By Eric Peterson | Aug 09, 2020
CNC machining and metal fabrication
Friedl co-founded the company with his brother-in-law, Isaac Houchens. "We were welders in the oilfields," he says.
When oil prices dipped in 2014-15, Friedl decided to take his "hobby shop" to the next level with a full-fledged CNC contract manufacturing operation. "We didn't want to have to weather another downturn in the oil industry," he says.
Black Mountain started with the CNC-machined Al-Cap, a universal aluminum bottle cap funded by a Kickstarter campaign. "It's the one and only consumer product we ever manufactured and marketed to the masses," says Friedl. "We launched with a product, and then we immediately started to do contract manufacturing work."
At first, he says it was "just enough to keep the lights on," but oil prices bounced back and emerged as a key market for Black Mountain.
In 2017, the company developed a custom coupling for a client in the oil industry and the relationship grew from there; Black Mountain ultimately built several oilfield locations for the customer. "Oil was really, really profitable," says Friedl. "While this was happening, we were also developing relationships in other industries and markets for general contract manufacturing work."
As Friedl and Houtchens reinvested the income back into Black Mountain, the operation quickly expanded from 600 square feet to more than 3,000 in the same complex, says Friedl, "but it wasn't enough."
Eventually, projects spilled out into the parking lot, then the street. "Thankfully, we were on a dead-end street," says Friedl. A complaint ultimately led to a relocation to a 10,000-square-foot space on three acres outside of city limits.
Black Mountain also needed space to accommodate a new Bystronic fiber laser cutting system the company acquired to complement its CNC turning and milling, welding, and waterjet capabilities. The end result is a full-service CNC machining shop with metal fabrication capabilities.
The staff peaked at 30 employees as revenue hit $5.2 million in 2019 before the double whammy of an oil bust and the pandemic hit in 2020. "This year, we're going through a general market crash and an oilfield crash," says Friedl. "We had built our business to withstand one or the other, not both, but we're actually doing okay. There are a lot of companies that are struggling to survive and we are not struggling, just waiting for the next opportunity."
While oil-related work has plummeted, Friedl says robotics and automation have emerged as sales drivers. A recent project involved components for robots that will be used in the cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan; another involved waffle-flipping automation at a food-processing facility.
Black Mountain has also worked with a number of "custom engineering houses that are really heavy on engineering and light on manufacturing," adds Friedl. "We knew what kind of customers we wanted to go after."
The rapid growth in 2017-19 led to "millions" of dollars of investment in equipment. "Not a lot of general contract manufacturing shops could have invested in the equipment that we have invested in in that short a period of time and still have the revenue to exist at the end of the day," says Friedl.
Challenges: Managing growth. "Whenever you grow very, very aggressively, it is easy to outrun yourself," says Friedl. "It is easy to get moving faster than your feet can keep up with, and we have always struggled to find that thin line of the fastest rate we can grow."
He says the slowdown has allowed Black Mountain to optimize and systemize processes, noting, "We are trying to revisit every system we have in place, and when there isn't a system, build a system." To that end, the company attained ISO 9001 certification in 2020.
Opportunities: "We are trying to get into a higher tier of machining," says Friedl. "We would like to get into aerospace. If you look back at the machines we purchased very early on in our business, we always bought the much more expensive Japanese version of a machine . . . because we knew we wanted to get into aerospace."
Spending in the industry has fallen with the pandemic, but Friedl says he hopes to position Black Mountain for its comeback. "Some of those [aerospace companies] won't have the same vendors to tap," he notes.
"Another area we want to get into is larger-format weldments." he adds. "We would like to weld and post-machine really large-format stuff."
Needs: "We could use a larger building, that's for sure," says Friedl, noting a target of 25,000 square feet in the I-25 corridor north of Denver.