STEVENSVILLE - Last year, Greg and Kathy Gundel did something they never thought they would.
After successfully operating a large specialty pipefitting manufacturing business in Washington state, the couple decided to expand with the purchase of a second plant in Stevensville.
It turned out to be a decision that has the potential to pay big dividends for the Gundels' Specified Fittings business.
With oil extraction efforts gearing up in eastern Montana and North Dakota as well as the tar sands in Alberta, Greg Gundel said the Stevensville plant is "incredibly well located" to take advantage of that economic opportunity.
On top of that, Gundel said there is additional potential for business in the current oil shale exploration that is occurring on the eastern edge of the Rockies.
"That three-legged stool could be very beneficial for us and our Stevensville operation," Gundel said.
The Gundels' company started with a single worker 16 years ago and has grown to the point that it now employs 110 at the Bellingham plant.
They initially had no intention of owning a second facility.
When they heard that a similar manufacturing operation just outside of Stevensville had gone out of business and was being sold at auction, the couple thought they might be able to pick up some equipment at a good price.
The plant's former owner was a bit of visionary in the field of HDPE fitting manufacturing and had developed his own equipment to produce the complicated fittings used in everything from fish hatcheries to major mining operations.
The couple's initial idea was to move the equipment to their home plant, but after considering the logistics and the facility in Stevensville, they opted to keep the plant in the Bitterroot Valley.
"It's going really well for us there," Gundel said. "We've been able to progress very rapidly. The factory was in total disarray when we purchased it. It wasn't functioning at all."
Gundel credits his Montana work force for a quick turnaround in getting the plant up and running.
"We only brought one person to Stevensville from our Bellingham facility," he said. "Everyone else is from the area."
The company found a work force in the Bitterroot Valley with the skills and talent it required to make the business successful.
"Our foreman tells us that many of the workers in Stevensville are farm boys who have a natural mechanical ability and a really strong work ethic," Gundel said. "On top of all that, they are very intelligent folks. That has really, really helped us in getting our operation up and running there."
The company has invested between $600,000 and $1 million in new machinery and inventory to make the plant operational.
It also took the additional step of obtaining certification that allows the Stevensville plant to produce HDPE fittings that require FM approval. There are only three places in the country that have obtained that level of certification, including Specified Fittings' Stevensville plant.
"That approval process is incredibly expensive," Gundel said. "The Stevensville plant is approved. Bellingham is not. ... There is a lot of hoop jumping. It's a huge thing to overcome, especially considering the condition of the facility when we took over."
"We couldn't even have gotten a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," he said. "It was pretty bad."
The Gundels aren't done reinvesting in their Stevensville location.
They've recently added equipment used to bake enamel onto metal that makes it impervious to decay. Called powder coating, the process is used in the oil fields where steel and plastic pipe are joined.
"The previous plant owners had a powder coating business, but they let it go away," Gundel said. "We want to restart that portion of the company again."
The new business could eventually employ another two or three people.
"It's not a lot of new jobs, but they'll be good-paying positions in a unique industry," he said. "I doubt that there is another powder coating facility in the Bitterroot or Missoula."
The Stevensville plant currently employs about 20 people at jobs that pay between $12 and $18 an hour, with benefits.
The potential for growth at the Stevensville site are almost unlimited, Gundel said.
"The equipment that we invested in does allow us to make three times the number of fittings with about 60 percent fewer people than were there before," he said. "I believe our only ceiling in Stevensville is our ability to sell more product."
If the national economy experiences even a modest recovery and oil and gas exploration continues to grow, Gundel said "our ceiling in Stevensville is fairly unlimited."
"We love the Bitterroot," he said. "We love the folks we have working for us in Stevensville. We hope that we can make that business into what it deserves to be."
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at (406) 363-3300, Ext. 30, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.