Peak’s key customer initially was the Department of Defense. A few years ago, with anticipated cuts to the defense budget, the company expanded its offerings and reach. The company’s promotional material reports, “Today, we are still very connected to our friends in military special operations but now we work with people from all walks of life.”
Alne said defense budget cuts three or four years ago created challenges for The Peak. He said military training has picked up since then and that about 90 percent of the company’s business is military and about 10 percent is civilian.
Today, the company’s catalog of services includes, among many others, training in backcountry travel of varied sorts, wilderness survival, climbing and rope rescue, swiftwater rescue and wilderness medicine. The Peak also offers logistical support for high-altitude parachute operations, high-altitude scuba diving training, shooting and more.
Alne said trainings that bring 25 to 40 special operations soldiers to Butte for 10 days or two weeks several times a year inject large amounts of new money into the regional economy. Soldiers lodge at local hotels, rent vehicles, eat at restaurants, visit bars at night, he said.
The Peak has two full-time employees in Butte, including Alne and Penny Jones, director of logistics. The company also has three full-time employees at an Air Force base in Louisville, Kentucky — a physical therapist, a strength and conditioning coach and a massage therapist — also working with special operations troops.
For trainings, The Peak contracts with instructors with specialized knowledge and skills. And their ranks include many people in southwest Montana, Alne said. The Peak also contracts with regional businesses like Upper Canyon Outfitters near Alder.
Alne said Butte is a near-perfect setting for a company that requires proximity to high-elevation mountains, rivers, lakes, rock climbing sites, snow and more for its trainings. The Peak has even conducted confined space rescue training in mine shafts in Butte.
He said Butte’s access to outdoors training spots is as good or better than Bozeman’s and that Butte has been welcoming to The Peak and its clients.
He said local businesses, including rental car companies, hotels, restaurants, night spots and more have been resolutely supportive both of the company and its military trainees.
“People treat them very well when they find out they’re military,” Alne said. “I think the community as a whole really embraces the military. That’s a huge pro.”
He said that if an outdoors-oriented entrepreneur reached out to him and asked whether Butte-Silver Bow County was a good place to start a business he would answer “Yes.”
Jones, his colleague, agreed, noting that the cost of living is lower in Butte than in cities like Bozeman and Missoula.
“This place will get discovered. Then, we’ll all want to move away and find a new undiscovered place,” she said, smiling.
As for drawbacks tied to being headquartered in Butte?
“The con seems to be transportation,” Alne said. “It’s getting people in and out of here. We have lost contracts because of the cost of flying in people if they’re flying commercial.”
The Peak’s three registered drop zones for parachuting include a zone at Bert Mooney Airport. Alne said that arrangement has helped counter some of the transportation challenges. On occasion, trainees parachute in from a military aircraft, he said, providing another training opportunity.
Meanwhile, Willauer, like Alne and Jones, said Butte’s proximity to renowned outdoors recreation is a key selling point.
“We are incredibly fortunate to be located in the heart of all of Montana’s best outdoor resources — be it fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking or whatever you enjoy doing,” he said. “We have it and it is world class.”
Willauer said the BLDC has several marketing campaigns designed to help recruit outdoors-oriented businesses, with the largest being “Butte. Elevated.”
The promotion was recognized by the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development as the best marketing campaign in 2017. Willauer described the effort as an extraordinarily effective tool “to showcase what we already know about Butte — that it is an incredible place to live, work and play.”
Montana Precision Products
Roughly 11 miles west of Bert Mooney Airport, Montana Precision Products manufactures parts that end up in GE jet aircraft engines.
Chris Eurich, 57, and his wife, Dana, moved to the region from California nearly three years ago when he became general manager of the high-tech, aerospace manufacturing company.
Today, Eurich is thoroughly bullish about the future of Montana Precision Products and generally bullish about southwest Montana.
Employment at the high-tech aerospace and industrial parts manufacturer has more than doubled since January 2013. That’s when SeaCast and GE formed a 50-50 joint venture to produce, among additional products, tubes, ducts and other parts for GE jet engines.
Butte natives and brothers Bert and Mike Robins owned SeaCast and now have a 50 percent stake in Montana Precision Products.
When the joint venture formed there were 73 employees. On a recent Friday, employment totaled 153.
And Montana Precision Products is actively recruiting in southwest Montana.
A billboard that soars above Montana Street in Butte proclaims “Now Hiring.”
Eurich said the company, which is located south of the Port of Montana and just west of Interstate 15 in Butte-Silver Bow County, hopes to add 46 workers this year and another 15 in 2019.
“We’re trying to bring in more folks,” he said. “The demand has taken a very aggressive turn.”
In short, demand is up in a big way, he said, for the parts Montana Precision makes for GE’s LEAP jet engines, touted as reliable and exceptionally fuel efficient.
“They’re uber efficient,” Eurich said, a characteristic he said appeals both to aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and to airlines seeking an edge in a competitive industry.
About 85 percent of the company’s products are for GE. Customers for other industrial parts include Peterbilt and Caterpillar.
Is Montana Precision Products finding workers with the skillsets needed for advanced manufacturing?
That’s where Eurich’s bullishness about southwest Montana is accompanied by an asterisk. He’d say it’s a small asterisk.
“The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” he said.
Of the 46 workers Montana Precision hopes to hire this year, about 20 of those jobs would be for welders — specifically TIG, or Tungsten Inert Gas, welders. Eurich said the company has struggled to hire people skilled in this welding technique, considered more precise and demanding than stick or MIG welding.
As a result, Montana Precision has developed an in-house training program for hires who seem to have the aptitude, dexterity and patience required to be adept at TIG welding. He said GE has provided trainers to spend time in the plant.
“They want us to succeed. They’re investing in us,” Eurich said. “We’re adjusting and overcoming as far as the welder-need gap.”
He said the region’s comparable lack of retail diversity, including a dearth of big box retailers, has occasionally hindered recruitment of people from outside the region to fill some of the most specialized jobs at the plant.
But he said southwest Montana’s scenic beauty and notable opportunities for outdoors recreation help draw employees.
Willauer also is bullish about the future of Montana Precision Parts.
“Over the next two years they will be ramping up production and creating numerous good-paying jobs for residents of Butte,” Willauer said. “We actively work with these companies to ensure that they can thrive, have the trained workforce they need and are able to expand like Montana Precision Products currently is.”
The company also draws employees from around southwest Montana, not just Butte.
Eurich said the BLDC, Butte-Silver Bow County and others have been fully supportive.
“I see a community that’s dedicated to the success of businesses so those businesses can take care of the community,” he said.
Eurich said the company anticipates demand will continue to escalate for its parts made for the LEAP engines. He said GE anticipates 2018 production will be double 2017 production and that demand will double again next year.
“It’s ridiculous but it’s a great ridiculous,” he said.
Montana Precision Products also needs workers who are committed to the company, Eurich said, with a strong work ethic, who aren’t necessarily technically skilled.
He said he has been impressed by the work habits of people the company has hired from southwest Montana.
“That’s a huge plus,” Eurich said. “Folks want to work here. They want to help the company grow for themselves and for future generations.”
Montana Precision Products works two shifts four days a week, with each shift being 10 hours. There is also a “critical process” weekend shift whose employees work three 12-hour days.
Eurich said people interested in a career at Montana Precision Products can apply online at www.mtpp.com.
“We’re going to keep getting bigger and bigger,” he said.