Eye on Business
The Montana Chamber of Commerce
There is a lot of talk around Washington D.C. these days about reviving U.S. manufacturing; assisting "Made in America" enterprises, specifically small manufacturers. These companies, especially, have taken the brunt of free trade agreements and the recession; owners trying to do more with less, often shortstaffed, lacking capital, with little influence or resources to affect trade policies or easily access additional funds for growing their businesses. Just ask Della Ehlke, co-owner and CEO of two companies: Felco, LLC, in Missoula, which manufactures excavator attachments and backfill equipment, and Montana Hydraulics,
LLC, a machining shop in Helena, offering CNC machining, fabrication, and custom manufacturing.
Della decided to take action when import competition and the recession contributed to substantially lower sales and she had to, reluctantly, start layoffs. She initiated business changes, but also sought the assistance of a small, often overlooked program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce, that provides small to medium sized manufacturers with grant funding and technical assistance, a program which would partner with her in developing and implementing a strategy for recovering market share lost to foreign competition, expand visibility and increase sales, domestically and internationally.
The program, Trade Adjustment Assistance for Firms, (TAAF), administered by the Northwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, (NWTAAC) for Montana (www.nwtaac.org), is funding up to $75,000 for improvement projects on a costshared basis with Della's companies, providing project management from start to finish. The program is a three step process; eligibility, recovery strategy development, project implementation.
Normally, talk of a government run grant program sounds an alarm for most business owners; all that paperwork and time for little return. “Not true” says Della, “Though there is paperwork, the team at NWTAAC made it as easy as possible; they did all of the eligibility work for me, offered valuable input as we put together our project strategy and their oversight of implementation was unobtrusive. The project billing was fairly simple, our vendors didn't have any trouble with the process and payments were always timely."
Since initiating implementation of the recovery strategy in June of 2012, completed projects are already returning solid results. TAA funding was used to have Double Spurs Creative LLC, a Bozeman company, redesign 3 websites; enhance dealer features, set up social media, and implement search engine optimization. Della states that sales for Round Wood Systems, a division of Montana Hydraulics, LLC, which manufactures wood milling machines, were up a record 200% in 2013 and Felco product sales doubled in 2014. According to Della," The remake of the websites has greatly increased our visibility and has definitely driven a tremendous amount of traffic our way."
TAA funding was used to hire Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, (MMEC) consultants to prepare both companies for an ISO audit and subsequent certification. Felco and Montana Hydraulics then used funding to hire Pennsylvania-based SRI Quality Systems Registrar to perform registration audits for ISO 9001:2008, which, as of April 2014, have been successfully completed. Della is excited about the prospects for marketing and export expansion because of the ISO certification.
"I would highly recommend other companies consider applying for project funding through the TAAF program, says Della, " NWTAAC's oversight and guidance was very helpful, and as a result, we have made significant improvements to our companies' marketability that we may not have done without their help."
Reprinted with permission