Mark Hastings

Uberbrew head brewer Mark Hastings speaks about the business model Uberbrew has used to succeed since opening in 2012 at the Big Horn Resort on Thursday, June 22.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

Uberbrew is a Montana success story, growing from a dream of a few beer lovers to a regional leader in the booming craft beer industry.

But, as co-owner Mark Hastings said during a Billings business forum Thursday, the dreams don’t stop there. Uberbrew wants to keep growing and never forget its roots, he said.

“We’re a Billings company with international aspirations,” Hastings said during a Success in Montana panel, hosted by the Montana Society of Certified Public Accountants.

The trade group shined a spotlight on five Montana-born companies during its two-day conference at the Big Horn Resort, attended by about 180 people.

“We like to celebrate the Montana businesses that are so successful, and learn from their accomplishments,” said Margaret Herriges, spokeswoman for the accountants’ group.

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Montana Society of Accountants

More than 50 people watch as Uberbrew's head brewer Mark Hastings speaks during a conference of Montana Society of Accountants at the Big Horn Resort on Thursday, June 22.

Joining Hastings of Uberbrew were other business leaders: Bryan Wood, CEO of Wood’s Powr-Grip in Laurel; John Burke, CFO of KOA Campgrounds in Billings; Frank Schaner, owner of Home Science Tools in Billings; and Amy Eisenzimer, owner of Parker’s Hangover Tonic.

During the two-hour session, moderated by University of Montana business professor Joshua Herbold, the entrepreneurs discussed their successes and challenges.

All said they were happy to be operating in Montana, noting the inherent challenges finding qualified employees and distributing products from a rural area.

Wood’s Powr-Grip was launched in Wolf Point in Eastern Montana and moved to Laurel in 1990. At its start, Wood’s was the only firm making battery-powered vacuum-sealed lifting equipment for the construction industry, according to its founder.

The family-run business now employs about 150 people and exports about 35 percent of its products, Wood said. New products include a tele-grip system, which gives users constant feedback on the grip, he said.

Attracting specialized talent can be a challenge, Wood said, adding that Montana is the best place for his business.

“If you do enough traveling, you realize this is where you want to be,” he said.

KOA was the best-known brand on the panel and has the biggest reach, with 490 campgrounds nationwide.

In 40-plus years, the company has been publicly-traded, faced an uncertain future under private ownership, survived a recession and repositioned itself for a new generation of recreationists, Burke said.

KOA’s biggest challenge now is for consumers’ time, and the company has beefed up marketing through social media and other avenues to sell the outdoors to millennials, he said.

“You have to be innovative. You have to focus on what customers want,” Burke said.

Parker’s Hangover Tonic was the youngest member on the panel, developed by Eisenzimer (her maiden name was Parker) in her home in Cascade County in 2010.

“Everybody always asks me, ‘How did you start this? College, and a lot of training, research and development,” Eisenzimer quipped.

The tonic is used in Bloody Marys and other recipes and can be found in bars and restaurants statewide. Parker said she hasn’t borrowed money yet, and she’s figuring out the best strategy to expand.

Schaner and his wife, Debbie Schaner, started Home Science Tools 20 years ago to provide materials for home-school families.

Back then, “Amazon was a jungle in South America,” Schaner said, and now the tech company has emerged as his biggest competitor.

Last year, the Schaners completed a $1.8 million expansion of their Billings facility. Those moves are needed regularly to keep up, he said.

“It’s been nice to see how businesses evolve over the years… When you think you’ve got it figured out, you find you were probably clueless about things,” Schaner said.

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