Economic Revolution

A Sordid Tale of Urban Renewal on the Journey to Factory #8

CEO as Contractor

If you were to ask the average person on the street where most things come from you would more than likely get the answer of “China”. They answer with an almost fatalistic resignation that we’re finished as a country and that before long we will be a second tier economy. Accepting this reality has never been part of who we are at Red Oxx.

Over the past year, I’ve been playing assistant contractor as we have been completing our Factory #8 project. Along the way I was given many choices as to how to finish our “new” old building. Initially, I had planned to build a brand new facility from old shipping containers on the lots surrounding our factory store location. The process had gone as far as creating an initial concept and how the building would be positioned on the property. As the cost estimates and compliance costs started coming in I began to see that it was not going to be a feasible project. After spending nearly a decade assembling property and planning, it was apparent that I needed a new plan.

It was while searching online that I came across a property just a block away. Staring at the screen I called Perry over and we both thought the same thing. Where is this thing at? Walking out the front door and down the block we found the most unremarkable and yet right sized building not even three hundred yards away. A nasty piece of work right in the middle of our gritty industrial core — and I had never even noticed it before.

Clunker to Castle

Built in 1953 as a ball bearing warehouse, the building had seen many years of abuse and about five poorly done additions. The transients had already established residency in the overgrown foliage and more than likely had designs on the building itself. To say that this building had no redeeming architectural value would have been a more than fair assessment. However, it did have the large floor space we required, and the location was convenient to our store. Perry loved it. “This is it,” he stated. For a moment I was not sure I had heard him right.

I mean, I’m a sucker for just about any lost cause, but this would not even classify as functionally obsolete. Besides, it was so ugly that even I could not envision it being home to our manufacturing operations. Still we had hit the capacity ceiling in our current facility and something needed to be done… and soon. Perry had a couple of stipulations; he wanted his own coffee maker and a fish tank in his office. Other than that, I had a free hand in designing the workflow and finish details.

After going back to the drawing board with A&E architects, it was time to find someone to get the job done. All great causes need a leader and I had a general contractor (and friend) for this project. I figured that if anyone could pull of this project in a creative way and keep me on budget it would be “El General” –Tony Neumann. Tony’s frugality is legendary among his friends, and I had the feeling that some of it would translate onto our project. Having restored a 1920s bungalow for myself years ago I had pretty much given myself a permanent case of PTSD from remodeling. When we met to discuss the project, I glanced down at his ragged shoes. This was going to be a grubby affair.

Fire and Brimstone

They say misery loves company. I had found a suitable companion three years ago at a Land Rover event in Leadville Colorado. Jordan Blasé had been fabricating Land Rovers and other off-road components since he was fifteen years old. When I met him he was still running his own business fabricating high-end bumpers for LR3s and performance racing buggies. Our paths crossed again at another Land Rover owner’s group event in Moab. This time he was at loose ends having just sold his business, Rovertyme, and contemplating his next move in life. We struck up a conversation discussing container buildings.

I had been researching container buildings for several years and was just getting ready to head to Zimbabwe for a hands-on experience. Jordan was keen to come along with Perry and I for a firsthand look. Along the way Jordan would find a new nickname “Koombie,” and the genesis of his next venture would be formed.

The path to creation sometimes begins on the road to destruction. Rarely have I found a soul who loves wrecking things as much I do. On November 1st, 2012, Koombie and I tore into the factory #8 remodel like a pair of twin Tasmanian devils. With the help of our awesome Red Oxx night owl crew, we were able to strip out the interior in less than three weeks. We had sliced a month and a week off the estimated demolition. I immediately started having delusions of rocking this project out in six months. We had moved so quickly that the City Planning Department had not been able to approve our actual construction plans. There was plenty of work to do while we waited. We started designing and building a very unique staircase.

Jordan and I had been scheming on the grand staircase since the Africa trip. It would become the central theme –giving a tired old building some architectural interest. Taking our initial sketches to the planning table, we were met with some skepticism. After being told ‘no way’ by several structural engineers, we found a willing collaborator Matt Krivonen. Peering over our sketches he looked up and said, “Who’s the Star Trek fan? This staircase would be right at home on any self respecting Klingon battle cruiser”. I could see the gears already turning in his head as he stared at the sketch waving us out of his office telling us not to worry, he could do it.

The East Billings Urban Renewal District or EBURD has been home to the Oxx since 1993 and is the location of our first factory direct retail operation. In those early days, while most companies fled to new developments west of town, we were drawn to the area by low rent. Of course, along with low rent you will more than likely have to deal with some issues related to urban blight. Still, we were able to garner a loyal following of locals who would patronize our humble factory store. Over time we began to see the natural beauty surrounding this end of the district.

At the street level you have a typical industrial urban landscape full of aging buildings and storage areas. One glance upward and you will see something quite unexpected in a downtown location. The rimrocks which encompass Billings on both sides converge here at the end of the Yellowstone valley. This is the prominent feature along with the river itself and is what defines this valley at the edge of the Beartooth Mountains.

The process of rehabilitating an existing structure is certainly the dirtiest of the building trades. First, you have to somewhat carefully deconstruct your building. Then, depending on your needs and intended use go in and rebuild it in a way that works. Between the scraping and digging you have to work around existing structural elements and somehow make right where others have cut corners. It’s a game of give and take.

Solving the current problems and planning for the future needs of the operation were always paramount to just knocking it out. Making the ultimate LEAN factory for our products was certainly a priority as we looked at the anticipated workflow. Along with workflow, we paid special attention to making the most of what was available to us. Spending time inside the structure as the sun rises and sets you begin to see how the natural light changes during the course of a day. It didn’t take long to see that things needed adjusting. Making those adjustments would require some serious ironwork and brute force.

Koombie’s shopping cart was found behind the building and more than likely belonged to a transient who had flown south for the winter. It was perfect for our itinerant welder, holding all the scrap iron and tools that were needed as he moved around the job site. It became a running joke among the crew “have cart will travel” and before long we were using another one for our best scrap yard finds.

Scanning over the structural plans in search of inspiration, we decided on the form of a circle. The linear aspect of the metal work allowed for a limited amount of artistic expression– and we still had to keep the project on budget. So the ubiquitous circle became our new theme for a large part of the structural steel. Once we had a theme we began to expand on it (with an almost serendipitous flow) as work progressed.

Never one to waste anything, I insisted on all drops finding a home somewhere else in the project. Prowling the scrap yard on a sunny day with our Public Relations Intern Kat, I spotted a huge disc of metal lurking under gigantic pile of iron. It was turnaround time at the local oil refinery and massive hunks of steel where piled like metal icebergs around the yard. What appeared to be the world’s largest watch fob was poking out beneath one of the piles.

Steel Staircase to the Stars

Three thousand pounds of precision machining is required to make a dollar plate for a refinery heat exchanger. After retrieving it out from under the pile, I knew we had found something truly special. This massive circle would become the base of our staircase project. Not only was it over-engineered for our needs it would save us several days of footing preparation. With the base settled we took delivery of a couple of pallets at the Koombie’s shop. Wrapped in plastic were all the tiny fragments of metal that would become our staircase. Sorting through the piles of parts Jordan and I began to figure out how it all was supposed to go together.

I had my doubts, but he had practically memorized the computer-animated drawings and set me on tacking treads as he burned wire at a breakneck pace. Working across the table from a true master fabricator, it was all I could do to just keep up. This was a whole new skill set and one I frankly never cared to learn… good times at the welding shop getting burned and losing what is left of my hearing. Yet there is something about the medium that allows for the improbable.

As time went on, I began to understand just what is possible with this material. Before we could install the centerpiece of our remodel project we would need to complete some serious architectural ironwork first. The steel began to collect at the job site — it was starting to look like I was opening my own indoor scrap yard.

Meanwhile, El General, was coordinating with subcontractors who were seeing to other aspects of the project. We were bringing this building up to modern standards while looking to maximize energy efficiency and productivity. Each decision brought about another interlocking part that then had to be decided on as well.

American Construction to the Core

I had opted early on to forgo drywall… and the mess associated with it. This move would save us over a month in finishing time but would be stretching the skills of our finish carpenters. The modular pre-finished model appealed to the manufacturer in me and we selected some unique materials. As a manufacturer you learn quickly that if you want to build the best you need to start with quality materials.

Tony and I had spotted an article in the Bozeman Chronicle where a local builder had been asked to build a home completely made of U.S.A. materials. The article has provoked some interesting conversation about U.S. building practices. So as we began to determine what materials would be used we selected based on several criteria. Most importantly where did it come from? What were the performance specifications? Was it LEED certified? In answering these questions we were able to narrow the field of options.

During our initial walk-through we noted a considerable noise reverberation in the area that was to be the main production floor. Duly noted, I researched a variety of acoustic materials for the industrial environment. Starting with the ceiling we opted for a time tested material called Tectum. This noise dampening wall panel has some very unique properties and it suited our selection criteria. I decided to run this throughout the entire facility, as noise is the bane of any factory process.

My next big decision was how to treat the walls in a way that had performance and still have some visual interest. The solution was a multipart affair combining NewWood as wainscoting and Homasote board with a custom metal trim system that we developed locally. Tying these choices together in a cohesive way would make for some unique visuals in the end.

Let There Be Light

Another interesting material brought to my attention by the architect was window and sky lighting solution by the name of Kalwall. This integrated lighting solution has some rather awesome benefits and is well suited to our needs here in the hood. The translucent nature allows natural light to come through and eliminates glare and severe heat gain. We would be inserting two rather large skylights made of Kalwall directly above the production floor and a series of large windows along the outside walls as well. It was these modifications that would require some of the more intense ironwork.

Shortly after leaving the Marines I did a brief stint as an ironworker, so I had at least an inkling of what I had signed up for. The acrid smell of the torch and clanging of the sledgehammer as you coaxed several thousand pounds into place was but a distant memory. Standing around the blast heater on a cold November morning it was exciting to be in the mix of the new build-out. Koombie and I were staring at two massive I beams that somehow needed to put into the ceiling. But before we could get to the glory work we had some serious business on the windows. We had grossly underestimated the work required for each frame out and the knuckle breaking had only just begun.

Cutting and grinding each piece and then lifting it into place, we slowly started to turn the corner on the iron. Once the larger pieces of steel were in place, it was time to turn to on the smaller details. Designing functionality into each detail and yet having some folly was a tricky line to walk. Jordan and I spent hours sketching and prototyping everything from light fixtures to furniture. Each piece would have a story and the inspiration was sometimes found in some unlikely places.

Unlike Crime, Hoarding Pays

According to Perry and the crew, I should be on an episode of Hoarders. I just can’t bear to throw anything useful away. I will concede that some of the treasures I save from the trash heap at first glance appear less than useful. But turning a jet engine exhaust into a light fixture just takes some vision and a bit of patience.

I trace my penchant for re-purposing back to my grandparents who were part of the depression era. As a child, my cousin and I would laugh at grandma as she cut open a tube of toothpaste to get that last glob. Lately this has become fashionable but as I see some of the best things of the 20th century being turned into scrap, I began to look at how well they were made. There is a camp of theorists who subscribe to the cradle to cradle model where things are made, used, and then recycled back into the stream.

I certainly concede that this is a valid model and one that may very well come about. But along the way we are losing our heritage as we move towards always having something “new”. The chance discovery of some forgotten relic that could live again if someone just believed it could become useful again. During our annual trade show travels we pass many a rusting relic along the road and I would contemplate possibilities. Perry would just keep the hammer down and say “NO” but for years we had driven past the Army Surplus Warehouse in Idaho Falls and never got to stop for some shopping. Seen from the highway it is an impressive sight but once inside it is really a picker’s paradise.

This time Perry had the misfortune of being in the passenger seat when the exit appeared ahead. Jordan had instructed me to find some unique metal pieces for some of the finish work in the factory. His advice was “big, cheap and heavy”. I joked that it sounded more like a personal ad, not a shopping list. The next few hours were a blur as we picked and loaded items onto the handcarts. Ten pallets later, I was finally done and Perry vowed to never let me near the place again. We scored some very interesting decor and all that was left was to scoot home and figure out where to use them.

As the months ticked by and the site began to take shape it became apparent that this was no six-month remodel. The crew was chomping at the bit to get into their new facility but like any project the scope had been widened a bit. With summer slipping by as it does here in the north, it was going to be a race to completion before the snow flew again. El General was concerned about exceeding the budget and attempting to satisfy my requests for even more flexibility. The last thing we needed was to have to make additional changes once we were up and running at full speed.

Over-engineering a Red Oxx bag is one thing, but taking that premise to the factory build-out was fast becoming an obsession. I spent my days coordinating with the subcontractors on the minutiae of functional industrial design. Working through the details of the electrical system alone would test the limits of our well-seasoned electrician. While the contractors were busy putting in the HVAC and plumbing systems below it was time for me to return to one of my earlier loves.

Just a block away from our new factory site is another awesome Montana small business. Country Pine makes unique hand crafted furniture from standing dead lumber that has been killed by the pine bark beetles here in our State. I noticed their sawmill and asked what they could do about my idea for a unique flooring solution for the boardroom.

Instead of a table where council is held, I intended to make a complete room facilitate the meeting process. As the months had slipped by I had agonized over how to get the most from the space upstairs. Without a concrete idea of how I was going to finish the room, I began to lay the floor.

Sometimes the destination is only found along the road once the journey has begun. After freezing all winter downstairs, it was quite a shock to the system as the thermometer topped 100 degrees outside and the internal room temp spiked in the teens. As I worked in a semi-trance for three weeks coaxing each plank into the perfect spot. During the torpor I would find my answer on how to finish the room. With the floor completed I tasked Koombie for my steel hitching rails. The freestanding units would serve as our “tables” and the meetings would all be held either standing or sitting on the floor. The resulting space is something like an industrial dojo with Zen-like panoramic views of the rims.

The need for our new factory was becoming more exacerbated as the backorders continued to pile up. Eleven months into this odyssey it had become apparent that I was going to have to hand over this project before finishing every detail. The subcontractors had all outdone themselves on bringing this dream to reality. The end result was quite different than what I had envisioned– it has exceeded my expectations. The architectural value of the building has certainly been enhanced and the neighborhood is better off for it.

As we move into 2013, I’m stoked to be in our eighth factory location. We plan to introduce new bags in the spring and finish off our facility improvements once the snow abates. Future plans include a wild bird garden and some monumental art pieces outdoors. Our retail store and distribution hub will be receiving a makeover this winter as well. We have also started restoring a 1949 Dodge Route Van for moving the finished bags from the factory to the hub. We are calling this the “Sherpa Jr.” and will be posting progress reports online as we bring another classic back to life.

Cheers, Jim Markel CEO

Hungry for more photos of our renovation? Visit our Facebook Factory Renovation #8 page. You don’t need to be a member of Facebook to see the images, but if you are, please “like” our page. Enjoy!

If you enjoyed this story...

You'll like our Red Oxx Newsletter sent every few months:
  • Get Adventure Center stories and photos
  • Notice of contests, new products, and special offers