Mark and Jenna Walton wanted to live the outdoor life. In the summers, Mark and Jenna like to ride 1,000 to 1,500 miles on their horses and mules into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness and Hells Canyon. Mark was used to living outdoors as he had fought fire out of Elk River in the summers. They dreamed of this lifestyle while living in Spokane when Mark first took classes at North Idaho College and Gonzaga and then later worked as a machinist for a company there. Now that they have three kids, they take them with them.
Five years ago, they moved halfway between Orofino and Pierce, where Mark had grown up, and started Ridge Runnin’ Manufacturing, based out of a shop on Mark’s parents’ land. Mark says he knew he always wanted to move back to the area and they were just “trying to figure out a way to do it.”
Mark and Jenna say they received a tremendous amount of help from business advisors, mentors, friends and family when they first began the business. Ridge Runnin’ makes devices for the defense, medical device, and electronics industries. They have over 17 different customers all over the country and make center pieces of satellites, plastic covers for ultrasound equipment, rasp files for surgeons to use on the spine, and rails that go on rifle scopes. They work in brass chips, stainless steel, titanium, aluminum, and different types of plastics, usually starting with bar stock and converting it into finished products. Often, they make parts of machines or tools to be assembled later, or sometimes they do the assembly themselves. They get the word out mostly through word of mouth, and they also have a web site they refer potential customers to. They don’t advertise to the general public.
For the first years of the operation, Jenna did the books. Now that they have kids between the ages of 3 and a half and 5 months, she mostly sticks to helping with deliveries. The type of machinery Mark practices is called computer numerical control (CNC) machining. He receives blue prints in the mail from engineers which he then programs into the computer. The programming involves thousands of lines of code referring to points in space, essentially trigonometry, Mark says. The machine automatically changes tools. One cost is replacing cutting tools before they wear out and cause problems. It can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours to make a piece. After the part is made, Mark uses an optical comparator to measure within 2/10 thousandth of an inch to check quality control. “Quality is our number one focus,” says Mark. Buying measuring machines has also been their biggest cost as they try to grow as a small family business.
So far, they have made progress, growing about 30 to 40% each year. All the money they earn they sink back into the business. “We hope to keep growing and pushing for growth,” says Mark.
One goal of moving back to the area between Orofino and Pierce is to provide jobs to local workers. “It’s such a small area and people have to drive into town to get a skilled job,” says Jenna. They hired one worker last year and one this year, and Mark says he mostly looks to see if applicants have a mechanical aptitude, a work ethic, and a willingness to learn. Mark says, “it’s a tremendous opportunity to bring that work and money to this area.”
Before he hired additional workers, Mark would have to come in at midnight or 3 a.m. to change the setup on the machine. Now, he has one worker for weekends and another for the swing shift; nevertheless, until they are more experienced, he will still have to come in at odd hours. Mark’s goal, he says, is to be able to work a more normal week.
Ridge Runnin’ is able to compete with larger firms in San Francisco and San Diego by reducing set up time and keeping a low overhead. Most machine shops require a set up time of a half an hour to three to five hours. Mark has it down as low as zero for some jobs. Ridge Runnin’ makes anywhere from a prototype with 3 to 5 parts up to several hundred of the same part. Mark says they still can’t do massive orders as it is difficult to compete as the industry becomes increasingly automated. “We could grow to that,” says Jenna. The first step is the hiring of more workers, which will allow them to increase their volume.
Contact: Mark Walton at (208) 476-5651
Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Ruralite