Elon Musk launched SpaceX with the goal of making travel to Mars cheaper and easier.
Libby, Montana, resident Adam Montgomery and two partners launched Sherpa Trailers with the same aspiration – cheaper, easier travel – assuming your destination isn’t interplanetary.
More like, say, Mars, Texas, or Mercury, Nevada.
Today, Sherpa Trailers can be found parked in driveways around Spokane and as far away as Colorado.
During a recent interview, Montgomery discussed cooking, college and claustrophobia.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Montgomery: Troy, Montana (pop. 890)
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Montgomery: Home ec. I was the only guy among about 12 girls, so I got all the cookies we made, all the pies. I loved it.
S-R: Did you also learn to cook?
S-R: What was your first job?
Montgomery: When I was 15, I started doing chores for a neighbor. That lasted for two years.
S-R: Did you have a career in mind back then?
Montgomery: I knew college wasn’t for me. School bored me. I worked for a truss company, then cooked for a couple of years in Libby. Next, I got a job as a safety supervisor for a Missoula traffic-control company. After that, I worked at Stein’s grocery store in Troy for 11 years, seven of those as produce manager.
S-R: Then what?
Montgomery: I met Bruce Weatherby and Joan Oakland at Stein’s, and we hatched the idea of starting a business. We didn’t know what it would look like, we just knew we worked well together.
S-R: What led you to mini-campers?
Montgomery: It was a process. We bought a body shop, and I started fabricating bumpers, grille guards and steps – cool custom stuff for trucks. We called the company UAV, short for Urban Assault Vehicle. One day, Bruce showed me a picture of a modern, off-roadie teardrop trailer, and I pulled out my phone and said, “Well, check this one out.” That’s how we discovered we shared a common interest in mini-campers. And we agreed manufacturers were charging mind-blowing prices compared with what we thought the trailers were worth. We decided to make our own versions of what we wanted.
S-R: What did you envision?
Montgomery: I had a big, beefy Jeep at the time, so I wanted an off-road trailer. Bruce is more of a classy-type fella. He wanted nice, clean, classic lines on his. Building those first two trailers taught us a lot about what not to do.
S-R: Such as?
Montgomery: I built my frame out of angle iron, and we built Bruce’s out of square tubing. His frame was a lot easier to build – faster and much cheaper.
S-R: Did you have any other aha moments?
Montgomery: I tend to overbuild things, because the trailers I see rolling down the highway at 80 mph scare me. And people bring us other manufacturers’ trailers and ask us to fix problems with their original design – replace sagging roofs and reinforce weak frames. Because of that, we build our mini-campers like houses on wheels, using ¾-inch plywood sheathing and 2-by-4 ribs.
S-R: You’ve had a range of jobs. What skills learned elsewhere are useful in your current career?
Montgomery: Customer service is a big one. The grocery business taught me to please the customer, whatever it takes. Not that you have to do it, but that you should want to. At the same time, if a customer calls up asking for an off-road trailer when he has no intention of ever taking it off road, we politely explain we can save him $3,000 by building an on-road version with off-road tires and beefed-up fenders. We’re not here to rip people off.
S-R: How much do your trailers cost?
Montgomery: They start at $3,800 and go up to $7,900 for the off-road package. The most expensive, fully tricked-out trailer we’ve built was around $12,000.
S-R: What’s the typical wait time?
Montgomery: We’re usually about four weeks out.
S-R: What special features have people requested?
Montgomery: A lady from Australia ordered one for her son, who lives in Canada, that included a 12-volt fridge and a custom box for his generator.
S-R: How about unusual requests?
Montgomery: We’ve had people ask for slide-outs and extensions, but we usually turn those down.
S-R: How many campers will you build this year?
Montgomery: Between 60 and 70.
S-R: How small of a vehicle can pull one of your trailers?
Montgomery: Very small. We built one for a guy to haul with his motorcycle. On average, our trailers weigh between 900 and 1,300 pounds (compared with about 3,900 for a 19-foot Airstream).
S-R: How did you come up with the trailers’ name?
Montgomery: The first two years, we went by our body shop’s name – UAV Custom – but some folks in Washington and Oregon were uncomfortable with the name Urban Assault Vehicle and asked us not to put it on their trailer. We understood that and rebranded the company to better reflect what we do. The Sherpas in Nepal are the people who pack your stuff, get you where you need to be, and get you home safely.
S-R: Are people who buy your mini-campers likely to decide someday they want something bigger?
Montgomery: Probably. Bruce compares our trailers to a gateway drug. We get you off the ground, out of your tent, and they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. But they don’t have kitchens and bathrooms.
S-R: If someone decides they want to stand up, is going full-size the obvious next step?
Montgomery: It could be. But we have options, too – awnings and tent rooms that attach to our trailers.
S-R: What factors affect your business?
Montgomery: Lately, the cost of materials has risen ridiculously. The price of plywood and metal has doubled. Also, big manufacturers are buying up suppliers and then not selling to other manufacturers. We pride ourselves on using U.S. parts, but American-made tongue jacks are hard to get.
S-R: How would you characterize Libby, Montana?
Montgomery: It’s a place where people like to come to retire, because it’s beautiful – lots of lakes, trees and wildlife.
S-R: What challenges do you face manufacturing in a town of 2,700?
Montgomery: There’s no such thing as overnight delivery in Libby. Everything we need shipped in is a week out.
S-R: What other products are manufactured in Libby?
Montgomery: I’m not aware of any.
S-R: What’s your market?
Montgomery: Mostly the Northwest, plus western Canada.
S-R: You have two partners. What’s your role?
Montgomery: I’m an owner-slash-fabricator.
S-R: How did you learn to run a business?
Montgomery: When I worked at Stein’s, I started my own powder-coating business. Just as it was starting to take off, I lost the business through divorce.
S-R: What did that teach you?
Montgomery: That it’s OK to fail. How you pick yourself back up defines who you are.
S-R: Probably some of your customers have never towed a trailer before. What do you have to teach them?
Montgomery: My wife, Kristen, and I delivered a trailer to a gal in Portland who was in her late 60s and had no towing experience. By the time we left, she had nine pages of notes from me telling her what to do.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Montgomery: I never have cranky customers.
S-R: What do you like least?
Montgomery: Being an owner, I sometimes have to sacrifice family time to make something work.
S-R: Do you consider your company successful?
Montgomery: Yes. We’ve doubled production every year, and plan to add more employees. But they need to fit in well, because we’re more like a family than a business.
S-R: When people learn what you do, what do they ask?
Montgomery: Whether our trailers are big enough for me. They are. I’m 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, and my trailer is equipped with a regular queen-size Sealy mattress.
S-R: Do some people feel claustrophobic in mini-campers?
Montgomery: Yes. But sleeping next to a door with an operable window makes a huge difference.
S-R: Can you imagine yourself ever owning a full-size trailer or RV?
Montgomery: Never. Sitting in a $150,000 Winnebago, watching the game and getting angry when there’s a tree in the way of my satellite is not my idea of camping.
S-R: Do you have kids?
Montgomery: Two boys, ages 18 and 15.
S-R: When you go camping, where do they sleep?
Montgomery: In a tent mounted on top of our trailer.
S-R: Do they ever say, “Hey, dad, how about you sleep on the roof tonight and we take the trailer?”
Montgomery: (laugh) Yes. And I tell them, “If you don’t want to sleep up there, you can sleep in the basement” – underneath the camper.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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