BILLINGS – In the quality control room of a factory, workers yank, pull and check for any imperfections on the bags set to be sent out.
What Red Oxx products look like now are a far cry from its beginnings.
The brand began started in the fitness industry. That was Jim Markel Sr.’s passion — working out and weight-lifting.
“My passion happens to be the outdoors and travel,” his son and now owner Jim Markel Jr. said.
He and business partner Perry Jones took the brand in a much different direction.
“It’s military-spec for the civilian market.”
Markel’s background is parachute-rigor in the Marine Corps, following in his footsteps.
Jones too was a parachute-rigor for the Navy.
When Markel purchased the business from his father, the business was a humble operation. It’s now grown from three employees to 30.
“Seeking not to be a regional business, like some companies come in and say we’re Bob’s towing company. We’re a regional business,” Markel said.
“Whereas I was looking to the Internet and seeking to get past the Montana market,” he said.
Admittedly, the beginning days of Internet business for Red Oxx world domination of its product was a failure.
Launching the website in 1997, Markel said “after spending a bunch of money, it didn’t work.”
His business partner’s directive was pretty easy to understand. “Make it work,” Markel recalled Perry saying.
“So I had to learn how to market online, sell online, and those were the things we had to learn from the ground up,” he said.
Markel and crews’ early expedition to the online world worked out.
Starting prior to the Internet boom, Markel was able to learn from mistakes, tweak, tinker and catch traction.
After nearly four years, the website began to show promise in 2002.
The Ah-Ha! moment came when Markel was working with three companies in as many states at once, his website became his biggest closer.
“This thing can not only reach across all state lines, around the world, you can communicate with people in a way that you’ve never have before.”
Now 97 percent of business is done online, direct to the consumer.
Over 31 years, the company has built eight factories to land in its spot of east Billings — the industrial district that has been known for its blighted areas spanning 27 blocks.
Its main factory is hardly a sore sight.
Built in 2013, the space reflects Markel’s military background with metal minimalist decor complete with an open factory area for about 30 highly-skilled hands to operate.
“I feel like we’re at the beginning again,” Markel said. “It’s really strange you grow to another level, you put in a new facility, new machinery, and then you have to start all over again growing to the next level. You just have to keep moving up.”
Tens of thousands of units are made in the Billings every year; everything from key-fobs to a rucksacks to gun cases.
The company’s products have gained national attention. In May, Fox News reported the growth of Red Oxx, pointing out that the bags are primarily made from CORDURA® Brand Nylon, the same material that replaced the leather in U.S. soldiers’ boots in 1991 and is used in Army backpacks.
If something happens to your rugged bag, Red Oxx will repair or replace at no charge.
Markel’s Montana-roots have also kept him in the fold when it comes to the state’s manufacturing sector.
“Getting out there, networking with these up and coming businesses, mentoring them,” is part of his goal to grow Montana’s business strength.
Making items in the United States is the path to competitiveness, Markel said, for niche producers like his business.
“We have a competitive advantage for small batches,” he said.
Markel attributes that success in the generational shift in care for who is making the product they are buying.
“I would say my first goal was to get us out of Montana,” Markel admits.
“Get on the Internet, travel to shows, do things like that. As time has gone on, we’re finding people who are coming to Billings who want to see where the product is built and adding it to their vacation. So we’re like ‘Okay, it’s time to start paying attention to the local market again.'”
Markel said the company hasn’t ignored Billings and Montana, but over the last few years, the group has invested in community events.
“We definitely have our eye back on the local economy,” he said.
Red Oxx, Markel said, will continue its growth right here under the Big Sky.
MTN’s Dustin Klemann