Jennifer Muhlrad is always open to good advice. When a mentor suggested she forgo graduate school and enter the New York City distribution market, she listened. And when Muhlrad’s newly formed distribution company, Montana, found early success, her mentor reminded her to never forget where she came from.

Muhlrad, owner and president of Montana, has taken those words to heart throughout her nearly 20 years in business. The construction cable and wire distributor has maintained a grounded outlook on its business and clients, an approach that helped the company survive even during the lean years of the Great Recession. No customer is too small, Muhlrad says, because even small customers can become big ones over time. “We’ll never lose sight of that,” she says.

Montana is a distributor of American-made electrical, data, transit, telephone, conduit, video, fire alarm and industrial products for the New York metropolitan area. Muhlrad founded the company in 1996 as a niche business serving the transit market, but within three years, it expanded to include cabling. Today, Montana is one of the top distributors of transportation cable in the New York area.

The company’s primary market is cabling for highways, bridges and the skeletal structure of high-rises. But Montana also supplies a range of material for the security and telecommunications industries, including high-end audio and video cable, armored fire alarms, fiber optics, surge protectors, PVC coated conduits and wire management systems. The company also provides the tools to support those products, such as crimpers, datacom testers, phones and splicers. In recent years, Montana even opened a lighting department that sells lighting controls, occupancy sensors and lighting fixtures.

Montana sources many of its products from American manufacturers and carefully vets its lineup of manufacturers, choosing to work only with those companies willing to stand behind its products. Muhlrad says many of her customers prefer American-made supplies because they benefit the country’s economy – even if the cost is a bit higher. “A lot of the public projects, you’ll find they want American-made products,” she adds.

Montana fosters relationships with its suppliers through open and honest communication. Muhlrad says that in the ideal relationship, Montana not only creates business for its suppliers, but its suppliers also bring new business to Montana.

The company’s breadth of products and services has made it a partner on some of the largest and most critical projects in New York City. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), North America’s largest transportation network, is one of Montana’s largest customers. The company also serves The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the NYC School Construction Authority. 

Through its relationships with public agencies such as the MTA, Montana has worked on subway stations, sports arenas and Hurricane Sandy relief programs. One of the major projects Montana is involved with is supporting the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, a New York State Thruway Authority project. Montana is providing materials for the bridge’s skeletal structure, including cabling and pipes.

Opening Doors

Montana may be involved in some of the region’s most important projects today, but it took years of persistence to find that success. In its early years, Montana and Muhlrad worked hard to overcome obstacles, especially in an industry where relationships are everything. 

When Muhlrad was still working to break into the construction distribution market, many potential customers and peers were part of an inner circle that was difficult for any newcomer to enter, but even more so for a female. 

To compete, Montana needed to show it could deliver its products in a timely manner at a reasonable price. Area contractors soon noticed the company’s commitment to service and Muhlrad’s willingness to fill any role, and that led to more opportunities and contracts. 

In 1999, the state of New York certified Montana as a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE). The designation qualified Montana for WBE purchasing programs, creating opportunities for the company to bid on agreements with contractors and public agencies that were previously closed off to Montana. Even still, Muhlrad says it took another nine years for Montana to take root and turn its seat at the table into actual supply contracts. “[WBE] helped catapult us from being a regular small company toward more of a medium-sized company,” she says.

Those WBE programs allowed Muhlrad and Montana to develop strong industry relationships. Over time, customers and vendors learned to trust Montana and grew to appreciate its dedication to timely delivery and quality products. “We really just offered the best prices that we were able to offer and the best services,” Muhlrad says.

Many of the contractors that were once closed to Muhlrad are now regular Montana customers. Where a big order was once $100,000, it has turned into $500,000. Likewise, the company’s activity continues to grow. “We just worked really hard. I had a great team with me,” Muhlrad says.

Serving the Market

Growing its market share has enabled Montana to build better connections with its customers. Montana works to build relationships where it can deliver products on time.

Even as Montana takes on more projects, Muhlrad has not forgotten the principles that made the company successful. The company still operates with a lean philosophy and strives to maximize each truckload. Montana is smart about how it approaches its daily routes. Four union-operated trucks fan out to the far reaches of its market each morning and work their way inward as they deliver supplies throughout the day. 

The company’s warehouse is centrally located in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. Muhlrad calls the area New York’s “mecca of construction.” From Montana’s warehouse, trucks can reach any of the city’s five famous boroughs in less than 20 minutes, allowing Montana to quickly supply its customers with whatever product they need. “It’s a great jumping point,” Muhlrad says of the location.

Montana’s employees work hard for the company because they have a first-person view of the tireless work Muhlrad puts into the business. Even today, Muhlrad takes a hands-on approach to every level of the operation, from working with vendors to driving delivery trucks herself. “I can lead by example where I’m not above doing anything, so my guys will go above and beyond,” she says.

The respect she has earned from her employees has spread throughout the New York distribution market, helping the company draw new talent into its ranks. “We have a good reputation so people come to us,” Muhlrad says.

Continuing to Evolve

It took the better part of two decades, but Montana has broken through to become an important part of New York’s distribution scene. “I think that we’ve earned our stripes. People take us seriously,” Muhlrad says. 

Thanks to its persistence, contractors now realize that Montana is here for the long haul. But that doesn’t mean Muhlrad is ready to stand still. Montana continues to offer new products and services to take advantage of markets where there isn’t a lot of competition yet. “We’re continually looking at the blue ocean,” Muhlrad explains. That strategy continues to fuel Montana’s growth through additional services such as the stripping department the company created in 2015. 

The company continues to improve itself by constantly recalculating its strengths and weaknesses. That process has become increasingly important because of the heightened competition in the New York area and from Internet-based buying. To keep pace with the market, Montana is implementing ideas that will further differentiate it from competitors. 

The nature of the New York market also presents challenges beyond heavy competition. A rough commute is a typical part of New York City living, but for Montana traffic congestion can be the difference between delivering a product to a work site on time or being late. Once the clock strikes 9 a.m., roads become so packed that a delay is inevitable, Muhlrad says. Montana tries to avoid the morning rush by having its deliveries out the door by 6 a.m. every day.

While Montana’s drivers are keeping their focus on the road, Muhlrad is also concerned about the area’s activity above ground. New York City is well-known for its densely packed population, and builders are constantly looking for the next great piece of real estate to redevelop. That has led to an encroachment of high-rises on the Long Island City neighborhood. 

Gentrification threatens to eventually muscle out industrial businesses such as Montana. Muhlrad is already scouting out locations where the business could eventually move. Wherever the future home of Montana is, Muhlrad wants to ensure that the company will retain its advantage in accessing the city’s five boroughs. “Part of being successful in New York is being proactive in getting people what they want as quickly as they can,” she says.

Finding the new headquarters location is just one component of Muhlrad’s five-year plan for the company. After establishing herself in the New York distribution world, Muhlrad wants to expand across the country. But in doing so, she will continue to follow her mentor’s advice and remember where she came from. 

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