Episode 18: Rural maverick Matt Dennis intersects creativity, entrepreneurship, workforce





Matt Dennis understands the reality of the agricultural economy, the need for creative thinking for thriving rural communities and the grit it’s going to take to lead families, farms and businesses into the future. As co-founder of Handlebend Copper Co., Matt creates exquisite copper mugs from his hometown of about 3,700 people and ships them — in authentic wooden crates — worldwide. In this episode, he discusses his ag background and full-time job, the balance of starting a business and raising a family and his take on the stories that need to be shared from rural areas across the country. Dr. Connie, RFI Chief Futurist, is energized by Matt’s call-to-action around female workforce potential, embracing Handlebend’s digital presence and his leadership style that starts with empowering and listening to others.

“We thrive on agriculture, and we’re in a low-margin time, and it is tough, and it’s a little scary. But I think it’s important to tell the story of things like Handlebend, because it let’s people know that there are avenues in these small rural areas outside of agriculture that can be tapped.”
Matt Dennis
Co-Founder, Handlebend Copper Co.; Dennis Commodities

About Matt


Matt Dennis is the fourth-generation of Dennis Commodities based in O’Neill, Neb., population 3,700. He is also the co-founder of Handlebend, a copper mug company shipping mugs worldwide.

Matt graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with a bachelor’s in business administration. He is the husband of Tracey, and the dad of Piper and Trey.


Mentioned In This Episode



Bold Voices Student Segment

 Listen at 11:50 of Episode 18!

Clayton Keller, University of Nebraska Omaha public administration graduate student

When asked to answer the questions of Why Rural? Why Now? during the Bold Voices student segment, Clayton Keller answers, “Because tomorrow is too late.”

Born in the rural Rockies of northern Idaho and raised in the rural countryside of Ohio, Keller says, “Rural has been a part of my life for my whole life.”

“With globalization and its increasing influence on worldwide culture, there is an ever pressing need to keep up,” he says. Partnerships are key to making sure nobody — in rural or urban — gets left behind, according to Keller. This was a crucial lesson he learned through his RFI Serviceship experience in Columbus, Neb.

Learn more about Clayton’s Serviceship experience! »



Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Hello and welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Doctor Connie, and joining me today is one of our rural mavericks from right here in Nebraska, Matt Dennis. He co-founded Handlebend copper mugs, but he also works in our amazing area of agriculture at the Dennis Green Elevator. He returned home to work with his father and is the fourth generation to work at the Elevator, which I think is just an amazing story in itself. He’s married to Tracy with a daughter, Piper, and son, Trey. So you’re doing it all.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, yeah (chuckling) gettin’ after it here in small town Nebraska.

Dr. Connie: So okay Matt, tell us a little bit more about who you are. Who is Matt Dennis?

Matt Dennis: So I graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2008, and took my first position working for a grain merchandising company in Omaha. I worked under one of my mentors for two years before making the decision to come back to the family business in O’Neill [Nebraska]. In the process of working the family business, came across an opportunity with Handlebend that we dove into a couple years ago. And it has had some really good traction and so we have continued kind of shipping copper mugs all over the country and a few across the pond as well.

Dr. Connie: Our listeners are all over the world, so where exactly is O’Neill, Nebraska?

Matt Dennis: O’Neill is 60 miles from the South Dakota border. It’s not quite in the sand hills but it’s on the edge.

Dr. Connie: So tell the audience how you got the idea and what the mugs are made out of.

Matt Dennis: My partner and I in Handlebend got the idea while we were attending the university, living together in Lincoln. He actually ordered a couple copper mugs from Amazon right when Moscow mules and copper mugs started to get trendy, almost about 10 years ago now. And we got them in the mail, opened the box and immediately just put them back in the box and shipped them back. They were just these chinsky little mugs, there wasn’t anything to them. They weren’t fully copper, they were lined with tin. And at that time they were still about 40 bucks a piece. So we shipped them back, Michael the next weekend went back to O’Neill, into his dad’s shop which is this family business is a commercial refrigeration, and grabbed some scrap copper, made the first mug that was extremely ugly but it held liquid. He showed it to me and I was pretty impressed. Then I think the very next weekend we made about seven or eight more to finish off the sets. And we’re pretty proud of these things, and then going forward we just started making them for really close friends and families, for weddings and birthdays and that kind of thing. We started getting some good feedback on “you guys should sell these things”, and then kind of started the idea of what we would do if we did that. And two years ago we hired a local gal here to make us a website, she did an outstanding job for us and threw it out there and people liked it. We’ve had some really good fortune and some really good help from Nebraska and the community in launching this business. It’s increased in sales every month since we started it. Here about eight months ago we hired our first full time employee, and we just keep going.

Dr. Connie: Well I love one of the quotes that we found in researching you and Handlebend a bit. “We couldn’t do this in Brooklyn, the small town support is what helped make this real.” And that was an article in the Omaha World Herald, correct?

Matt Dennis: Yeah, that article ran in the Omaha World by Matthew Hanson. It was a crazy story on that is he came out here, he sat down with Michael and I for a day, we fed him some Moscow mules so he would write good stuff about us (chuckling) and that was kind of the end of it. He didn’t tell us what it was going to be done with it or anything like that. And then about two months later we wake up to about five orders in the morning and then the internet orders just keep pinging in throughout the morning, and I call Michael I’m like “What is going on here?”


Matt Dennis: He’s like I have no idea, and sure enough that article ran in the front page of the Omaha World Herald. And the Nebraskans loved it. So that is really what kick started this. And back to the quote about we couldn’t do this in Brooklyn, I mean we’re hiring local people throughout this whole process to help us out and they’ve bent over backwards to make this thing work and help us out. And the Brooklyn quote comes back to we don’t have as much overhead on this because we’re in rural Nebraska doing it out of a commercial refrigeration shop.

Dr. Connie: Well and I think when people go to your website, and we’ll make sure to link from our show to your website, your mugs are really works of art. They’re the most amazing copper mugs I have ever seen. And it’s so exciting to see that this type of creation and creativity is coming from rural Nebraska, it’s coming from O’Neill. And that you’re hiring people in that local space to make this work. But I know you’ve also talked about the power of the internet to make this happen.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, this thing wouldn’t even have got off the ground without that technology and access to internet and being able to reach people through social media, and the website. Itt just would be impossible if it wasn’t for that. So we’ve shipped mugs to Australia, we’ve shipped mugs to Russia, we got caught off guard a little bit by shipping them to Alaska because it’s free shipping in the U.S. hat was a little expensive


Matt Dennis: And we’ve had several go to Alaska. We still haven’t changed it, so we’re not learning our lesson. But yeah, I mean the reach you can get in a town like O’Neill with access to the internet is incredible and it’s exciting.

Dr. Connie: Yeah I mean to be able to have a global business from where ever you want to live as long as you’re connected, it’s just an incredible time to live and be an entrepreneur.

Matt Dennis: It is, I mean the opportunities are seriously endless. I mean you got two guys in O’Neill, Nebraska making copper mugs for Pete-sakes, it’s crazy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: We know that Handlebend is having great success and growing and you’ve hired your first time employee, give us a little background on your employee.

Matt Dennis: Yeah so Michael and I are both working full time jobs outside of Handlebend, so when we got enough support it was time to hire a person we put out an ad in a few different places and at the time we knew it was very difficult to hire a laborer of that caliber, it’s just not easy to do. So we put out an ad and we had a few bites, the one that stood out was Mo, and Mo is a ranch girl from Brewster, Nebraska. She went to art school at a small arts college in Kansas, and had just graduated, was moving back, wanted to do something other than the ranch. We reached out and it so happened that she had done a good chunk of sculpture work in her degree and already knew how to braze and had a good idea on welding, and she has been awesome.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So Matt in our pre-convo you talked about the fact that you really weren’t considering moving back to O’Neill or moving back to rural Nebraska, what changed your mind?

Matt Dennis: When I left O’Neill for Lincoln, I had no desire to come back. And most of that was I’d been working with my father for, I mean I was sweeping grain bins at age 11, if I wasn’t in football practice or had some crazy excuse not to work, I was at the elevator. So when I saw what he was doing at that age, at 18 years old, I just had in my mind that there was an easier way. I saw the hard work, I saw the long hours, I just had it in my mind that there is an easier way in the city. So I actually went to UNO, I got a bachelor’s in business administration and hardly stepped foot on the ag campus. And then two years in I kinda started to change my mind and my final year I decided that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, this is something I want to do and I want to eventually move back to O’Neill. So I did enter the ag space right away and within two years I got the call from my dad saying he had expanded enough and he wanted me to come back and I basically did right away. So not only was I working side by side with him all day, but I was also living in his basement for six months. So that got interesting when you’re spending that much time with your father.


Matt Dennis: But it was all good. So now I’m going to get even more personal here because one of the things we hear from young people is that they’re nervous about moving to rural communities because they may not find somebody to marry, that they won’t find a significant other. So we’ve half joked we should actually partner with like FarmersOnly.com and help them make matches for people.

Dr. Connie: But you’re married and have two kids, so tell me a little bit about how that happened.

Matt Dennis: I started dating my wife in college. She is from a small town right outside of Norfolk, Hadar, Nebraska, and she went to school in Omaha at UNO. After about seven years of dating I convinced her to move into a tiny little yellow house in O’Neill, she is still here.


Dr. Connie: Well congratulations, that’s exciting. But I just want our young people to know there are possibilities in rural Nebraska and rural places everywhere, not just for jobs but to create a whole life.

Matt Dennis: Absolutely, I work with a ton of producers and a lot of those kids are still coming back and they are making it work. I don’t know if it’s through FarmersOnly, but they are finding gals and guys to move back, so it’s working.

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska, who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hey podcast listeners, it’s Katy, production specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Clayton Keller, a public administration graduate student at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Welcome, Clayton.

Clayton Keller: Thanks, happy to be on the show.

Katy Bagniewski: So how about you start out by telling the listeners a little bit about yourself.

Clayton Keller: I was born in the rural Rockies of North Idaho. When I was 11 moved to the rural countryside of Ohio, so rural has been apart of my life, I guess my whole life. My end goal is to be a city manager. I’m a pretty typical midwestern boy.

Katy Bagniewski: So from your perspective how would you answer the question of why rural, why now?

Clayton Keller: Because tomorrow’s too late. With globalization and its increasing influence on worldwide culture, there is an ever pressing need to keep up. And with that comes a sense of urgency to make sure that no one gets left behind. Rural areas are known for their sense of community, for taking care of one another. So we as a people, as urban and rural dwellers, we need to take care of each other.

Katy Bagniewski: And how do you see urban and rural working together?

Clayton Keller: Partnerships, what those partnerships may look like will vary depending on the part of country you’re in. It has to be suited to your needs.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah I think that partnership is so important, and I’m happy that we’ve been able to partner with you. How would you say that RFI has impacted your college career and future plans?

Clayton Keller: RFI gave me the opportunity to actually apply the things that I’m learning in school. I got to be with the Columbus Area Future Fund and the Chamber of Commerce there. Those two organizations taught me that it’s possible to rally an entire city or community around a single identity. All too often we think it’s too difficult to bring people together and to try to make things happen, and I mean yeah it’s going to be hard, but that doesn’t make it impossible.

Katy Bagniewski:And what advice would you give to students who are in your shoes?

Clayton Keller: Jump right in. It’s a little scary (laughing) but just jump right in to new experiences, nothing helps you grow more than doing just that.

Katy Bagniewski: Thank you so much Clayton for being our bold voice this week and demonstrating how our generation of future leaders in both urban and rural can work together and think about how we can maximize our own impacts and create a better future for all.

Clayton Keller: Thanks for having me.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about how you see the future shaping in rural places like O’Neill, Nebraska.

Matt Dennis: With the ag economy, and I mean this entire county in rural Nebraska, we thrive on agriculture. So we are in a low margin time and it’s tough, and it’s a little scary. But I think it’s important to tell the story of things like Handlebend because it lets people know that there’s avenues in these small rural areas outside of agriculture that can be tapped. But we still have to be creative on the ag side to continue to make this work and bring people back to these areas, so that we can thrive.

Dr. Connie: I know in our pre-convo you talked a lot about a need for more people to work, like the labor force. Would you share a little bit of your thought around that, what you’re seeing in your community and some of the potential solutions that you’re actually implementing in your businesses?

Matt Dennis: The labor situation in this rural area is extremely tough. For example, if I wanted to start a business today I would have a hard time starting a business that would involve hiring hard labor, anyone to run equipment, maintain equipment, that kind of thing. And that goes hand in hand with agriculture, it’s almost impossible. It is very, very hard to get long laborer in rural areas. So what I’ve talked about with previous people in the past and what I’ve been working on for the last few months is to really try to tap into the female workforce in these rural areas. I just think there is tremendous potential of the women in the area that are looking for work, but they need it to be flexible because a lot of the women in the area are running the family, and with that you need flexibility. And I think it’s possible, but it’s going to come down to kind of thinking outside of the box and creating positions that can be flexible and part time, and that are family friendly to really tap into the women labor force. A lot of these women are moving back here, following guys that are following the agriculture path and they have bachelor’s and master’s and doctorate and it’s just not getting tapped into. So there’s just so much talent that we should be using when we’re facing a situation of short labor.

Dr. Connie: We’re like kindred spirits in this area, this is something I’ve talked a lot about. I’ve written a lot about it over the years because I think in so many ways we keep trying those old models of graduate from high school, go to college, hopefully with healthcare being a shortage area in rural, let’s get some young minds into that and then we hope that they move back to rural area. There’s so many people already there and like you’ve said, there’s people that have gotten married and moved there. We aren’t really tapping into the talent that already exists and really developing the people that are living there, the people who have chosen to make their lives there, stayed there, or even recently moved back because it’s really exciting to see a lot of young couples, young leaders and entrepreneurs like yourself who have chosen to move into a rural location.

Matt Dennis: Well I think it’s tap-able, like I said before it’s going to take some creative thinking and not doing the normal thing.

Dr. Connie: I would hope that even we as a university, the college systems, education in general really starts thinking very long and hard about this and creating some solutions rather quickly that can serve these rural populations in better and bolder ways. With online and distance learning now there’s no reason people have to when they’re working adults or even a stay home mom or dad, whatever the case may be, that wants a new career, even somebody who’s close to retirement or in sort of the end of what we would typically think of a career, there’s still potential there we could tap into. I think as educational systems to help people get the capacity they need, but I think also you’re absolutely spot on, it’s going to take the workplace to re-envision what careers mean, what the workplace means, and how can we add in that flexibility, but also good pay, high level pay so that people can actually afford to work.

Matt Dennis:  And I think the challenge is going to be to mold that so that you can offer that excellent pay, but still be a value to these companies that are fighting these tight margins.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Tell our audience about who you are, your leadership philosophy, and how you approach all of this.

Matt Dennis: I would just say as cliche as it is, it’s just about leading by example. It’s just about gettin’ after it, empowering people. And if you’re empowering people and you’re listening to them at the same time, incredible things can happen as far as teammates buying in and gettin’ after a single goal. I don’t think that is cliche. I think the great thing is you are actually walking the talk. So often I think we have a lot of people talking about leadership, but they aren’t really doing it in a way that works for them, their families and the others that they’re working with.

(music transition)

Dr Connie: Okay Matt, now you’re a fun guy. I’ve been on your website, I’ve checked out Handlebend, your story’s amazing. So I want to know how do you keep that creativity fresh, what do you do for fun?

Matt Dennis: Oh what do I do for fun, I chase my kids around quite a bit. We have just recently bought a tiny little camper six months ago.

Dr. Connie: Nice.


Matt Dennis: We’ve used it this year, this summer and fall.


Matt Dennis: So yeah, and as far as the creativity part I’ve seen this time and time again that if you allow yourself to get comfortable, the creativity really comes to a halt. So it’s important to do these podcasts that I don’t do very often, jump out of the comfort zone, keep those creative juices flowing.

Dr. Connie: Well we’re glad you decided to take this chance, I was just amazed at watching this company and trying to figure out more about you. So I loved diving into the stories and learning more about the amazing people we have living in our rural communities, and especially our maverick entrepreneurs. I mean selling high end copper mugs that are works of art out of O’Neill, Nebraska, more people just need to know that story and know that that’s available. So as they think about we have the holiday season coming up, other types of things, let’s support our entrepreneurs by buying those amazing gifts and getting that talent out into the world and letting them know it’s right here from Nebraska.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, the Nebraska people have embraced this hugely. I mean we’ve had so much support from inside the borders of Nebraska, it’s absolutely crazy and it’s awesome and it makes this really fun. What we are trying to do with Handlebend is sell an experience, create a cool experience that people can get behind in a sense of community and just put out solid content and solid products, and do it that way.

Dr. Connie: Here at the Rural Futures Institute and at the University, we’re always eager to think of new ideas and to get creative ourselves, but we also have a lot of outside entities coming to us and saying hey, we know there’s a lot of potential on the rural sector but they aren’t quite sure how to engage in our rural communities or with our rural leaders. So what advice would you give to groups whether it’s Rural Futures Institute or even groups from Japan that are trying to enhance their rural sectors, what advice would you give to them?

Matt Dennis: I would just say that we worked with a lot of urban companies through this process, and there is a slight disconnect between– and this is not going to be for every company– but these smaller small town companies and urban companies it seems like the pace is a little bit different, how we go about doing things is a little bit different, but it’s always a good conversation to learn from different angles and learn from those faster paced urban companies. But as far as tapping into the rural communities, tell stories like Handlebend and how you can do this, and there’s hundreds more. For instance, Matthew Hanson and Sarah Hanson put out a book this year, it’s called “The Better Half” and it’s completely filled of small town stories of people gettin’ after it and making it happen. It’s an awesome book.

Dr. Connie: I always get these emails well Connie, what do you think we should do with this economic development, and all these different sort of acts or investments that our state wants to make. But I think for too long the world of entrepreneurship and economic development have just discounted our small businesses, they’re waiting for that next unicorn to come along. And how many jobs can we create really quickly rather than saying you know what, let’s support the growth of our businesses that we know people are staying here. We know Matt’s making his life in O’Neill, Nebraska. How do we support Handlebend even more than whatever growth path it’s wanting to take? Not just the ones that we see that might be important that are going to have the metrics we want to count, but the small businesses that employ people. And it might not be full time, it might be part time, it might be a 1099 employee, but this is really the way the world is evolving. And I think our rural areas can really be a leader in this space given the appropriate policies and really recognition that they’ve earned and deserve.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, that’s spot on, that’s spot on. I don’t even have anything to add to that. That is basically what we need to do, yeah.

Dr. Connie: Well hey good, I’m glad to have consensus from a leader like you on that because that drives me mad, so I have to tell you I’ve been at more meetings where, I used to help facilitate an entrepreneurship club in Nebraska City, in southeast Nebraska and it was always funny to me how I’d go to meetings and they’re using the term “mom and pop store” like it was a bad thing, and I’m like no way. These are the bread and butter, the backbone of our economy and it’s time for us to recognize that and the amazing people doing incredible work, but also that exponential impact those businesses have that just goes unrecognized.

Matt Dennis: It’s part of the reason why Handlebend has been successful as it’s been. If we had done this in Omaha I don’t think it would have the same feel and the same storyline as it does in rural Nebraska. I benefit that to part of the success, is this whole story behind it being the child of a rural community, and that whole story that we can sell with the experience. I had mentioned the story to you in our pre-convo about working with a decent sized marketing firm in Atlanta, we got going and we were pretty excited and they kinda told us what they were going to do and we hadn’t been doing any of that stuff so we were excited to see how it worked. But we got a month in and it was almost like they were throwing the same concepts at these mugs as they would the chinksy ones we bought 10 years ago from Amazon. And Michael and I are sittin’ here in O’Neill, Nebraska like what are these guys doing? And we had a conversation about a month in and we were kind of handcuffing them, we were slowing them up, they wanted to go this extremely fast paced get in front of as many people as possible, and Michael and I are kinda pumping the brakes, let’s slow that down, let’s just put out really good content. And almost like if you build it, they will come type.And these guys weren’t digging it. So we had a conversation with them and they straight up asked us, they’re like “Do you guys want to sell mugs or do you want to create content and tell stories?” And Michael and I look at each other and we both answer at the same time and say we want to tell stories, and it was crickets on the other side of the line. Like these guys didn’t know what to say at that point. So it’s just a little bit of a different concept, we still need to sell mugs but we also want to do it the right way and create an experience.

Dr. Connie: Well I think that comes through so loud and clear through your website (handlebend.com) but even through that Omaha article. I have to read just one more quote, “I feel like our generation is kind of, in a weird way, going back to our grandparents, our great grandparents, buying our food at farmers markets, local beer, locally made soap, and we are making these mugs for you, especially for you. We hope that when you open that wood crate with a crowbar and you have one of our mugs, you love them. Then you become our best salesman.”

Matt Dennis: Absolutely, and we’ve seen that first hand. You know, mugs are selling mugs, so you bet.

Dr. Conine: So you’re not just getting a box and opening it and there it is, you’re really from the beginning to the end creating that experience for the customer through who you are, your website, through that purpose of why you exist but also for them on the other end. So every time they take a sip out of that mug, they’re really relating it back to the experience you created. And we so appreciate you doing this creative work, but also getting our rural areas especially in states like Nebraska, on the map even more to demonstrate to the world the innovation and creativity that’s really happening in our small places.

Matt Dennis: Yeah, our goal with Handlebend in the community is we’re currently trying to purchase a 1940’s building downtown that we can renovate and partially be building these mugs out of. And then just create an entire sense of community around this building. So that’s one of our goals and what we want to do with the success that it’s brought, and really try to help this local community. I will have to say Dr.Connie, you mentioned opening the crate and we sent a set of mugs to New York City here a few months ago. We got an email back and this guy could not figure out how to open the crate. So that experience wasn’t so good, but we got him through it, he got into his mugs and loved them so, he couldn’t quite get into the product.


Dr. Connie: You know what, that’s still an experience, I just absolutely love that because in my own mind when I think about this I’m envisioning my husband opening his crate of mugs and he’s going to love that because he’s opened crates with crowbars, but in this light it’ll be a very positive one.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So thank you for your time and all this insight today, but I’d like to leave our audience with words of wisdom from you, Matt. What would you share with your parting thoughts?

Matt Dennis: Words of wisdom from me would be just get up, get after it, use your time wisely, and be kind doing it. And then the second thing I would say is in that hustle take some time to really connect with people along the way, it will be worth it.

Dr. Connie: That’s brilliant, and thank you so much for being on the Rural Futures podcast.