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July 2008
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Third Generation Tent Business Still Going Strong

Unless you’re an active outfitter, tents and tepees aren’t exactly must-haves in a tough economy. So, you’d think a Billings company specializing in those products would be sweating a sales drop.  Instead, revenues are up 5 percent over last year at Reliable Tent & Awning, a business that Maury Nemer purchased in 1945. The business has prospered through three generations of family managers, including Maury’s son Bob and grandson Dave, who is president today.

“We’ve really grown from a custom manufacturing company into a strong brand name in the canvas tent world,” said Dave. “That’s been our biggest growth in the last 10 years, in hunting and outfitter tents.”  Last year, the company sold 1,900 tents and 700 tepees, accounting for 70 percent of its sales. In addition to canvas, Reliable Tent manufactures other fabrics, including orange irrigation dams, awnings for coffee kiosks and heat-resistant covers for trucks.

Most recently, Dave got what he calls a lucky break, an order for up to 500 tents for the national “Tents for Hope” project, which aims at raising awareness of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. So far, Reliable Tent employees have built 250 tents for the effort.

Groups will buy a tent and then hand-paint or decorate the walls before the tent is sent to Washington D.C. for a Nov. 7-9 rally for Darfur on the National Mall.  “Rumor has it, Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, will be there to help spearhead this camp,” Dave said. Last month, the Billings company shipped a tent to New Orleans that Bono reportedly was personally painting.

While the designs are left up to the artists, the Darfur organization favors images of “hope, compassion, peace and global solidarity.”  Reliable Tent has offered a 5 percent price discount to the Darfur effort and is donating 14 percent of the tent sales, which could top $250,000.  “It’s a business we feel lucky to have, and this is a one-time deal,” Dave said. “We need to help Americans understand what they are doing in Darfur.”

On the awning side of the business, Bob Nemer figures by now that the company has done work with just about every business in Billings. Both father and son have swept floors and performed every other task at the family business. When his father retired to hunt, fish and golf three years ago, Dave became president, taking over responsibility for the company and becoming its sole shareholder.

Although Reliable has no board of directors, the two hold frequent business meetings over lunch at Pug Mahon’s Irish Pub. The often tricky business of transferring a business to the next generation hasn’t been a problem with the Nemers.  “It’s recognizing that when they’re ready to take over, you let them,” Bob said.

Read more about the Nemers’ story in the Billings Gazette.

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