Aura Fabricators' Jasmine Sonmor on Building a Business, Growing a Community
Nine years ago, Jasmine Sonmor's first steps into business ownership came with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. Oh, she had grown up in the metal fabrication industry, working in her father's shop since she was a teenager. She had often learned things the hard way, by being thrown to the wolves – though she considers these trials by fire an inevitability in any field.
But when she graduated with an engineering degree and plans to target a niche market of state government steel projects, things moved faster than she could have imagined.
First, Sonmor negotiated a takeover of her father's company and its workload. Not long thereafter, her company's one primary competitor went out of business. She now had the staff, the equipment, and a large facility near Dalton – plus a glut of work from clients looking to her company as the only business in the game.
Sonmor says her new customers were taking a risk on some "girl fresh out of college." Yet, as years before, the pressure fast-tracked her learning and slowly inspired a confidence from her new team, her new clients, and even herself.
"It seems like a lifetime ago that I started this up," she says, "but it hasn't been that long."
The facility in Dalton isn't small at around 30,000 square feet, but soon it wasn't big enough.
"We were tripping over each other, tripping over things," Sonmor recounts.
She might have expanded the existing space, but there was a better plan at a time when most manufacturers statewide were struggling not with space but with attracting employees: She'd build a new facility at a new site and with a new workforce pool – this time in Fergus Falls. The multimillion-dollar project by a business owner in her mid-20s attracted statewide press and promised to create a significant number of new jobs while unlocking new opportunities for the company.
Behind the scenes, however, nothing was simple.
Sonmor, who works daily on major state construction projects in a multi-state region and as far as Hawaii, thought her experience and engineering degree would prove an edge in executing a new build. What she hadn't been prepared for were the endless roadblocks and hurdles.
"I didn't feel that there [were] enough resources for a business wanting to expand," Sonmor says. "There was just so much red tape, and it was harder than it needed to be."
It was an often uphill battle belabored by costly delays that put her at times at odds with local government officials. Despite it all, the $3.8 million dollar facility opened in summer of 2017. The new space allowed Sonmor to specialize each facility to a specific purpose (much of the company's structural steel and larger projects, for example, are handled in Fergus Falls; many of the ornamental and finishing projects, meanwhile, are completed in Dalton). Moreover, the extra room allowed Aura to undertake larger projects during the COVID pandemic. It may have been the difference between success and failure during a difficult time locally, nationally, and globally.
"I really don't know that I would have survived through the pandemic if I didn't have this building," Sonmor says.
The Fergus Falls site roughly doubled the company's physical work space, and it also increased the number of jobs to roughly 50 today. Sonmor's project came at a time when the community itself was reevaluating economic development, and it wasn't long before members of the newly-formed Greater Fergus Falls Corporation invited Sonmor to the nascent organization's board of directors. An invitation she hesitantly accepted.
"I didn't feel that I had the time when I committed to being on the board, but I felt that it was such an important thing for me to be involved in to make sure that no other company has to feel the way I did when I expanded," she says. In the years since, Sonmor says she can see the value and impact Greater Fergus Falls has had through the resources and network of experts available to new entrepreneurs and existing businesses.
She highlights programs like the Entrepreneur Initiative, Mastermind mentoring sessions, and the Greater Fergus Falls co-working space, The Foundry. Elsewhere, a number of new business, more flexible zoning ordinances, and major repurposing projects such as the former Target, Hedahl's, and Sun Mart buildings all involved the work of Greater Fergus Falls.
"I can see [by] leaps and bounds the impact Greater Fergus Falls has and the amount of guidance that's out there now," Sonmor says. "It's an investment for me in time, but it's really an investment in my community."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
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