Flathead Firm Locks Down Contract with Department of Defense

By Beacon Staff

When Dick Sonju started an auto body repair shop in 1978, he never thought his small Kalispell business would one day be working for the U.S. Department of Defense. But over the last 30 years, Sonju Industrial Inc. has evolved from fixing up cars to manufacturing parts for missiles and fighter jets.

As you might expect, there were a few steps along the way. Shortly after launching the business, Dick Sonju, the owner, expanded into military painting, then moved onto anodizing, plating and powder coating industrial equipment. In 2000, Sonju Industrial jumped from plating and coating the parts to manufacturing them, eventually landing such clients as Boeing’s divisions in defense and commercial aircraft, and aerospace weapons developers Meggitt Defense Systems of the United Kingdom, and Raytheon.

Last week, Sonju and his two sons, Jon and Jason, were in high spirits when they landed another client with big pockets: the federal government.

Doug Schaefer is director of producibility and manufacturing technology for the Missile Defense Agency (M.D.A.), a division of the U.S. Department of Defense. Schaefer traveled from the Pentagon to the Flathead Valley last week to confirm Sonju Industrial’s acceptance as a supplier for the M.D.A. as part of its “Mentor-Protégé” program, which partners Defense Department prime contractors with small businesses to help them become more viable suppliers.

Sonju Industrial will be producing parts for the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), which is manufactured in Tucson, Ariz., by Raytheon, the “mentor” in the program. The SM-3 is part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, and can provide protection from short to intermediate range ballistic missiles. Sonju Industrial will be producing parts for the missile’s propulsion units, and a magnesium sunshade to shield sensors in the SM-3’s nose.

While he currently does about $4 million a year in business; through the Mentor-Protégé program, Dick Sonju expects to be doing $10 million to $15 million a year over the next five years. Schaefer estimates 8 to 10 percent of that new revenue will come from the M.D.A.

“When opportunity knocks, at least stick your head out the door and look around,” Dick Sonju said. “We can grow now by having the resources that we can use to grow the company the way it should.” The expansion of his business is creating job openings, Sonju said, and he’s currently looking to hire experienced machinists and engineers, as well as providing input to the machining curriculum at Flathead Valley Community College to better prepare students there.

In a nondescript warehouse in the Kalispell Industrial Park, Sonju Industrial employs about 30 people, machining high-precision components out of titanium, aluminum and other materials as parts for aircraft – everything from the Boeing 777 passenger plane to the advanced $100 million F-22 fighter jet.

“We do parts that are worth ten bucks to $10,000 and everything in between,” said Jon Sonju, who handles sales and serves as a Republican representative in the state Legislature.

Wandering among the workstations, rows of small, gleaming widgets, struts and ball joints are laid out in orderly rows on carts by the machines where they were milled. Large cardboard boxes overflow with metallic shavings carved from the pieces. It’s difficult to tell where, in a jet, the components are meant to fit. General Manager Jason Sonju said that’s intentional – for the F-22 much of that information is classified. “There’s a lot of parts where we don’t know exactly where they go,” Jason Sonju said.

In other areas of the factory, the parts’ purpose is more obvious. Machinist Barry Pomeroy programs a massive machine to horizontally mill rib-spar sections for the wings of the Boeing 747. Out of 25-pound blocks of aluminum, the pieces emerge with a weight of 1.5 pounds. Pomeroy said he loves the exacting standards of precision the job requires, but the awareness that his parts are going into passenger planes exerts a constant pressure on him.

“It’s a very stressful job,” Pomeroy said. “If you fail your job, lives are at stake – it just keeps you on edge.”

But it’s workers like Pomeroy, and machines like his horizontal miller, that Schaefer traveled from Washington D.C. to inspect. Schaefer explained the Mentor-Protégé program as a way for the M.D.A. to return the largesse it receives from taxpayers back into regional economies. The program also hugely benefits the M.D.A. by diversifying its supply chain: The more contractors across the country who can manufacture parts for military equipment, the more stable the Pentagon’s network of suppliers becomes.

Schaefer makes no bones about the importance of such programs. He noted that the M.D.A. restricts its suppliers from using certain computer software designed in China – out of concern that the Chinese government may have built a backdoor into the programming to gain intelligence on U.S. weapons systems.

He spends a long time developing relationships with businesses like Sonju Industrial, and checking out such factories firsthand to ensure they pass muster before buying parts with taxpayer money.

“We have an obligation to make sure we don’t just hand it out willy-nilly,” Schaefer said. And many businesses, eager for a government contract, sometimes overestimate their capabilities – hence Schaefer’s rigorous inspections.

“We get lots of people who say they can do things for us,” and then often fail to deliver, he said. “I have to kiss a lot of frogs before I find a prince.”

But the Sonjus aren’t royalty just yet. By entering into the Mentor-Protégé program, the company is, essentially, beginning a three-year job interview, with a tentative contract extending for that period of time. If, under the guidance of Raytheon, Sonju Industrial effectively expands its facilities, streamlines its manufacturing process and provides parts that meet specifications, then it is eligible to renew its contract with the M.D.A. for three more years.

At the end of six successful years, Sonju Industrial will be eligible for a more long-term contract – reinforcing the Sonjus’ belief that Montana can be as good a home for the aerospace industry as anywhere else.