Though the nation’s economic outlook may be grim in the face of a global pandemic, the Wyoming manufacturing industry is growing and could help the state recover.

“We’re committed to helping advanced manufacturing businesses expand because the industry is vital to a diverse, stable Wyoming economy,” said Tom Dixon, content marketing manager for the Wyoming Business Council.

The industry indirectly creates jobs up and down the supply chain, and brings new wealth into the state’s borders, Dixon said.

“These are good-paying jobs with opportunities for a broad swath of our workers, and Wyoming community colleges’ nimble, responsive partnership with manufacturers is important for ensuring the state has the talent to fill those jobs and make those companies successful,” he said.

Two companies, in particular, are poised for growth in Wyoming.

Gunwerks (Cody)

Gunwerks has moved into its new location in Cody, after more than a year of construction. The new facility houses the manufacturing of Gunwerks’ high-precision, long-range shooting systems – including the rifle, optics, rangefinder and ammunition – retail and warehouse space and a test shooting tunnel.

Gunwerks has committed to creating more than 50 high-paying jobs by 2025 and to buying more than $5 million in equipment for the facility.

“We have a five-year business plan that includes substantial hirings,” said Michael A. LaBazzo of Gunwerks. “We also have a firm commitment with the state, including with the Wyoming Business Council and the local Forward Cody economic development company, that have milestones for us to meet with regard to increasing our employee numbers.”

Gunwerks was founded in 2007 in Burlington, Wyoming, which is in Big Horn County. In 2016, it moved from Burlington into Forward Cody’s light manufacturing incubator in Cody.

“We had the same type of milestones in our lease with Forward Cody, and in our original space that we took over back in 2016,” LaBazzo said. “We exceeded that substantially, and within a year, we met all of the requirements within that lease.

“It has been a long process, and it hasn’t been without hurdles and issues,” LaBazzo said of building the new facility. “But we have grown – when we moved to Cody in 2016, we had less than 20 employees, and at last count, we were at 59. We have more than tripled in size in the last four years.”

Kennon Products (Sheridan)

In Sheridan, work has begun on a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Kennon Products. In early 2019, the State Loan and Investment Board approved a $3.2 million grant and loan project to the Sheridan Economic and Education Development Authority joint powers board for the new facility. Kennon builds protective covers for the U.S. military, hospitals and more using advanced materials science and new technology.

Kennon CEO Joe Wright said crews broke ground several months ago, and the new facility will be located in Sheridan’s Hi-Tech Business Park near other manufacturers, like Weatherby and Vacutech.

“We have been working on this project, or talking about expansion, for three years now. We’re on track to move in at the end of June next year,” Wright said.

The company did not have a traditional groundbreaking this spring due to COVID-19, but is planning a “steel-raising” event in late summer or early fall.

“The idea is to get the frame up so they can start working in the wintertime,” Wright said. “The facility will be about three times the size we are today. It certainly would have been nice to be in the facility leading into (COVID-19), because social distancing has been hard in our smaller space.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Wright said Kennon has been accelerating growth.

“We have been hiring over the last year. It has been a little difficult because we have some resource constraints, but we have leased another facility (near our current location). We are not waiting to get into the new facility,” Wright said.

Kennon’s target is 87 employees within a five-year time frame.

“I don’t see any concern in meeting that by quite a bit. That would be 87 total employees, and right now we are at 65,” he said.

LaBazzo said that he’s come to believe manufacturing is a good fit for Wyoming, after living and working in the state for 22 years.

“For the success of the state, we need to expand in these industries so that we’re not wholly dependent on natural resources,” he said. “We will continue to rely on them to some degree, but to rely only on natural resources and tourism, that is a tough road to go on if you are going to base an entire economy on those two sectors.”

Manufacturing industries can be more recession-proof than the extraction industry, he said.

“People don’t seem to cut back in their purchases of firearms because the overall economy goes down,” LaBazzo said. “It seems to go through cycles of its own, maybe based on the political scheme, but it is not as susceptible as tourism and natural resource extraction to an overall recession.”

Building partnerships, workforce

Kennon is part of a New West Manufacturing Partnership, which is basically a next-gen model organization centered in Sheridan and Johnson counties, Wright said. Partnership members met every two months prior to the coronavirus pandemic to share ideas and innovation.

“There was some collaboration and examples where companies were outsourcing things, and then they started bringing that not necessarily in-house, but into the community, using these partnerships with other manufacturers,” Wright said.

According to Dixon, there are four of these types of partnerships focused on manufacturing around the state.

“In a nutshell, it prompts industry leaders to sit down with their competitors and figure out the roadblocks and opportunities for the industry as a whole, and puts the onus on them to tell organizations like economic developers, chambers, community colleges, city leaders, etc., what they can do to help,” he explained.

This has been integral to having a healthy manufacturing community in Sheridan, Wright said.

“The more manufacturing businesses, whether they are small or large, that come in, others follow suit,” he said. “I have seen it already, where the needs of those manufacturing companies in utilizing other companies and other services within our community have increased.”

LaBazzo said Gunwerks also supports efforts to create a skilled manufacturing workforce, which are happening across the state at various community colleges.

“We support that because we have a skilled labor force that we’re able to employ, and it is not the easiest task to bring people from out of state to Wyoming to fill these jobs,” LaBazzo said. “If we can train people who have grown up and have the rationale to succeed in Wyoming, that would make it that much more easy for us to recruit and retain employees.”

Wright said he’s a strong believer in diversity when it pertains to the business world in Wyoming. The manufacturing community has worked hard to create a paradigm shift when it comes to public perception, he said.

“People think of manufacturing, and they think of 1950s automobiles and people sitting in assembly line. That is really not the case at all. Trying to break that paradigm has been important,” he said. “Because there is a lot of talent in our state, and a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs. Whether it is manufacturing or innovation or technical-related fields, there are a lot of opportunities to make a go in Wyoming.”

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