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Zipping along: Business a thrill ride for fast-growing firm

Bonsai bridge

Bonsai Design designs and installs skybridges, platforms and ziplines on challenge courses and canopy tours that offer not only adventure, but also an opportunity to experience nature. (Photo courtesy Bonsai Design)

Bonsai Designs sells what it bills as world-class experiences. There’s the heart-pounding thrill of flying down ziplines suspended high above the ground, to be sure. But there’s also the quiet and contemplative pleasures of walking through forests and encountering nature up close and very personal.

“We’re all about the experience,” says Thaddeus Shrader, chief executive officer of the Grand Junction-based company.

The combination of adventure and discovery has proved popular and profitable for an enterprise that designs, installs and services unique ziplines, challenge courses and canopy tours.

By Shrader’s estimate, business has grown 200 percent every year for the past four years in a marketplace that’s become increasingly competitive.

That kind of innovation and growth were among the attributes that earned Bonsai Design the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, a selection announced during Entrepreneurship Day at Colorado Mesa University. CMU, the Business Incubator Center and Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce present the award. 

Shrader says winning the award was as exciting as it was surprising and constitutes yet another milestone for a company that’s evolved from humble origins.

John Walker, Shrader’s brother-in-law and president of the company, started Bonsai Design as an outgrowth of what initially was his work repairing outdoor challenge courses. Shrader says Walker and the men helping him would work — and live — out of a 15-passenger they’d drive from job to job.

As business increased, Walker asked his sister, Sarah Walker Shrader, to help with the books and managing the venture. Thaddeus Shrader subsequently left his career as an airline pilot to join his wife and brother-in-law in the venture.

What started out as a small operation with a small staff has grown substantially in recent years, Thaddeus Shrader says. “We exploded it.”

While a staff of 12 works at the company’s headquarters on the second floor of the historic Union Station building in downtown Grand Junction, a total of another 80 employees work at regional offices in North Carolina and West Virginia, at a facility the company operates on a private ranch in Montana and elsewhere in the field.

Bonsai Designs has designed and constructed a total of more than 40 installations across the United States as well as Canada and Mexico.

Those installations have been used more than 1 million times, a metric Shrader calls “experiences.”

In Colorado, Bonsai Designs has installed ziplines at the Copper Mountain and Durango Mountain resorts as well as zipline tours at the Royal Gorge attraction Canyon City.

Construction is under way on additional installations in the U.S., including multiple ziplines and canopy tours at a massive, 10,000-acre adventure camp the Boy Scouts of America operates in West Virginia.

Design work is under way for additional installations outside the U.S., including projects planned for Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Each project is unique, Shrader says, in that every installation is designed to fit a specific site and represents the culmination of a lengthy planning and construction process.

That process starts with a feasibility report to determine if the installation will fit with a site and how much it’s expected to cost. Further analysis and design work follows to determine exactly where the project will be installed to best integrate with the landscape and showcase natural features. Arborists help determine which individual trees will work best as the route of an adventure course or canopy tour is plotted.

Shrader says Bonsai Design has built its business on a reputation for attention to detail and quality control. For example, the company uses two cables on ziplines for safety and coats those cables and other components for a more quiet ride.

The other differentiating attribute, Shrader says, is the environmental aesthetics and sustainability that go into Bonsai Design installations. Projects are designed to highlight the landscapes in which they’re located and foster understanding and appreciation for the surrounding flora and fauna. Projects also are designed to fit individual trees and the components designed to accommodate the living and growing organisms to which they’re attached.

After a project is installed, Bonsai Design trains guides to lead tours and ensure not only the safety of customers, but also their understanding of the environment around them.

The work continues over the years with inspections and maintenance, Shrader says.

While ziplines are nothing new and canopy tours first became popular in Costa Rica, demand for those experiences in the U.S. and elsewhere has substantially increased, Shrader says.

Even as more competitors emerge, Bonsai Design continues to both expand and respond to the market, he says. “I’d say a little bit of both.”

In addition to designing and installing canopy tours, Walker and the Shraders started a sister company to operate tours. The name Navitat Canopy Adventures is derived from a combination of the words navigate and habitat.

Once again, it’s all about providing meaningful experiences that thrill, educate and even inspire, Shrader says, whether it’s young people seeking adventure or older people more interested in connecting with nature.

“You create these life-changing experiences for these guys. It’s affecting people’s lives in a positive way.”

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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