As the 1970s drew to a close, the nation was entering a bad economic period. But for Jim Montoure and Fred Albright, it was a perfect time to start a business.
The stock market was a mess – it had lost 40% in an 18-month period. Economic growth was weak, resulting in unemployment that eventually reached double digits. The easy-money policies of the American central bank were designed to generate full employment, but also caused high inflation. The central bank, under different leadership, later reversed its policies, raising interest rates as high as 20%.
Jim and Fred both worked at Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Jim created training programs that incorporated visual training aids, such as 35mm slides and filmstrips; Fred was a writer of kit installation instructions in the Tech Pubs department.
At that time, Harley-Davidson was owned by AMF, a company that was struggling financially. There were constant layoffs and little job stability.
To earn extra money, Jim and Fred started a side business in Jim’s basement. They did keylining1 and paste-up2 for an agency that worked with Harley-Davidson. Fred’s wife, Shiela, got a drafting table from Harnischfeger, where she was working, and Jim and Fred carried it into Jim’s basement. “It was so heavy and awkward, I’m pretty sure they’d have torn down the house around the table rather than move it,” said Fred.
The workload expanded, so they hired three illustrators and rented an office – a former dentist office at 92nd and Center streets in Milwaukee. The office consisted of two small rooms and an entryway. They were doing technical illustration work (pen and ink on Mylar!) for Simplicity Manufacturing, and were also creating technical illustrations and technical writing for J. I. Case. Meanwhile, Jim and Fred continued to work full-time at Harley-Davidson.
As information-sharing in business changed – companies were now sharing proprietary information with trusted suppliers – Jim and Fred thought there was a niche business opportunity. Although they did not create a marketing plan or a complex business plan, they intentionally started the business as a fully-formed company with a goal of capturing some of that business.
Jim and Fred then created the name Almon as a combination of ALbright and MONtoure, and the new company was officially launched as “Almon Studio.”
Since Jim and Judy’s sons, Aaron and Chris, were under age 5, it was decided it was less risky for Fred to quit his job at Harley-Davidson and work full-time at the new business. Fred and Shiela’s son, Scott, was not yet born.
About 6 months later, Jim also left Harley-Davidson to work at Almon Studio full-time.
Price and determination, plus the company timing, made it all work in those early years. Technical illustrations were the primary deliverable at the beginning – it took about 5 more years before technical writing became standard in the core offerings of Almon Studio.
Partnering with major clients with recurring business would prove to be the key to Almon’s long-term sustainability. Miller Brewing was one of the first major clients, with an initial order for visual aids used in training. It was a huge order for the small company – 15 sets of 125 overhead slides, all drawn, treated, and framed by hand. This confirmed that the vision Jim and Fred had for Almon Studio was realistic, and it shifted Almon’s business strategy from a job shop approach to creating long-term partnership relationships.