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Bears have been good to Back Alley Metals.

What started out as a hobby for semi-retired welder Mike Thompson has turned into a thriving metal fabrication business. And it got a little boost from curious bears roaming downtown Red Lodge pawing through garbage cans.

The city is beefing up its public trash cans, making them more bear proof. And that job falls to Back Alley Metals. The company has also produced bear-resistant trash cans, some of them beautiful works of art, for the cities of Whitefish and Missoula.

Back Alley Metals also creates gates and railings, signs, wall art and other metal items.

Before starting the business, Mike and his wife, Corey Thompson, dabbled in real estate, buying a house and three rental units to fix up. When the housing market crashed, the couple got spooked and Mike fell back on his three decades as a metal worker and welder.

With the addition of his son, Mick, and his wife, Alanna, “This is truly a family business,” Mike said.

The younger members of the business have helped Back Alley Metals keep up technologically with a professional Internet site and a Facebook page.

Back Alley Metals is located at 210 N. Broadway, in the alley behind Bone Daddy's, in Red Lodge and may be contacted at 425-1533, or through its website at www.backalleymetals.com. Here's what else Mike had to say about turning a hobby into a growing family business:

Why start this business?

Back Alley Metals started as a man cave/shop escape for Mike, who is a semi-retired welder. What started as a sidebar hobby eventually spread to a full-time job, especially with the acquisition of a CNC Plasma Cutting Table. Son Mick, a former high school math teacher, and currently the terrain park manager at Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort, started helping Mike, and now works almost full time at the shop. In addition, Mick's new wife, Alanna, works at the shop as well. This is truly a family business.

Where did your start-up funding come from?

Mike has been acquiring tools over many years, and while there's always more equipment to be had, he had enough to get rolling. Personal savings initially paid the rent on the business space.

How long have you been in business?

Back Alley Metals started in April 2009.

Your biggest challenge during the current recession?

Last spring , summer, and fall have been boom times for the shop. BAM is working on keeping the shop busy during the slower winter months.

What is being done to overcome those challenges?

Time is spent with each potential client, and each project taken on by BAM is high quality work, custom made to fit. The personal attention to detail, and the company's ability to make everything unique and one-of-a-kind, has lead to repeat customers, people who return for more metal work. In addition, BAM makes bear-resistant garbage cans, tested with a three-star rating (the highest possible) via the World Wildlife Federation in West Yellowstone. We've made cans for the city of Red Lodge, as well as Missoula and Whitefish parks. Bears aren't a problem in winter, but BAM is hoping that communities and parks will order cans this winter in anticipation of the bears return next spring and summer.

What is being done to expand the business?

Back Alley Metals is doing a marketing surge, targeting area contractors and businesspeople. They are Made in Montana certified, and plan to market a select amount of material at the Made in Montana Show in Great Falls in March, which is attended by both retailers and the general public.

Your best business decisions?

To bring in Mick and Alanna. Mick does all of the computer work with the CNC Plasma Cutter, and welds with Mike. Alanna oversees the shop bookkeeping, manages the backalleymetals.com Web site and Facebook page, and is in charge of marketing the shop's metal capabilities. But you'll also find both of them doing the grunt work of grinding, sandblasting, and painting. Mike continues to concentrate on railings and lending his artistic bent, and oversees all projects.

Your worst business mistake?

Buying inexpensive tools in an attempt to save money, and having them fall apart under normal use.

What advice do you have for someone running a business?

Take a powder day every once in a while. Go skiing, take a hike.

Number of workers?

Three: Mike, Mick, and Alanna

What is your five-year plan for the business?

We're starting to outgrow our current space, so a physical expansion is in the works. We hope to keep acquiring new equipment and tools, so we can extend their capabilities. Our motto: “You name it. If you want it in steel, we can make it!”

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs?

Do you have some marketing tips?

If you weren't doing what you are now, what would be your dream job?

Mike would be babysitting his grandson.

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