By: Michael Connors Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Business
Durango, Colorado, for those who have never been, is in an inspiring corner of the state where the high desert slopes upward to the base of the San Juan mountain range and white capped mountains pierce a deep blue sky. Life here is about the outdoors and the passion that flows from nature. Just a short drive from Durango is Purgatory at Durango Mountain Ski area, and over Molas Pass, one can find the more challenging Silverton Mountain. The Animas River runs right through the heart of the town tempting anglers from all over the world while daring rafters to take the plunge - stunning geography to say the least. And unlike many of the resort areas of Colorado, Durango is a place where room has been made for industry and business. Furthermore, the people here are community-oriented and self-sufficient. The region supports oil and gas exploration and production, mining, manufacturing and is the home of Fort Lewis College. Granted, there are no single entities that dominate the commercial landscape, but the abundance of small business is its strength. It is in this thriving environment where StoneAge Inc., a leading water jet tool manufacturer is located.
Started in a garage in 1979 by John Wolgamott and Jerry Zink, StoneAge has grown into a thriving small business that is a shining example of innovation and job creation. Initially developed for uranium mining, the water drill they produced in 1979 ultimately found a home in industrial cleaning that is now commonly used in a variety of commercial settings including refineries, power plants, sewer and sanitation, as well as high-tech environments like NASA. This new technology allows operators to control the machinery remotely, increasing safety and productivity.
And as word has spread, StoneAge has increased its market share. In fact, sales growth has averaged over 18 percent per year since inception and is now over $20M net sales annually. Average sales-per-month has risen from $300,000 in 2000 to $1,400,000 in 2010, all the while remaining highly profitable. “As employees and stockholders – we do have our cake and get to eat it too. We are able to live in Durango, Colorado, earn above-average wages, receive excellent benefits and be part of something that makes our world better,” says Wolgamott.
As a 100 percent employee-owned business, StoneAge is able to leverage the passion and investment shared by everyone who works there and, as a result, they are an extremely valuable contributor to what is normally an insular local economy. Their focus on innovation and development has enabled them to position their company as an industry leader that sets the standard, creating 12 new products between 2008 and 2009.
Passion for innovation is really a by-product that comes from the company. Making its people a priority is foundational as noted in John Wolgamott’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Pioneer Award presented by the Water Jet Technology Association in August 2009, “For me personally, being able to create good jobs is one of the most worthwhile endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.” Turnover rates are remarkably low and many of their employee-owners boast 15, 20, and even 25 years with the company — a rare accomplishment in any industry.
Accepting the 2011 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Exporting, Kerry Petranek, StoneAge’s CEO, noted that their location in Durango can be a logistical challenge but one that StoneAge has overcome. She believes that being based in Durango and maintaining their exceptional culture of employee engagement is their core strength and they market this unique identity with enthusiasm. In a recent interview, Petranek emphasized StoneAge’s strategy for moving forward. She said, “The world is getting smaller. Again, for us the U.S. market isn’t going to grow like the global market. It’s very important for us to look to the future. How are we going to create more jobs and keep our employees happy by giving them growth opportunities while the company needs to grow? That future is international. “StoneAge, a respected name worldwide, has developed strategic partnerships overseas which has helped them overcome challenges of doing business in foreign markets. As a result of their innovation and employee retention, they are wildly successful overseas, noting that, “Exports represent almost half of our annual sales for the last three years.” And as they grow their business and exports, they inject new vitality into the local economy.
In fact, Durango, Colorado’s local economy is primarily based on the recirculation of the same dollars. But because 100 percent of StoneAge’s customer base is outside of La Plata County, the largest contribution to the community is through reduction in economic leakage by bringing new dollars into La Plata County — thus creating a stronger, more viable community.
As new business breathes life into the company, StoneAge is able to provide support and income that helps revitalize their community. Through StoneAge’s Community Contribution Program, they support 50 local nonprofits with time and money, but the employee-owners are also encouraged to give of themselves to local charities as schedules are flexible to help make community involvement a priority.
Drawing inspiration and strength from their environment, the people of Durango seem to share the knowledge that they are the keepers of a special place. When I asked what makes StoneAge a special place to work, Petranek says, “There are almost too many things to mention. The best part is I get to come in every day and work with some of the best people I’ve ever met.” And, by creating an enduring legacy, StoneAge truly represents what is best about the future.
Michael Connors has an M.A. in literature and an extensive background in teaching. He is a Colorado native and spends his free time in the Rockies skiing and hiking.