KILLDEER, N.D. _ North Dakota’s oil economy had crashed, the price of wheat was less than $3 a bushel, and Don and Patricia Hedger were brainstorming about ways they could help to pull western North Dakota out of its mid-1980s economic tailspin.
Posted July 7, 2012
The Killdeer natives had moved back to North Dakota from Phoenix. Don Hedger, who earned a degree in electrical engineering at the University of North Dakota, had worked at Sperry Flight Systems in Phoenix for 19 years. Sperry is now part of Honeywell International Inc.
At Sperry, Don Hedger designed and sold aviation equipment. The Hedgers set an ambitious goal _ starting a company in western North Dakota to supply electronic gear to the aerospace industry’s giants.
“Our plan was to provide good, steady jobs for the southwestern North Dakota area, to reach out to the schools and their students, to introduce them to something a little different,” Patricia Hedger said.
That was 25 years ago. Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing has grown into a business that employs almost 300 people in Killdeer, Dickinson, Regent and Hettinger, and supplies gear to Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other prominent aerospace companies.
A model of the Boeing 777, one of the company’s workhorse commercial airliners, sits in the lobby of KMM’s manufacturing facility in Dickinson. According to Don Hedger, the company has about $38 million in annual sales.
Given the hubbub of today’s oil boom, it’s easy to forget about what southwestern North Dakota’s economy was like in the late 1980s.
The region was suffering through a scorching drought and low prices for oil and farm commodities. North Dakota’s oil production, which peaked in March 1984, had fallen 23 percent by the time KMM was founded in May 1987. The price of oil was about $19 a barrel, and a bushel of hard red spring wheat brought about $2.90.
Building lots that had been developed for homes during the early 1980s stood empty. Housing sales and prices were depressed, and hundreds of homes sat vacant.
The business began in a leased former hardware store in Killdeer, with about a dozen employees.
The fledgling company’s first job was making electronic parts for Washington-based ELDEC Corp., which is now part of Crane Co., a Stamford, Conn.,-based industrial products manufacturer.
Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing manufactures electronic gear to its customers’ specifications. The company has made sensor components that indicate whether an airliner’s landing wheels are down, and whether its doors are properly sealed. Its wire harnesses and circuit boards make up the brains and nervous systems of airplanes, helicopters and other aircraft.
“Every contract is so different,” Patricia Hedger said. “Where this product is going, what it’s going to end up doing _ it’s a real challenge for the people who work in that particular manufacturing group. They all get together, and it just becomes almost like a family.”
KMM has gradually built a network of customers and a reputation as a reliable equipment supplier, established with the help of appearances at countless customer symposiums and regular sales calls on current and prospective customers.
“It was a long haul to get those relationships established,” Don Hedger said.
Like other businesses in western North Dakota, Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing has to compete with the oil industry for skilled labor.
The company recently opened a day-care center at its Killdeer location. Don Hedger said KMM is considering developing a 24-unit housing complex at Killdeer to provide affordable housing for employees.
Through research conducted with the U.S. military, another major customer, and North Dakota universities, KMM is developing proprietary products for future production.
Thanks to the dedication, hard work and outstanding skills of all of the KMM team, the company is looking forward to another 25 years and beyond.
The company is a family business. Don and Patricia Hedger are majority shareholders. The Hedgers’ children _ Dan Hedger, Patrick Hedger and Deb Hedger _ work for KMM, as do two of their grandchildren, Kristin Hedger and Erika Hedger Bauer. According to Don Hedger, the company’s family ownership structure helps to assure continuity of the business, and Don and Patricia Hedger have declined a number of offers to buy it.
“The grandchildren both seem to be in areas of the company that suit their personalities and their desires so perfectly, and of course, our children, the same way,” Patricia Hedger said. “It’s just tailor-made for what they excel in.”