America has the largest economy the world has ever seen. With a GDP of over $16 trillion, this country has seen many businesses that started in small-town USA move to Wall Street and beyond. Although a great deal of this wealth is in large corporations, a growing section of the economy is composed of local businesses that are making huge gains. Bozeman is home to several outdoors companies, unique restaurants, a prosperous agricultural community and a growing tech industry. Some brands that are known internationally started right here in Gallatin County.
Here is a snapshot of some companies that are putting Bozeman on the map.
Oboz Shoes: One Step Ahead of the Competition
Eight years ago John Connelly had an idea: to start his own footwear company that would specialize in comfortable, lightweight shoes made for the outdoors. Within the next 24 hours two companies, REI and Kathmandu, the largest outdoors outfitters in North America and Oceania respectively, were behind Connelly. Everything had fallen into place, he had customers and employees, but he needed a name.
Years of combined experience allowed the team to design and produce high-end, durable shoes for people that were as obsessed with nature as they were. Being Bozeman based allowed them to test their product in a variety of climates and weather patterns, and having two retailers already backing them gave them the confidence they needed to get going, but they still needed a name.
“We wanted a name that was short … and different,” Connelly reflected, “A unique name that people could really get behind.”
To do this, they combined two things that were essential parts of the company’s philosophy: the outdoors and Bozeman. Thus, Oboz Footwear was born.
As with many start-ups, Oboz shoes did not have a fancy rental in an up-scale business park. In fact, on the first part of their journey, the entire company was operating out of Wild Joe’s Coffee Shop.
Connelly and his team eventually found a building for their headquarters: a quaint building, downtown on Mendenhall Street. It used to be a cobbler shop and is also the same building where Schnee’s Boots was founded, which contributes the character of the company.
“Most of our competitors are giant companies that are large and established. Our lack of resources means we have little to no marketing. This made us be more ‘customer-centric.’ We are successful simply because we are a fun company to do business with, which is exactly why we are in Bozeman,” Connelly said.
The company strives to excel in three areas: quality, fit and service. This dedication has led to huge success — Oboz shoes are available in around 800 stores nationwide and available at even more retailers internationally. People in Australia, Peru, New Zealand, Japan, China, Columbia and other places around the world are exploring Earth with shoes that have their origins in Bozeman.
Besides the 12 employee office in downtown, Oboz shoes has a design team in Portland, a warehouse in Oakland, and a public relations manager in Seattle. The shoes are manufactured in Vietnam, then sold to the world.
Two Shoes, One World
Oboz Footwear offers 43 different styles of shoes. Each has a specific function and is named after a location in the Greater Yellowstone Area and other parts of Montana and Wyoming. The Gallatin’s, The Bridger’s and The Beartooth’s are all mountain ranges that are the namesake of select shoes. On the bottom of each sole is a map of the area that particular shoe is named for.
“We didn’t include the maps for navigational purposes,” Connelly notes, “We asked ourselves: How are we going to make our brand stand out?”
The unique flair of Oboz goes deeper than the nomenclature of their shoes or their distinct downtown location. For every pair of shoes that is purchased, Oboz plants a tree through a partnership with Trees for the Future. Even the electricity that powers the old cobbler shop on Mendenhall comes from a wind farm in Montana. Every part of the company is constantly seeking new ways to be more eco-friendly. For example, a team is experimenting with recycled materials to manufacture shoes. Unfortunately, so far the recycled rubber and plastics do not hold up to Oboz’s durability standards. Connelly remains hopeful that a technological breakthrough will allow them to use more repurposed material in the production of high quality footwear.
The Next Steps
The Weekly Market Trend Report for Outdoor Footwear showed Oboz Footwear was the second best-selling brand, more popular than Keen, Patagonia, Adidas and Salomon.
“We are extremely proud of that,” Connelly said.
According to Connelly, although Oboz is growing, it will continue to provide a quality product while maintaining their unique character and environmentally-sound ethics. At the company, profits are often viewed as a goal secondary to quality.
“Everything in every shoe is done by a member of our team,” he added, “And we have a reputation built around fit and comfort shoes made for the great outdoors.”
Even though it is more expensive, Oboz will continue to keep their headquarters in Bozeman. “We essentially have an 18 million acre R & D Facility, why would we ever want to move?” When asked about future plans, Connelly intends to “keep it simple.”
MacKenzie River Pizza Co: Staying true to its roots
If you have spent enough time in Montana, you probably have a favorite pizza at MacKenzie River — from the meat-smothered Stockman to the sweet-and-spicy Hot Hawaiian — but the restaurant has become so successful that now you can enjoy MacKenzie River as far away as Indianapolis.
However, despite the restaurant’s growth, those behind the reins at MacKenzie River do not dismiss the restaurant’s humble origins. “Our roots are in downtown Bozeman,” said Ryan Fuller, director of operations at Glacier Restaurant Group, “And we take those roots with us wherever we go.”
A New Approach
The first MacKenzie River opened in downtown Bozeman in April 1993 at its current location under the ownership of Mark Tache, Christian Cooper and Don MacKenzie. The restaurant was named after a McKenzie dory, or drift boat, although the founders decided to spell the name MacKenzie. While the three original owners are no longer associated with the downtown location, Tache and Cooper continue to run another popular Bozeman restaurant, Montana Ale Works.
When the original restaurant opened, it offered wood-fired pizza along with the unique ingredients MacKenzie River is known for today. This was a time when “mandarin oranges and pine nuts on pizza were looked sideways at,” Fuller said, so success was far from guaranteed. However, the gamble paid off — the restaurant was so popular it was difficult to keep up with demand, and within two years MacKenzie River opened up a second location, in downtown Missoula.
Beyond Bozeman, Beyond Pizza
During the next 12 years, MacKenzie River expanded throughout Montana, from Belgrade to Helena to Great Falls to Billings. Then, in 2007, the restaurant became a part of Whitefish-based Glacier Restaurant Group (which also operates the popular Italian restaurant Ciao Mambo), which allowed them to establish franchised restaurants outside of Montana, like Bismarck, North Dakota and Spokane, Washington.
Montana Lodgepole has built almost all the furniture for MacKenzie River restaurants, and according to Fuller, Lodgepole owner Kurt McManis was the first person to try a piece of MacKenzie River pizza back in 1993. However, at the new “grill and pub” location in North Kalispell — where the offerings go far beyond pizza — the furniture was built out of used wine barrels. Despite these changes, Fuller explained, “We’ve kept the Montana theme very much alive.”
As MacKenzie River continues to expand, fans may worry that the restaurant will lose the charm that has made it an institution in downtown Bozeman and throughout Montana. But Fuller explained that the company is very aware of what draws people to MacKenzie River, in addition to the food.
“Montana has a mystique about it,” Fuller said. “Part of our vision is to bring a taste of Montana wherever we go.”
Resonon: Looking where most cannot even see.
Gallatin County has become a seed-bed for tech-startups. The majestic scenery, limitless opportunities for outdoor recreation, friendly atmosphere and blue and gold state of mind make Bozeman ideal, especially compared to the busier, hectic Silicon Valley and other more common places for tech companies. That being said, it does take a certain . . . character to end up in Bozeman — and Resonon has a building full of such characters.
Dedication and Innovation
When Rand Swanson started a tech company that would provide practical solutions and innovations using hyperspectral imaging, he had two talented, capable and qualified people in mind: Mike Kehoe and the infamous ‘Junkfunnel.’
In the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, there is a machine that practically manufactures happiness. It is known as the ‘Chunk-Funnel’ — where delicious bits of cookies are introduced to tasty ice cream. This gadget was the inspiration behind Casey Smith’s artist moniker, or pseudonym “Junkfunnel.”
The MSU alum and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate has adopted the name, and even made a career around it. Smith reflects: “I became Junkfunnel, and was even once introduced as ‘the artist known as Junkfunnel’ . . . Like Prince I guess.”
Located a few blocks from Main Street, Resonon focuses on manufacturing Spectroscopy equipment that is used by researchers, private industries and government agencies. With only 10 employees, the consulting firm serves a large variety of clients, and business is growing.
Seeing the Unseeable
The hyperspectral cameras and supporting software can be used indoors on a tabletop or hundreds of feet above on an aircraft. Farmers utilize spectral-imaging to analyze the chlorophyll inside their crops. This information can detect signs of drought before the plants start to show visual signs of trouble, so the crops can be saved before it is too late.
Most of Resonon’s customers are researchers who need equipment to conduct experiments and collect data. In addition, the company has received grants from government agencies such as NASA, The National Institute of Standards and Technology and The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
Private industry is a growing section of the client list, Smith reports: “We have done some interesting work with robotics and machinery to sort nuts and other food products. Essentially the robot uses the information from the Spectrometer to distinguish almonds with hulls on them from the shelled ones, and other things like that.” This technology helps processing plants increase efficiency, and modernizes many production/sorting lines.
The company is also highly involved with the university, and has worked with students and faculty in areas such as physics, plant sciences, electrical engineering and biochemistry.
Swanson, the company founder, says Bozeman was without a doubt the ideal location to base his operations. “We don’t make as much money as we would if we were in a more metropolitan area, but this is changing.”
Smith agrees, “Finding work in engineering and tech industries in Bozeman has gotten much easier than it was, say 20 years ago.”
Both men insist that the quality of life is higher here because of the opportunities to ski, climb, bike, and just experience a more fulfilling way of life. “I like Bozeman,” Swanson reiterates, “That’s what it comes down to.”
Smith, who also teaches a section of Texts and Critics through the MSU Honors College, believes the Bozeman mindset encourages a balanced lifestyle. “Even though my career is focused on specialized technology, I still have a background in art. I believe Humanities, like the Texts and Critics class I facilitate, are essential to creating the next generation of innovators.”