“He was one of those little tough guys that was all muscle, who rodeoed for 25 years and took everybody’s money, and never seemed to […]
PROfile: Judy Wagner
Written by: Lily Landreth< Back to Articles
Judy Wagner is a storyteller. Growing up on a ranch in Montana nurtured her appreciation for the beauty and brevity of life, all while giving her experiences that ached to be retold over the dinner table among friends and family. Today, the wife, mother of two, and vice president of marketing for Montana Silversmiths still approaches life with the common sense that comes from her own brand of Ranch Grown Logic and her motto from Gladiola Montana: “The code of her West; use a short rope, a sweet smile, and a hot brand.”
Judy’s story began in the Big Sky State. Born in 1953 in Avon, Mont., the oldest of eight children, Judy likes to tease that she is the real Avon lady. But instead of selling cosmetics, she was saddling horses in the early morning light and loading them into the bed of her dad’s pickup to go check cattle. Judy and her brothers and sisters learned to rope from their dad and were active in 4-H, but their responsibilities doubled when their dad was killed in a tractor accident. Judy was 16 at the time, and she and her siblings took over the ranch with young but powerful determination. “We grew up fast,” says Judy. “We learned that the cows didn’t know it was Christmas Day – feeding and caring for the animals came first. We had to be responsible for our actions, and ranching taught us what it means to invest your time and money into something.”
Following high school, Judy went to Montana State University on a rodeo scholarship, as did all seven of her siblings, in either rodeo or other sports. She competed in team roping and majored in Home Economics with a minor in Child Development. “Back when I went to college, a marketing degree didn’t really exist yet,” Judy explains. “Most women went to college to become teachers or nurses. But I had 14 years of experience in 4-H and an entrepreneurial spirit!” She met her husband, Alvin, during college, and once she graduated, Judy went to work as a county extension agent for Teton County in Cheteua, Mont. Alvin was a sales representative in the western industry, and in 1988, he helped Judy as she entered into a partnership with another family to create Gator Ropes. “We met in a bar in Dillon to discuss the opportunity,” Judy recalls. “The whole thing just evolved! I didn’t have a lot of help, but I could have reached out to people. Now I realize as I mature in business how important it is to reach out. At the time my research on product development was through my family and my life experience as a roper and competitor. I didn’t focus much on our competitors at the time, because we were all young businesses then. Classic Ropes had been around a few years and Cactus Ropes was just starting. It was a fun time to be in the industry.”
Owning Gator Ropes gave Judy all the marketing experience and more that college could have provided, and the common sense she had developed as a child on the ranch came to her aid. “The first trade show I took Gator Ropes to was for the first Cowboy Christmas during the WNFR, and I had the bright idea to create a rope rack that looked like a Christmas tree. I decorated all the ropes with evergreens from the ranch and made them look like wreaths,” says Judy. “I took over 100 wreaths and I didn’t sell one of them.” So she took her rope wreaths to the parking lot and cut the evergreen boughs off, selling her ropes and chalking it up to experience.
In 1998, Judy sold Gator Ropes back to her original partners and tried her hand at freelance marketing, while she also helped establish an all-girl rodeo team in Helena and several other rodeo teams in her area. In 1990, she won the John Justin Boots Standard of the West award for the Rocky Mountain All Girl Team, a pre rodeo event for the Last Chance Stampede in Helena, Mont.
By 2000, Judy found out Montana Silversmiths was looking for a marketing director.”Other than my two years with the county extension office, that was my second job interview,” says Judy. “I started fresh – it was a new position – and our sponsorship with the PRCA was just starting, as was our line of jewelry.” Judy found a way to put her ranch background to use even with Montana Silversmiths, knowing the value of a handshake and looking someone in the eye.
When the company put up its website in 2005, it enabled Judy to share the stories of the business with an even wider audience. “Every one of our products has a story, from how it’s created by our master engravers, to how it’s packaged, or even merchandised in the catalogue,” Judy explains. “I get shivers whenever I have the opportunity to hand the buckles to rodeo champions. I know from Montana Silversmiths the talent it takes to produce that buckle, and I also know as a rodeo competitor how much went into making those rodeo champions, like parents driving all those miles for rodeos and making sure their kids have horses underneath them.”
In 2014, Judy was promoted to vice president of marketing for Montana Silversmiths. For her, an average day at the headquarters on the Yellowstone River in Columbus, Mont., might involve leading a team for product development, touching on customer service, or even helping organize an events team, such as for the PRCA.
At the end of the day, Judy makes the 20 mile drive to her home in Park City, Mont. Alvin is currently a sales representative for American Hats and Ariat boots, and both Alvin and Judy’s children inherited their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit. Their daughter, Tiffany, is a horse trainer, while their son, Ross, and his wife manage a barrel racing association, UBRC. Team roping continues to be one of Judy’s greatest pleasures, and she won the Team Roping Heading on the WPRA Montana Circuit in 2014, as well as the Team Roping Heading Rookie of the Year with the WPRA after buying her first card. She is also a member of the USTRC, and in February, she and Alvin plan to go south to Arizona to rope. Judy visits her three brothers’ ranches in Montana at every opportunity, and she has many nieces and nephews who all excel in sports. These include Ty Erickson, who is going into the WNFR sitting third in the steer wrestling, riding his horse, KR Montana Shake Em, who won 2015 AQHA Horse of the Year.
“Between the Wagners, Bignells, Ericksons, and Ayers (Judy’s brothers and sisters) there’s a lot of competitiveness and athleticism, and it all stems from ranch grown logic and the ranch life of my siblings,” says Judy. “When it’s all said and done, I hope people will say about me that I was a trail breaker. I ride for the brand in my faith, family, work on the ranch, creating the brand Gator Ropes or stewarding the brand Montana Silversmiths. Who would imagine that some girl from Avon would grow up to do this, but you can do anything if you have the desire and work toward your goals! Life is about those connections – people who empower you – and I am blessed.”