Rick Lipke, the founder of Conterra Inc, normally likes to work behind the scenes and doesn’t care much for the spotlight. But our team knows he’s too interesting of a guy to not share how cool his day can be. I followed Rick on a journey through his normal work day, asking many questions and seeing exactly how a CEO of a small local business spends his time.
His day tends to start out with multiple meetings around the shop, checking in with the production engineer and the front secretary. After wading through about 60 emails, he gets to work on his various projects in either the machine shop, sewing section, or the fabrication shop across the street. Most of his time is spent developing or testing products, and we occasionally get to see sneak peeks of what he’s working on or even help with the testing. Watching the 3-D printer is absolutely mesmerizing when we get the chance.
We started off in his office. His table is filled with prototypes, blueprints, notes and other useful tools in his designing process. His whiteboard is split up with notes all over it, showing all the details he has to think about when it comes to creating such crucial equipment that will potentially have the lives of many in its hands. It takes a lot of development to keep up with an ever changing industry, and it requires new innovations to get there.
I started the interview by asking how his processes of manufacturing has changed over the years to fit these changes.
“That’s a great question. Well I think the biggest change now is that, at least on the machine shop side, I have someone that I can hand off product development to after I come up with a concept and a prototype. For instance, just recently I came up with an idea for a new rigging plate for rescue work and I drew it up in the computer over the weekend and printed it out on the 3D printer to give to Todd, our engineer, some idea of what I was shooting for. Then I handed it to Todd and told him the target strength and then he spent about two weeks workin' on it so I didn’t have to. But for sewing, not much has changed. I still do the entire process myself up until a working sample is done.”
Then how do you test your products?
“Ooh well it depends on which product. If it’s a machine shop product its initial testing involves proof of concept and strength which we can do right here in the shop. And then after that we’ll send out prototypes to various people for them to field test. If all that goes well we then will send a production model to Triangle Park North Carolina to the UL test facility and have them test it by Underwriters Laboratories. As far as the sewing goes, I do all of the sample work because there isn’t any strength testing, usually, unless we’re doing rescue work and then it goes back to whole testing in the lab. For bags and packs I just come up with an idea, make a prototype, then decide what kind of manufacturing, time, and materials it’s gonna take to actually make it and then I make a sample. And if it works I’ll send it to Dave (the production manager) and have Dave put it in production.”
When it comes to his process of creating a product from start to finish, it takes some thoughtful preparation. Once he has decided there is a need for something in the marketplace and that his idea is unique enough to go into it, he begins his process of creating the product.
His sewing products tend to take a bit more time before they are completed.
“First is concept, just pen and ink drawings, and then after concept I take it to patterning. Sometimes that can take weeks to get the pattern right if it’s a complex backpack. After I get the patterning all knocked out then I build prototypes and make sure that it’s actually buildable by our sewers. Then comes costing; deciding how much material is needed and how much labor cost is. And if all that works out then we go to production.”
So it’s like the same thing you do in the machine shop? You design it, make sure it can be built, and then it goes to production over in the machine shop?
“Right. Make sure it can be built and...in some ways...it’s easier for me over there because I come up with an idea and a prototype and then Todd has to make the machinery make the product. And then after that it has to go to a third party testing agency because it’s life safety equipment.”
Rick’s origins in rescue work was a little unplanned for him, but it brought him to a life-long career of providing equipment that made saving lives much easier. We asked him to talk a little bit about his background in the field.
“I got here by mistake.” We both chuckled a little at that statement. “I did. I started making sewn products when I was in college because I was a climber and a backpacker and at the time there weren’t a lot of really good products out there in that market because it was quite small, and I was quite poor.”
This caused him to teach himself all the ropes, which consisted of sewing, welding, and moving metals, making all of these things for himself at first.
“I was able to put my way through college working in dorm rooms sewing martial arts bags and climbing equipment. Then after college I spent a few years working in a psychiatric hospital and it was the worst job I ever had ever and I figured that starving was better. So I quit and started making stuff in my house and never looked back. That was in 1985, and I’ve been self-employed ever since.”
His classes started with the same sort of idea; finding that there was a need for something that wasn’t currently being provided. So, as Rick does, he made it happen.
“I worked for many years teaching wilderness medicine for a company called Wilderness Medical Associates and I taught all over the world for them and really learned how to teach through them. It was an incredible internship into adult education. I used those tools learned there to improve teaching in the emergency medical field for EMT classes, etc., and still do that a bit. But the classes I’m most excited about are the rope rescue courses. I started teaching those mostly because the type of rescue perspective that I adhere to was not really taught in the 1980's and 90’s and so I started to teach it myself and have just been continuing doing that for thirty some years.”
Rick’s job can be just as busy as anyone else’s, but he has many opportunities for excitement. Being a man who loves to problem solve, create, and has a mind running constantly, he has some pretty interesting outlooks on what the best part of his job is.
“I get excited working the problem; working the challenge of a new device. That excites me. I get really excited when I’m teaching and can convey a complex subject matter to a student and have that student get it. That still makes me all giddy. And I like providing employment to people. I think that’s cool.”
When it comes to where he gets his best ideas, it’s from his students too.
“That’s both for the sewn products and the machine products. I watch how students interact with current products and that leads to either refinement of the current products or coming up with some completely new product that doesn’t currently exist. I think that’s my biggest inspiration or incubator for ideas.”
His global connections have brought his products across seas, making waves in many more communities and sparking friendships around the world. One of his biggest partnerships is with Ice-Sar in Iceland. He makes at least one trip every other year there for business and some fun. His outlook on branching out is that it gives you a cultural experience you can’t get by staying at home.
“There’s an entire world out there with different thoughts, different philosophies, different uses, different needs and you have to go there...You have to see people in their own countries and how they interact and by doing that you get a better perspective on how to make equipment for them.”
His inspirations come from many different places, and most times the most conventional sources can strike the biggest spark.
“Any product where the form follows the function is inspiring to me. Especially products that are elegant and cunning in their design and simplicity. I continue to be inspired by Steve Jobs and Apple computer because of their philosophy on how to actually design a product that someone has to use on a daily basis. Instead of forcing the people to use what you’ve got, they change the product to make it easy for people to use, and I think that’s really cool.”
After a long time of hovering and a barrage of questions, I ended with a request for some words of wisdom and any principals he might live by before I let Rick get back to his busy day.
Rick smirked and I knew a joke was coming.
“I don’t have any principals.” He chuckled and then took some time to really think on what rules he lives by.
“Oh okay! One is pay your bills on time. Two is treat employees the way you’d wanna be treated. And the third is floss. That’s it, that’s my flossophy of life.”
That response definitely had me laughing and putting my palm to my forehead. That had to be the dad joke of the decade.
Thank you those are great answers!
“Well they’re probably all lies.”
After leaving me chuckling to myself at his wit, Rick was off to inspect the squeaky noise from one of the machines in the shop. I think this leaves all of us with a new perspective on life. He was right, we should all floss, and we know that no one really does.