Music to Soundtraxx’s ears

Local maker for model trains makes company watch list

Assembler Brandon French programs sound processors for HO Diesel model trains at Soundtraxx. The La Plata County company has been named one of 50 Colorado Companies to Watch for 2012. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Assembler Brandon French programs sound processors for HO Diesel model trains at Soundtraxx. The La Plata County company has been named one of 50 Colorado Companies to Watch for 2012.

The head of La Plata County’s newest Colorado Company to Watch acknowledged that many people have never heard of her business, and that’s OK.

The company, Soundtraxx, is a designer, manufacturer and seller of electronics for a very specific market: model railroaders.

“If you’re a model railroader, though, and you live in Durango, you know who we are,” said Nancy Workman, co-owner of the company.

On Friday, Soundtraxx was named as one of this year’s 50 Colorado Companies to Watch. The award goes to post-startup companies that might be flying under the radar but are “ready to climb and take off,” said Sam Bailey, with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and Trade, which helped organize the awards.

With Soundtraxx’s award, the county now has more Companies to Watch than any other Colorado county outside the Front Range, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance. The five other local companies who previously won the award are Zuke’s Dog Treats, Open Sky Wilderness, StoneAge Waterblast Tools and Hydro-X Excavation.

So what’s the secret formula for business success?

Many of these companies have found a unique niche or taken a very innovative approach within their business fields, Zalneraitis said. Almost all have taken a new concept or idea and made it into something marketable, he said.

Zalneraitis also credited the business resources in the county that focus on everything from lending to creating a business plan to navigating planning obstacles.

Meanwhile, companies touted the unique business benefits of being located in Durango.

Having an association with the city of Durango goes a long way when Ska Brewing Co., is trying to promote and sell its beer in faraway places, said Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of the brewery.

“When people hear we’re located there, it does a lot for our brand,” Thibodeau said.

Meanwhile, customers enjoy that Soundtraxx is located in the same town as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Workman said.

“A lot of people who come to ride the train are also our customers, so we see a lot of users who ride the train come up and ask for a tour,” Workman said. The tours provide a good way to connect with new and returning customers, she said.

For Zuke’s, the outdoors-oriented culture in Durango fits perfectly with the company’s core values and its central message encouraging people to get out with their dogs, said Andria Henderson, the company’s human resources and cultural values director.

But doing business here comes with some well-known drawbacks that affect even these top-performing companies. Housing costs are high, and the company, on some level, must make up for that in wages it pays its employees, Henderson said. Transporting people and materials in and out of the area is also a struggle, company owners said.

At Soundtraxx, the biggest challenge is finding qualified employees from such a small labor pool, Workman said. The company “pretty much has to move people in,” which brings its own set of difficulties, she said.

In today’s growth-stunted economy, these companies’ success is especially important because they bring stable growth and jobs to the state, Bailey said. From 2008 through 2011, the Companies to Watch totalled a 30 percent annual revenue growth and 27 percent annual growth in employees.

“Startups are exciting, they have a lot of innovation, but bring a lot of risk and uncertainty,” Bailey said. “(The Colorado Companies to Watch) are past that stage, they are well-established, they have a brand, they are looking at long-term success and have infrastructure to do so.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

A sound decoder (in foreground) provides motor, lights and sound for a scale model train with a HOn3 K-27 engine at Soundtraxx. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

A sound decoder (in foreground) provides motor, lights and sound for a scale model train with a HOn3 K-27 engine at Soundtraxx.

Assembler Cole Petersen operates the surface mount assembly line at Soundtraxx. The machine places components on a variety of circuit boards. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Assembler Cole Petersen operates the surface mount assembly line at Soundtraxx. The machine places components on a variety of circuit boards.