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Bonsai Design

by Chris Meehan on April 17, 2016, 08:01 am MDT

www.bonsai-design.com

Grand Junction, Colorado

Founded: 1999

Privately owned

Employees: 32 Full-time, 25 project-based employees (average)

With zip line and aerial adventure courses opening at Vail, The Broadmoor, and elsewhere, Thaddeus and Sarah Shrader's company is branching out.

Bonsai Design's catalog includes "zip lines, challenge courses, aerial adventure parks," and plenty of other outdoor attractions, says Sarah Shrader, the company's chief administrative officer. "We haven't limited ourselves," Sarah asserts. Bonsai is also pushing into new territory: The company has created a new drop tower experience that uses an auto-belay device to give customers a safe free-fall experience with a soft landing.

"We're focused on a building a successful business for our clients," says Sarah. "Something that gives them a really good return on their investment."

Sarah's brother, John Walker, started Bonsai. "He was driving around in his van half the year rebuilding rope courses in southeast Michigan and the Midwest and then eventually started building canopy tours and asked me to help him start the company," she explains.

Bonsai Design has installed more than 500 zip lines, with lines as long as 3,600 feet and for tours that can last as long as four hours -- like its new course at Vail, which is accessed via a chairlift.

These attractions are drawing crowds. "On each course we've built, the minimum people that will go through that course per year is 10,000," Sarah says. "It's incredibly satisfying when we get videos and pictures of people enjoying the course."

Ski resorts in the West are a newer opportunity for the company. "The Forest Service limited summer uses until three years ago [2013] when the summer-uses bill was passed and expanded the land for more summer uses," Sarah explains.

Many projects are nestled among trees and use them as support and structure. "We'd never want to do anything to destroy the platform," Sarah says. "My brother created this way for a tree to grow and expand while it had a platform around it. It's a tree blocking method that works really well."

Zip lines are fastened with wooden blocks placed against a tree trunk and secured in place by wrapping cable through the blocks, like a spool. "The tree blocks effectively stand the cable away," explains Thaddeus, Sarah's husband and CEO of the company. "As the tree expands we relieve the yoke so the tree can grow. If you take it off the tree will repair itself in a year or two."

Protecting users also is paramount to Bonsai Design and the industry. "Having really qualified, high-quality companies to compete against us, helps us," Sarah says. "We're always rooting for our competitors to put in high quality experiences with an emphasis on safety."

The company works with local manufacturers to source and supply its devices, some of which it makes, Sarah says. But it also works with Petzl and other companies to provide safety equipment. "They're specific companies that design harnesses for our industry. We've helped design them for our industry with input," she adds.

The new drop tower uses Boulder-based Head Rush Technologies' Trublue auto-belay devices and a steel fabricator in Grand Junction builds the staircases, for instance.

Most of the company's employees are hired locally. "Thankfully, in Grand Junction there's an excellent group of climbers and displaced oil workers," Sarah says. Employees go through weeks of intensive training to make sure they can properly and safely install the systems.

The company keeps in regular contact with its clients and their employees. "We do maintenance and retrain all the guides every year," Sarah explains.

Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is Mesa County is the most economically distressed county in the state," Sarah says. "I've tried to hire key executives to grow the company and they don't want to come here because of the economics and school system."

Opportunities: "The drop tower is an incredible new project you can build anywhere. You could build it in the parking lot at a stadium," Sarah says. She also notes that the Toledo Zoo is the company's first zoo installation and was designed with accessibility in mind.

Needs: "Like any growing company we could use some capital," Sarah says.

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