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From a barn in Creston to a major employer in the Flathead, Nomad celebrates 20 years

| November 2, 2022 7:30 AM


Hungry Horse News

Columbia Falls firm Nomad GCS saw its 20th anniversary this year.

The company started in a family barn near Creston, as friends and partners Shane Ackerly, Clay Binford, Seth Schmautz and brother Will Schmautz decided to make a mobile command center for agencies like the Forest Service, which needed to be able to access the Internet and communicate remotely while fighting forest fires.

The first trailer, which took the team thousands of hours to build, did the job. It also doubled as an Internet hub for tourists in the summer of 2003. The partners set up the trailer near the gift shop in West Glacier so tourists at the time could access their email and surf the web — for a small fee.

This was four years before the first iPhone.

The year 2003 would end up being an historic fire year and Nomad immediately went to work for the Forest Service on the Wedge Canyon Fire up the North Fork.

“If we didn’t have a significant fire year, things may have been different,” Will Schmautz, CEO of the company said in a recent interview.

Today Nomad is a multi-million dollar company and employs about 200 people at its facility on Highway 2 south of Columbia Falls, making speciality vehicles for federal, state and private companies around the country and the world.

But the business has most certainly changed over the years. Schmautz noted that wildland firefighting is about 1/2 of 1% of its business.

The federal government as a whole, however, continues to play a significant role in the business, with 60 to 70% of orders coming from federal agencies, 15% from state and local governments and 15% from the private sector.

The company takes pains to collaborate with customers to build mobile command centers and equipment to their needs.

On the local front, for example, the company built a mobile mammography unit for Logan Health, so the hospital can do mammograms for remote communities in western Montana instead of having patients travel for hours to the hospital.

The company recently was awarded $20 million in the Defense Appropriations bill along with laser manufacturer BlueHalo to develop a mobile system that would use lasers to shoot down drones in war. Schmautz said Blue Halo is developing the lasers and Nomad will develop the vehicle to support it.

The company needs more workers, Schmautz noted. It could use another 50. It’s already expanding operations to Alabama, Nevada and Maryland where it needs help on engineering and technical support. It’s also considering another manufacturing facility in Libby.

Over the years, Schmautz said the core of the business has remained the same and it’s not all about the products.

“Almost all of it is going to end up in a museum or junkyard,” he said. “We’re building partnerships and relationships to solve problems.”

He said over the years there have been some notable clients, like the Army Corps of Engineers.

“They continue to impress me on how well they do business,” he said.

He also said the work they’ve done for the Air Force has been gratifying as well.

“It feels so darn important,” he said.

The four partners are still close friends today.

“We all got gravel bikes so we can go out and ride together,” he said. A group vacation is also in the works.

As for the barn in Creston?

Schmautz said they had to take it down last year before it fell down on its own, but they have plans to rebuild it and use some of the old timbers in the new construction.