From Local Success to Prominent Aerospace Supplier

Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing

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Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing (KMM) is a manufacturer based in Killdeer, North Dakota. Coming up on its thirtieth anniversary next year, KMM makes electronic components for both the military and commercial aerospace sectors. These components include electronic circuit board assemblies, wire harnesses and cables. The firm has a fiber optics segment and some very high-profile customers.
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KMM’s success is all the more remarkable given its modest origins. The company was established in May 1987 and incorporated November 1 that same year by Don Hedger working with his wife Patricia. Both of the Hedgers originally hailed from Killdeer, a small city with fewer than one thousand residents at the time. Don Hedger had a degree in electrical engineering from the University of North Dakota and had spent almost two decades working at Sperry Flight Systems in Phoenix. He returned to Killdeer and, with Patricia, opened KMM in part to provide good jobs in an area experiencing economic hardship.

“[KMM] was founded as a company in western North Dakota, because of the depressed economy. Being from Killdeer, [Don] saw an opportunity to help the community. At that time, he was selling it as a rural place in the heart of America to do business,” says Bryan Hanstad, director of operations at KMM.

As Hanstad points out, the late 1980s were not particularly good for rural America. This was the era of Farm Aid’s high-profile benefit concerts to help hard-hit American farmers. Drought conditions ruined crops in North Dakota while the price of oil and farm commodities in the state fell precipitously, dramatically affecting the energy and agricultural sectors. Housing sales and prices declined as the region entered difficult economic straits.

This was the environment in which the Hedger’s launched their company, with a view to supplying aerospace components. At first, KMM was based out of what had been a hardware store. The company grew slowly; when Hanstad joined KMM, three years after its founding, the company consisted of “about twenty people” working in cramped quarters. “In initial stages, we all kind of sat in one room. You could hear everybody talking and working together,” he recalls.

One of KMM’s first jobs involved making electronic parts for Eldec Corporation of Washington State. Eldec has since been taken over by Crane Co. a major industrial manufacturer based in Stamford, Connecticut.

Today, in addition to its Killdeer headquarters, KMM has branches in other North Dakota communities such as Hettinger, Dickinson and Regent with about 330 employees in total. Hanstad divides his time between the various KMM offices across the state.

Don is still president of the company; he and Patricia are majority shareholders in KMM, and some of their children and grandchildren work for the firm, which remains a family business.

North Dakota, for its part, has recovered considerably from the challenging times it faced three decades ago. While proud of its heritage, KMM does not need to play up its role as a job-creator in a bruised rural locale anymore, says Hanstad. Now, its formidable reputation for producing excellent aerospace components promotes the company and attracts new customers. KMM’s current client list includes impressive names such as Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Revenues have been on the rise in recent years, to about $54 million for 2015. Projections for 2016 are down about ten percent, in part due to some long-term programs that have recently come to an end, explains Hanstad.

“We’ve been doing some intense marketing to try to win some new business to expand and grow … we hope to grow. Our desire is for growth. We’re trying to hustle up [more] jobs. We’re in the process of expanding our Dickinson facility. We’re adding about 24,000 square feet onto it. We’re working to add about eighty jobs in Dickinson.”

Asked to describe KMM’s corporate culture, Hanstad says, “I would describe it as a family-related organization that cares about each other. We’re a small enough company that people hang out together and enjoy each other. To me, it’s a team culture. People who work there would agree; they feel like for the most part they’re empowered to make decisions and make changes and help us not just sustain what we have but to grow.”

This emphasis on team spirit is reflected in KMM’s criteria for new employees. “Being in North Dakota, we don’t always find people that have the skill set that we need. You learn the hard way, however, it’s not somebody’s skill set you have to have; it’s someone willing to learn and be innovative. So we try to look into people to see if they’re going to have a teaming mindset and be willing to learn and have the people skills. The soft skills are often times overlooked.”

Training for new employees starts with a two-week “orientation, skill training type of course, and trying to get them a little bit familiar with the tooling. It’s about a two-week deal. Then they’re out on the floor, and they’re generally mentored … for whatever period of time is needed. Of course, we have to measure productivity and first past yields. That stuff has to get monitored. If there are any improvements needed, we can send them back into a training environment,” says Hanstad.

On the production floor, “people generally start out with a pretty specialized skill, although there’s plenty of diversity in the different assemblies that we build,” he adds.

While noting that KMM is “obviously proud of our partnerships with all of our customers,” Hanstad cites a few projects the company has been involved with that are particularly noteworthy. Among other ventures, KMM is part of the production environment for Boeing’s 737 and 777 passenger jets and Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, a huge cargo aircraft designed to move soldiers and equipment long distances in a hurry.

In April 2016, KMM won an inaugural Excellence in Advocacy award from the Boeing Company. The prize was awarded to a small number of Boeing partners for taking part in various policy initiatives aimed at supporting the aerospace sector. The award was given out at a Boeing supplier conference.

KMM also does extensive 3D and 2D design work. As for the future, Hanstad says “I think we want to push towards more high-end assembly and design work. We’d like to get farther up the food chain in the design world. We also want to build what’s called LRUs (line replaceable units), get more into the integration of circuit cards and wiring, and some of the more complex pan assemblies that go into these aircraft.” An LRU is a component of an aircraft or ship that can be replaced on the spot.

The company also plans to ramp up the fiber optics side of its business as it predicts more fiber optic cable on airplanes and less copper wiring.

KMM recently adopted lean manufacturing principles to cut costs and gain efficiencies. “Lean is a culture, not just something you talk about. It’s something you embrace and is part of everything you do. Looking [for ways to cut waste] no matter if you’re in accounting or in HR or you’re a janitor or an assembler … it’s an every day, all the time battle, because you also still have products to produce … that’s the struggle, to always find time to problem solve and improve.”

The lean attitude extends into what KMM seeks in a supplier. “You treat a supplier just like you do a customer. You want a partnership. If both parties aren’t successful, it’s just not going to last. You look for somebody who has same lean concepts. They have to have lean culture also. You won’t stay in this business if you’re not consistently looking to improve costs, quality and delivery—three buzz words you always [should keep in mind]. Look for the best value.”

“You get a tremendous amount of honesty from us. We’re very transparent. We’re very willing to learn. Our customers say these same things about us. There’s nothing we’re hiding. We always want to improve and always want to satisfy [our clients],” he states.

July 26, 2017, 8:46 PM EDT

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