Nearly 40 Years of Fences

By Beacon Staff

If the saying still holds true that “good fences make good neighbors,” then the Mild Fence Company in Kalispell has contributed to thousands of happy neighbors over the last 37 years. And judging by Mild’s current status as one of the largest fencing wholesalers and suppliers in the Pacific Northwest, it’s going to be making good neighbors for a very long time.

Occupying five acres along U.S. Highway 93, north of Kalispell, Mild Fence Company has now grown to a point where it sustains much of the fencing industry throughout the state by supplying smaller fence-installation contractors, as well as offering its own installation services and selling fencing material directly to customers. And by occupying this niche, Mild finds itself able to handle the fencing demand of the more volatile residential market, while relying on the relatively stable needs of the agricultural and industrial sectors.

Founded in 1972, Gary Mild started the business as a small outfit on Whitefish Stage Road supplying barbed wire and wood-post fencing mainly to farmers throughout the valley. Five years later, Dennis Wutke bought the business when Mild wished to move on due to the Flathead’s rapid growth at the time. Roughly 30 years later, Dennis’ son Eric took over the day-to-day operations of the business, at a time when the valley was seeing another, and even larger, population spurt.

But by this time Mild Fencing was much larger, and in a key position to capitalize on the construction boom, due primarily to the prices it could offer through sheer economy of scale. Mild has acres of inventory, with rows of chain-link fence and steel posts, cattle panels, stacks of vinyl fence material and ornamental iron fences.

Doing more than $6 million annually in sales, Mild is able to move that massive inventory quickly. Ty Phillips, who supervises the yard and handles much of the sales and marketing, explained that volume has proven crucial to Mild’s success.

“Not a lot of guys have the ability to buy that much or have the confidence that they will install it,” Phillips said. “It just kind of built on itself.”

This inventory now heads to locations far beyond the Flathead, and Phillips manages a complex trucking schedule as part of the wholesale supply business that has Mild making deliveries all over the state, from Bozeman to Butte to the Bitterroot and beyond, helping to sustain fencing businesses all over Montana.

“If you don’t show that you’re willing to make that commitment and be there, they’ll never order from you,” Phillips said.

But Mild Fence Company has also managed to capitalize on relationships. With 35 current employees making up 10 crews, Phillips said it has been difficult to avoid layoffs in the face of the decline in residential sales, but by expanding the territory to which it offers installations across the state line into Idaho, jobs at Mild remain secure.

“When times are tough you diversify and fortunately we’re able to do that,” Phillips said.

Many of Mild’s employees are former fencing contractors who bought their materials from the company in the past. And when a long-time member of the staff recently decided to move to Troy, rather than lose his experience, Mild opened a branch there.

The housing decline has been predictably difficult for Mild’s residential business, since neighborhood covenants in new subdivisions mandating fences have been a boom in recent years. Commercial projects, like highways, national parks and water treatment plants continue to roll in, but Phillips said the number of contractors bidding on these jobs has skyrocketed.

Supplying agriculture producers, however, remains a bedrock of Mild’s business, just as it was in the 1970s. Phillips observed that when a homeowner is pinching pennies, they may decide to put off installing a new fence for a year, but for farmers and ranchers, fences are among the very last areas where cutbacks are possible.

“If you’re running livestock or a farm, there’s never a day you’ve got a perfect fence,” Phillips said, and noted that farmers and ranchers need fencing material all year round, not just the summer months because, as he put it, “Cows don’t hibernate.”

On a recent afternoon, Phillips walked around the yard, inspecting the inventory and planning for Mild’s busy season, which arrives with the warm weather. After a question regarding whether there is any aspect of fencing in Montana Mild doesn’t have covered, Phillips pondered it for a moment.

“Invisible dog fences, we don’t do,” he said, then added, “but if there was a guy out there that sold that package, I’d buy it.”

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