This company earns a trophy for its efforts

Dean Davis

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

The American entrepreneur is often pictured as an individual operating out of a back-room shop, struggling to make a go of his or her new enterprise. While Big Sky Laminates, a fledgling manufacturing company in Laurel, Mont., fits that image in part, it also belies the attitude that the entrepreneur must struggle alone.

The Millers, Peggy and Ken, and the Toombses, Debbie and Bob, are all equal owners and operators of Big Sky Laminates, a manufacturing company that makes wooden bases for trophies and plaques. The firm started production in September 1990 in a 10,000 square foot building with a handful of employees. Now, new facilities are needed and the workforce has tripled to 28.

The company's manufacturing process consists of shaping boards for the trophy or plaque base; virtually any shape can be created. The board is then sanded and edged before it is covered with a wood-grained laminate that gives it the realistic look of solid wood. While 95 percent of Big Sky Laminates' work is done with wood-grained vinyl on particle board, the company also turns out solid hardwood products. The bulk of the sales are to a few large trophy wholesalers, but the company has rapidly developed worldwide markets for the bases. With the exception of those customers who buy in large volume, sales are handled by telephone and fax machine.

For the Millers and the Toombses, creating this business was not done without some serious and thorough planning. Bob Toombs, the company's president, says that he spent months studying markets, calling potential clients and sorting data from manufacturing associations to determine the viability of the venture. With their combined backgrounds in trophy sales and woodworking, and because of the high number of wood components needed for a completed trophy, the partners chose this product for their venture. Even with the planning, it took 18 months to develop a prototype for the product.

While the product is the end result of the venture, the Toombses and Millers do not hesitate to credit the workers and community for the success of the company. "We've had tremendous support from the community, and the quality of work from employees is outstanding," Toombs says. "We hire locally and intend adding more employees to meet our growth." And the management often puts in 70-hour weeks, generally beginning with daily 6 a.m. planning meetings. Peggy Miller has said that they often feel as if they live at the plant, and Bob Toombs admits that liking the business so much makes it easier to work hard at it.

A good deal of the success of the partnership rests on the ability of each individual to use his and her skills, the partners say. Each has a particular strength and interest in either finance, personnel, sales/ marketing or production, and Toombs credits the "good feeling and naturalness" of the arrangement for the positive attitude that exists at the company.

As with most entrepreneurial ventures, Big Sky Laminates faces problems that typically confront new businesses; for example, to harness the potential for growth that the partners feel exists, greater amounts of capital than can be generated by the company will soon be needed. "We have no problem with sales right now, but cash flow, management of cash and acquiring additional capital for future growth will pose the greatest challenge. At some point, we hope we can go public and sell stock in the company," Toombs says.

In the true entrepreneurial spirit, Big Sky Laminates hopes to see its growth double each year for the next three years and then settle into steady growth of 30 percent to 40 percent per year after 1993. Beyond that, Toombs hopes that the success of this company will allow for the creation and development of new ventures in the future. Ultimately, Big Sky Laminates could generate the means for the development of many new businesses, he says.

Creating a business from scratch is difficult, time-consuming and emotionally draining, but these partners credit their success to following a plan, sacrificing the time and using their individual talents to further the goals of the team. Toombs' advice for anyone who has a dream similar to his and his partners is to "develop tenacity, be willing to sacrifice and just hang in there—it's tough starting out."