Bonsai-Design zipping into multi-million dollar success

Members of the design team at Bonsai-Design discuss the “Zipzilla,” an adventure structure with 15 big zip lines that the company is building for the new Boy Scout Camp in West Virginia.

On a the big zips, people muster their courage, hold on tight, and enjoy the ride.

That’s much the same as Bonsai Design has run their cool and wildly successful business so far.

“We’re really a nontraditional company,” said Thaddeus Shrader, chief executive officer of Bonsai Design, as he sat in the company’s war room, located on the garden level of his Redlands home.

Bonsai Design, a Grand Junction-based company that designs and installs sustainable, big zip lines and adventure challenge courses, was the vision of Shrader’s brother-in-law, John Walker.  He started building challenge courses in the Midwest earlier in the decade. Walker had converted a 15-passenger van into a shop and living structure from which he worked with a small crew. “They were living out of tents — it was a real backwoods style of life,” Shrader said.

In the meantime, Shrader was working as a captain for United Express in Grand Junction. After 9/11, the airline industry changed dramatically and Shrader began plotting a new course. 

He also had an engineering background, so partnering with Walker seemed like a perfect fit.

They landed their first big job in 2005, building three canopy tours near Juneau, Alaska.

Those courses immediately drew the attention of the budding eco-tourism industry.

“One of the things that is really at our core is we’re going to expose people to nature in an exciting way,” Shrader said.

It’s not just about a thrilling ride at Bonsai Design, it’s also about educating people to appreciate the natural environment, and about leaving as small of an environmental impact as possible, he said.

“We’ve really redefined this tree-based experience making us an acknowledged leader in the industry,” Shrader said.

In just seven years, Bonsai Design has built 30 adventure courses nationwide and in Mexico, Canada and Hawaii. They’re also working on tapping the markets in England, China and India.

In 2005, the company made $100,000. Their first million came in 2009. Today, they have 88 employees and are a $7 million company.

Most of their employees are currently working on one of the largest construction projects in the country, the new Boy Scout Camp in West Virginia. The $400 million project is turning 10,000 acres in the Appalachian Mountains into the Summit Bechtel Reserve, commonly called The Summit.

“This is like the Disneyland for Boy Scouts,” Shrader said.

Bonsai Design is creating the “Zipzilla,” a huge structure with 15 zip lines, 12 individual canopy platforms, and eight challenge courses.

The company has been working on the site for two years with a projected completion date of July 2013.

As part of that project, Bonsai Design has helped push legislation that would allow companies such as ski resorts to build on state-owned land.

“We’re pushing to bring all our guys back in after this project and do some work in Colorado,” he said.

Shrader said the Grand Valley is a great location for a company such as his. Much of the manufacturing work needed to build adventure tours is subcontracted to local companies such as All Metals Welding, Intrawest Machine and Fabrication, and Lindauer Dunn.

“I love the fact that Grand Junction has old industrial roots,” he said.

A move is not out of the question, but Shrader said that right now Grand Junction has the perfect combination of outdoor enthusiasm and industry to support his growing business.


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