Besides being a Harlowton Councilman and business owner, Tom Horan is also a committed economic developer - past and present - and a strong advocate of the School-to-Work Program. Horan’s Rocky Mountain Cookware has contributed in a number of ways to School-to-Work about which program I wrote last time. On a recent visit to his shop, Tom and I started our conversation on that subject. He told me, “I like that School-to-Work Program really well. Kids think that business is retail. But, there are a number of companies in Harlowton which can help broaden their ideas about business and the work world. We’re one of them.”
Rocky Mountain Cookware has trained a half dozen or more School-to-Workers in recent years - an hour a day for nine weeks. “We teach young people that maybe this is something they might want to do. But, they don’t just come in here and build griddles. We help them learn some office skills, sales and bookkeeping. Ten years from now, one of them might come back in here and buy me out.”
School-to-Work has also benefited RMC as well. “It has highlighted areas that we needed to work on. Our people have gotten opportunities to train and teach and demonstrate safe work practices. The program has really been rewarding for us and I think beneficial to our student workers.”
Listening to Tom on this and other occasions, I recognized that the word OPPORTUNITY is important to Horan. It could be his mantra and a good one for a businessman and developer. Horan clearly recognizes the opportunities that Harlowton has offered him. “This business wouldn’t make it in other cities. The original capital startup anywhere else in the country, including Billings and Bozeman, would be huge. Commercial property and housing costs would be just too high.
When Trudy and I moved here in ‘90, we bought this property for a small amount of money. Values have increased, maybe four times.
“But, the opportunity is still here. The money doesn’t come from here. We manufacture here and market elsewhere to bring the money to Montana. But, there’s an amazing amount of business and lifestyle opportunity waiting to be put to use. The trick is to have a comfortable lifestyle at a reasonable financial and personal cost. It works here.”
Tom is probably Wheatland County’s most active economic developer, although he doesn’t get paid a nickel (directly) for his efforts. He had some involvement in economic development in Colorado before moving to Montana in 1990. Shortly after arriving in Harlowton, Horan took on a half-time position and wrote the county’s OED (Overall Economic Development) Plan on a Forest Service grant. That job was short lived (1 1/2 years), but helped Harlowton and Judith get in line for grants for sewer and water infrastructure upgrades. Benefits from economic development can take years or decades to appear.
Tom considers his biggest achievement on that job to be helping Dan Cattaneo start his silk screening business and find a building to house it. “Getting one business to start up in town can make a huge difference over time. The need is to bring in outside money to the town and county.”
One of the hats Tom wears these days is that of President of the Wheatland County Economic Growth Council. Horan sees the work as important, but hardly glamorous. “It’s extremely boring and tedious. You have to be ready for the next opportunity to lure a new business to the area or help a local one get started.”
Mr. Horan is pleased that the County Commission put a mill levy to support a half-time position in economic development up for a vote recently. Since it passed, Mandie Reed has been hired and divides her time between Wheatland County Extension Agent duties and economic development.
Tom even put in a plug for me. He said, “I was tickled to death when you became Director of the Chamber of Commerce and decided to move over here. People should know that you are available - working for Snowy Mountain Development Corporation - to help anybody who needs assistance in setting up a business. And, that that work can be done in complete confidence.
“With you here and Kathie Bailey of SMDC providing financial expertise and Mandie Reed helping on the ag side, we now have some real opportunities opening up in economic development in Wheatland County.”
New beginnings - now and then. Tom and Trudy Horan arrived in Harlowton on July 4, 1990, just as the rodeo was wrapping up. “I’m a railroad fan - a wannabe. The Milwaukee Railroad had been gone ten years and I thought maybe there was an opportunity here.” Horan is a veritable encyclopedia of railroad information.
Tom had grown up in suburban Denver. His father was a yard clerk on the New York Central and Rio Grande (later Union Pacific) Railroads. After a stint in the US Navy, Horan trimmed trees for several years all over Colorado for utility clearance purposes. He met Trudy in Hugo (eastern CO) and they trimmed trees for a few more years.
From 1975 to 1982, Tom “tried farming” - dry land wheat and cattle - near Hugo. “I liked the work. If I had just gotten paid. I never got paid enough.”
In 1981, Tom formed a construction company and did residential and commercial construction in Lincoln County. Work ran well for a number of years. He purchased a novelty company in 1985 called Double Tree Productions, later to be renamed Bittersweet Productions. Prior to moving up to Montana, the Horans took a year or so off from selling novelties.
Having learned quite a bit about marketing, Tom was ready to manufacture and market griddles in 1993. “Marketing is marketing.”
Prior to that time, an acquaintance was trying to do small-scale marketing of griddles produced by Hutterites. Tom told him, “Let me sell these griddles for you.” But, Horan got orders for more griddles than the Hutterites wanted to build. So, he started building his own with orders for a couple hundred. By 1996, the novelties business was history.
Rocky Mountain Cookware now manufactures eight different models of griddles and broilers through restaurant supply and sporting goods outlets. RMC will soon be selling a catering stove as well.
Tom finds himself on the road marketing products almost every month, but particularly in fall through spring. He travels about 70,000 miles a year, driving half of that and flying the other half. He covers territory by car for accounts west of the Mississippi.
Horan stamps out his cookware with huge punch presses using US and Canadian steel purchased from a secondary processor in Minneapolis. Steel prices have gone up as much as 150 percent in recent times. RMC has passed some of that cost on to customers and absorbed the rest.
Rocky Mountain Cookware has three full-time employees plus Tom and Trudy. Tom handles telemarketing, road marketing, design and machine repair. Trudy is in charge of sales and bookkeeping.
The Horans have two children. Their son, Joe, is tile and stone setter in Missoula and their daughter, Darsey, is an urban planner in Maryland. Tom and Trudy recently returned from Darsey’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Tom kept remarking how expensive it is back in the Washington, DC, area and how happy he is to be in good old Montana.
“I have the best of both worlds now. I live in the laid back rural part and I can take time to work and play in the rest of it.”
Always the activist, Tom is regularly and repeatedly involved in community service. He was appointed to the Harlowton Town Council in 2004. He keeps looking ahead and has his eyes open for the next opportunity. “When the railroad left town, we lost a lot of our identity. We have to reestablish our identity. But mostly, we need to stress the quality of life here and make this town business friendly.”