Having a developer insist on using his 20-year collection of “good junk” to rehabilitate an old warehouse and being involved in daily construction can result in artistic chaos.
But the recipe has worked at Red Oxx Manufacturing, where co-owners Jim Markel and Perry Jones spent more than $1 million transforming an old bearing shop at 1123 Second Ave. N., into one cool luggage factory.
“We saved a ton of time because I was here every day to say, 'No. Yes. This works. That doesn’t' to the builders,” Markel said.
Over two decades, Red Oxx has evolved from a basement business that Markel’s father started into a manufacturer and worldwide distributor of rugged travel luggage and other gear. Like its luggage, this business has been nomadic and the manufacturing facility Red Oxx moved into three weeks ago is its eighth home.
In the early days, Red Oxx employees had to move their sewing machines to the curb during nice weather and haul them back in after hours. Now Jones has a 12,000-square-foot factory designed for efficiency.
In one year, the warehouse was gutted and structurally reinforced, walls were torn out, half a dozen windows were punched through concrete block, skylights were added and a custom-crafted steel staircase was built and installed.
While calling the remake of a 1950s warehouse “remodeling on steroids,” Markel still wasn’t satisfied.
“I thought it would take six months,” he said, revealing his mix of boyish enthusiasm and impatience.
During a monthlong demolition, Markel and two others gutted the building during the day. Each night, employees who wanted overtime pay removed up to three feet of debris.
The ribbed steel exterior siding also was used inside, saving probably a month of construction time by avoiding the labor of taping and texturing drywall.
Beetle-killed trees from the Great Falls area were milled at Country Pine down the street, and Markel laid the second-story wood floor, a trade he learned off-duty while serving as a Marine at Camp Pendleton.
“It was definitely different having an owner that involved in day-to-day decisions, but because of that it allowed us to be creative and push each other to come up with innovative solutions,” said Tony Neumann of Neumann Construction, the general contractor.
A group of 40 local subcontractors “all stepped up and made it fit Jim’s vision,” Neumann said. Billings architect Dennis Deppmeier helped mold what used to be five buildings cobbled together into a cohesive whole.
“I’ve waited 20 years for this,” said Jones, who handles production. “Jim does the ‘pie in the sky’ thinking, and I’m the one who gets it to him.”
Jones demanded only two things: good coffee and an aquarium for his office.
Jordan Blase, a North Carolina welder, moved to Billings specifically to work on the Red Oxx building. He fabricated the steel staircase featuring red steps, a 3,000-pound circle of steel recycled from an oil refinery and a Steep World climber-rigged parachute cord along the sides. A jet engine Markel had squirreled away for a decade is the main light fixture at the top of the stairs. And two German military medic cases hold the light switches.
“We put a lot of time, steel and wire into this,” Blase said.
He’s finishing a huge sewing needle sculpture and a 5,000-pound Red Oxx sign for the front lawn.
Red Oxx will continue to operate its retail store at 310 N. 13th St.
The company now employs 22 workers, who have a kitchen and break room with twin Thermador ovens, a gas range and six microwaves. They don’t have to wait for their lunches to heat up and the kitchen encourages healthier eating, Markel said. The tables are slabs of walnut recycled from Anaconda and the room doubles as a yoga studio.
Large bathrooms have showers for workers who want to bike to their job or to handle a future second shift.
Red Oxx has annual worldwide sales of $2.2 million, but that doesn’t stop Markel from bargain hunting.
Someone, perhaps from the downtown federal courthouse project, sold a new roll of fine-mesh wire to a local recycler.
“I think this cost $5,000 and I bought it for $600,” he said. It will be used for the bird-friendly outdoor patio he’s building.
A huge stainless steel bowl used at the old Pierce Packing plant got a second career as a bird bath.
Last month, the Billings City Council approved a tax increment finance district loan of $45,319 to Red Oxx to broaden the public sidewalk, include metal grates to hold 10 trees, build back-in parallel parking and plant a generous strip of grass.
“It paid about one third of the $150,000 cost,” Markel said. “It definitely softened the blow.”
The revitalization has started in the East Billings Urban Renewal District, or EBURD, which runs from downtown Billings to MetraPark.
First Interstate Bank’s operations center on Sixth Avenue North, a car wash and the Red Oxx factory are the only projects so far to receive TIF funds in the East district, said Marty Connell, president of the Billings Industrial Revitalization District. But he said some other projects are being discussed.
“We’ve seen a lot of businesses move to the West End, which is kind of a bummer,” he said, adding that the Red Oxx project should kick-start other redevelopment.
The factory remake could receive a silver award from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Markel said, but he’s not going to spend the $25,000 or more to get certified.
“There’s a lot more good we could do with that money,” he said. “I’ll give it to charity before I spend it on that.”