THRIVING SMALL BUSINESSES IN WYOMING: Compass Company Blazes New Path to Success
Growing a historic brand with determination, innovation
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Oct 16, 2023
The Brunton team in front of their Riverton facility. (Courtesy photo from Brunton)
By Bob Wooley
Special to the Wyoming Truth
When Lauren and David Heerschap pitched a new product to storied compass manufacturer Brunton, they never realized how a meeting would change their lives and careers.
Nearly 10 years later, the couple find themselves thriving in their adopted state of Wyoming, raising their young daughter and sitting firmly at the helm of Brunton, where they shepherd a line of products with a heritage dating back to the late nineteenth century.
Now, for the first time, science, technology, local family ownership and the renaissance of American manufacturing have converged at the company’s Riverton facility.
Lauren, 44, the company’s majority stakeholder, said given Wyoming’s business-friendly climate and opportunities for myriad outdoor activities, she couldn’t imagine a better location.
“And having the whole company including design, manufacturing, warehousing, sales, shipping and management under one roof makes things incredibly efficient,” she said.
Brunton’s earliest product patent was awarded in 1894, and the company is widely known for making compasses and transits—a fancy compass that allows users to measure vertical angles and horizontal directions with a high degree of precision.
Transits, which are part of Brunton’s professional line, make up over 60% of sales; the professional line is primarily used by geologists, military personnel and other field professionals. The company’s recreational line, consisting largely of compasses, is available online, as well as at REI, Cabela’s and Duluth Trading Company.
From teachers to inventors to business owners
Prior to purchasing Brunton in 2021, the Heerschaps were educators in Durango, Colorado. David taught physics at a charter high school; Lauren taught geology at Fort Lewis College.
“In the summer of 2013, teaching students how to measure geological features with a traditional Brunton [pocket transit model], an idea of ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be cool if the Brunton could twist and turn and take measurements in a new way’ just started forming in my head,” Lauren said. “I started fiddling with my spiral notebook, mimicking the movements I thought it needed to do.”
The idea nagged at her for the rest of the semester. Over winter break, David, now 45, who’d become a pretty good self-taught engineer, bought a small machine to mill metal prototype parts for a new type of pocket transit.
“And it actually worked—what I had in my head. It was a functional, physical prototype,” Lauren said. “So, we knew we were on to something.”
Realizing they couldn’t manufacture the devices in their garage — and already being loyal users of Brunton transits — they headed to Boulder in 2014, where Brunton’s Outdoor Group was then located, to pitch a partnership.
“We had this kind of ‘Shark Tank’ meeting for the day. And we actually ended up having to teach their leadership how to use their existing models,” Lauren recalled. “Since they didn’t have a geologist on staff, no one at the table knew what we were talking about.”
That meeting led to a licensing deal, and in 2015, the Heerschaps began collaborating with the Riverton-based production team on the prototype of the transit they called “Axis.” A year later, the Axis Transit was finally ready to go to market.
Shortly thereafter, David joined Brunton full time as an engineer. Lauren came onboard as Brunton’s professional sales and marketing manager in early 2021.
But unbeknownst to their coworkers and even their supervisors, the couple — having been approached by the CEO of Fenix, the Sweden-based owner of Brunton — were in discussions to purchase the company. An inventory and assets deal was finalized in November 2021, primarily financed by the owner of Fenix.
“It was really the only way it [the acquisition] was possible,” Lauren said, noting family members loaned the couple money to help them generate a down payment. “I think I almost got fired several times for being hard to get ahold of at certain times of day when I was in bank or legal meetings [for the deal] or trying to do certain things I needed to do but couldn’t explain to my direct supervisor what I was doing.”
When Fenix executives finally broke the news to the staff, there were cheers. And in the nearly two years they’ve owned Brunton, business has remained strong, Lauren said.
All in the family
The Heerschaps run Brunton together, but each is involved in different areas. It’s an arrangement David credits with easing the stress of living and working together.
As the head engineer, David focuses on product design, part revision and system maintenance, while also overseeing production operations. Lauren handles finances, strategic planning, sales and marketing.
“We’ve managed to figure out a system that works well for us,” David said.
In 2022, Brunton manufactured over 9,000 transits and around 85,000 recreational compasses. As for the Axis, sales have grown each year, but the process has taken time.
Initially, Lauren thought geology professionals would embrace its superior functions and immediately switch to using the Axis. Even though it didn’t quite play out that way, she said, there’s been a bump in international and institutional sales.
“The entire Colombian Geological Survey purchased [the Axis],” Lauren said. “And we just had a huge order from Indonesia. So, it’s not been as much growth in one-off sales. But we’re starting to see organizations order more batches of them.”
For their part, the Heerschaps still get a thrill when they use Brunton products, especially the Axis, to help them find their way while they’re climbing and hiking.
“Whenever I’m using that in the field, I still kind of get this giddy feeling of like, ‘Wow — we created this. It didn’t exist until it came out of our brains,’” Lauren said. “And whenever we’re backpacking, which is something we’re now starting to do with our daughter, we always have a Brunton compass.”
Today, the Brunton team also is working to bring new designs to its military and geology products, which would have the potential to exponentially increase the company’s multimillion-dollar annual revenue.
The Heerschaps currently employ 21 full-time workers. It’s a lot of responsibility, Lauren said, but another responsibility also weighs heavily on the couple as they guide the heritage brand.
It’s all about turning Brunton into what they want it to become: the manufacturer of the world’s best compasses and the main supplier of navigational compasses to the U.S. military.
Said Lauren: “It’s the honor of serving this brand and making sure it’s healthy for another 130 years.”