Artisans abound: Colorado’s craft manufacturers compete globally, navigate homegrown challenges

By Bart Taylor | Nov 15, 2015

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Pete Wagner and his merry band of ski makers call southwest Colorado home, Placerville, to be precise, on State Highway 145, the road into Telluride. Wagner Custom Skis will make around 1,500 pair of tailored boards this year, steady if 'managed' growth for one of the dozens of innovative outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers who call this region home.

Wagner boards look and ski the part of a high quality, low-volume craft brand, but making a lot more isn't in the cards -- for now. "We're growing -- we need more space," Wagner says, "but real estate here is an issue; there aren't a lot of options. It creates limitations in how we manage inventory." Wagner's not alone. From Telluride to Steamboat Springs to Denver, small but successful companies -- maker businesses all -- have reached a plateau where new challenges await.

It's a familiar litany for small manufacturers: affordable real estate to accommodate growth; qualified, dependable labor; a parade of regulations and fees that intensify as business grows; and the need for greater brand awareness to compete at a higher level.

But these artisans of the modern manufacturing economy are resolute. They've already captured the ingredients that have come to define success in this economic wave -- passion, authenticity, technology and process innovation -- and take nothing for granted. Wagner's invested in machinery, to be more efficient even if significantly higher volume eludes the company in the near-term. "We've increased production capacity by 50 percent," Wagner says proudly, "with the same amount of labor." Many have reached a level of profitability and predictability they only dreamed about, happy now to maintain a successful, meaningful lifestyle business.

Many others, like Wagner, aspire to the next level. It's a group of companies and brands that years from now, will come to define business in the Rocky Mountain region. (We'll showcase a few dozen prospects in next week's holiday guide of regional consumer-manufacturing companies).

New barriers for growth companies stand in the way. With public investment in economic-development programs at record levels, you'd think a targeted resource kit would be readily available to help catapult these companies from early-stage success to breakout growth and profitability. Not so much.

"Brand awareness is our biggest challenge", Pete Wagner says. I ask if the now-dormant Buy Colorado program, rolled out to much fanfare two years ago, or the more pervasive Made in America messaging, have been effective. "We haven't seen direct evidence that it's made a difference," he offers, "but we're selling an ultra-premium brand to skiers all over the world. The Colorado aspect's important -- it's who we are -- but it's not that significant."

It's too early to jump off the Made in Colorado bandwagon but it's also evident that initiatives designed to accelerate the growth of successful early stage maker businesses have to get better. The recent push in workforce development, as well-funded as it's been, should produce short-term results. Industry-cluster strategies in aerospace and food and beverage are providing runways that accommodat well-managed, fast-moving brands. The development ecosystem is doing good things. More targeted help is needed.

At some point uber-competitive companies solve their problems -- here or elsewhere. They'll find reasonably-priced real-estate, available technology, labor, and infrastructure investments and development strategies conceived with manufacturers in mind.

It can and should be here. That’s Wagner’s intent. “We want to stay in this community – we’re an authentic ski brand,” he says emphatically. “Our people are passionate about being here.”

We should be equally passionate about making sure they stay.

Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek.