Small town manufacturer adapts and grows

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  • SHAD ANDERSEN, and Mark Stevens work to change steel into specialized solar panel pole mounting brackets at MT Solar in Charlo. Andersen is a Charlo graduate taking his shop class experience from there to a new level. (Carolyn Hidy/Lake County Leader)

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    DON WOODS of Montana Solar said they "Wwecall ourselves the IKEA of solar installation." The company manufactures one specialty part, but includes it with a full mounting frame package, including bolts, if the customer needs it. (photo by Carolyn Hidy/Lake County Leader)

  • SHAD ANDERSEN, and Mark Stevens work to change steel into specialized solar panel pole mounting brackets at MT Solar in Charlo. Andersen is a Charlo graduate taking his shop class experience from there to a new level. (Carolyn Hidy/Lake County Leader)

  • 1

    DON WOODS of Montana Solar said they "Wwecall ourselves the IKEA of solar installation." The company manufactures one specialty part, but includes it with a full mounting frame package, including bolts, if the customer needs it. (photo by Carolyn Hidy/Lake County Leader)

When Travis Jordan saw so many men leaving the Mission Valley for work in the Bakken oil fields in 2011, he wondered, “What if, instead of sending them our people, we send them stuff?”

An electrician and certified solar installer, he had no experience in manufacturing. But he had a hunch it could be done.

He and his long-time friend (and now business partner) Don Woods spent that year in search of a product that was needed in the oil fields, which were booming at the time. In Alberta, they finally found a company willing to share knowledge about making and marketing rig mats, platforms that oil equipment sits on to avoid sinking into the soil. “It took a benefactor. Not with money, but someone outside our market area willing to teach us what we needed to know.”

To make it work, they would need steel and wood, semi-trucks for hauling, and a lot of hard work and hustle. They had to build two truckloads and have them already on site before it would be bought.

With their hard-working buddies jumping in to help weld, “six or eight guys bucking up 6x6s like firewood,” and farmers pitching in their trucks to haul when needed, they got their first three loads on the road in 2012. Orders then came in so fast, they didn’t always have the wood in stock. Luckily, some folks they knew in St. Ignatius “pulled a sawmill from the weed patch” to get them wood in a hurry.

“We moved from there through the levels of insanity to some semblance of reasonable production. We were doing three to four days lead time. From time of order, we would have the mats built, a truck scheduled and loaded, and delivered in three days.

This effort ran for “a couple of good years,” says Travis, helping them build up finances and experience. “The oil business helped get us started with a low tech, high volume target of opportunity, and got some people involved.” But then the price of oil suddenly plummeted, and business dropped off.

It was helpful, then, for Travis to have his solar installation business, Jordan Solar in Ronan, to fall back on. And it was here that he got the idea for the next phase of his manufacturing business.

During the winter of 2013, Jordan Solar installed a large 85 kw solar setup on top of the parking structure in Missoula, they ran into delays due to parts being unavailable. Pole mounts, brackets that attach the panel frame to a pole and adjust for the angle of the sun, weren’t always available. They realized they could make these mounts, and there were probably others who would be interested. Knowing the oil field business would falter, they figured out how to make their own pole mounts, for which they now have two patents.

They showed their product at the Montana Renewable Energy Association show in 2014. A friend said, “Your product’s great. You should take it to Solar Power International,” a huge show in Las Vegas. Through that show, they got listed in a couple distributors’ catalogs, and with some direct marketing to others they knew in the solar business, the new company, MT Solar, took off. They soon had sales from coast to coast, plus Canada, Alaska and Hawaii.

Travis and Don give high praise to the Lake County Community Development Corporation for helping them start the two businesses in three years. Start-ups often need more money and have a higher risk than banks can help with. But LCCDC’s Revolving Loan Fund offered business planning and development training, and a non-traditional source of start-up capital.

Through the planning process, Travis realized the only way he could make the business work would be if he worked it without pay at first. He is grateful he had help figuring that out, so he knew to keep working his solar installation in his off hours.

“Without LCCDC, there is no way we could ever have done this,” Travis and Don agree. “They treated us just like royalty; they did a wonderful job.”

While 90 percent of what MT Solar manufactures leaves the state, “we are importing cash to Montana,” says Travis. They have doubled last year’s sales this year. His own business, Jordan Solar, is estimated to be no more than one percent of his sales.

Besides some patented improvements in design, an edge over their main competitor in South Carolina is their quick delivery. “I was losing installation jobs back then when I needed the parts, sometimes having to wait for 8-12 weeks. My customers deserve to have what they order in two weeks, if that’s what they need.”

In the small town of Charlo, it can be a challenge finding a workforce, but MT Solar now employs 12 – 16 people, whom they train as needed. “We try to pay as high as we can pay,” says Don.

For anyone interested in trying a similar road, Travis says, “Target the opportunity. Find something that needs to be built and build it. Don’t make something and then try to find someone to buy it.”

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