Our Blog > MT Business Roundup

State's tech industry hits $2B mark, Lewis & Clark County receives grant for business growth, student startups compete for cash, Missoula partnership eyes growth in high-wage Montana jobs...


It's official. Spring is here...and in the air! As the massive piles of snow begin to quickly melt away, get caught up with this week's skim of Montana business below.

A high-tech high: State’s tech industry hits $2B mark with room to grow

Montana companies that deal in high technology generated more than $2 billion in revenue last year and continued to grow nine times faster than the state’s overall economy, a new University of Montana study found. Released earlier this month by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER), the study also found that Montana’s high-tech firms now pay more than double the median earnings of other state workers. Boil it down and it’s the third highest-paying industry in the state. “We’re pleased that we hit that $2 billion mark – it’s phenomenal news for Montana,” Christina Quick Henderson told the Missoula Current. “Just a couple years ago, we were excited to surpass $1 billion. It’s surprising that it’s climbing that fast. After five years, it just keeps getting better.” For the fifth year in a row, the survey also found that Montana’s quality of life provided significant advantages to doing business in the state. The quality of the state’s emerging workforce also served as an advantage to growth, respondents said. The full BBER report can be found online here. [Missoula Current]

Montana lawmakers look for workforce shortage solutions in school-based programs, modeled after a program in Conrad, Montana

Lawmakers are moving legislation aiming to remove barriers in the public school system to encourage students to seek professional opportunities while they’re in school and to fill community worker needs. About 10 bills were introduced during the 2019 legislative session with the goal of spreading a unique education model, currently in place in Conrad, Montana, statewide. The structure in place in Conrad allows students to have an open schedule, one they can fill with opportunities outside of the classroom - like the three students Conrad High School has enrolled in John Deere University, an online teaching program used to train John Deere employees. The students are getting elective credits and taking class time to learn skills for a job in their local community. Allen said these students will have high paying jobs right after high school, somewhere between $15 to $20 an hour for starting wage. State Rep. Llew Jones (R-Conrad) took about 25 lawmakers during the interim and showed them the school in Conrad and its system. “We know in the state we have a huge shortage in the workforce. We have a hole, both in meeting our workforce needs and in servicing our students,” Jones said. “We have about 12,000 kids graduate per year. About 7,000 of them go onto a four-year college — and we have good four year programs — but 5,000 are where? We can’t tell you. Schools can’t tell you.” Jones’ bill, House Bill 387, wraps together the legislative push. The bill would help students pay for what Jones calls “advanced opportunities.” That could be helping a student take dual-enrollment credits or pay for welding equipment for an apprenticeship. The proposed law gives discretion to individual school districts on what is considered an advanced opportunity to fill community needs. Jones said these bills don’t discourage students from higher education, but rather open up the opportunities that are right for each student. These bills aren’t just trying to encourage a re-structure of Montana’s educational system, but they’re also attempting to fill a statewide labor shortage. [KPAX]

Big reasons to invest in Kalispell

Development in Kalispell has gained momentum in recent years, as many businesses and organizations anticipate the arrival of a new walking path cutting through downtown, replacing the existing train tracks. Since that ball got rolling, officials said, it has only picked up speed. Earlier this month, at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon, it became clear how many incentives businesses and investors have to put their roots down in Kalispell’s downtown. For starters, Kalispell has five tax-increment financing (TIF) districts spread across several areas: downtown, Old School Station, South Kalispell Airport, Glacier Rail Park, and the city’s west side. Along with the TIF districts, also called Urban Renewal Areas, Kalispell is the temporary home of an Opportunity Zone. Opportunity Zones are relatively new, created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and designate an area in a community for new investments that are eligible for tax incentives. There are 25 such zones across Montana. And, lastly, there are also New Market Tax Credits to consider. The tax credits create 20 percent cash equity in a project. “It’s an opportune time to be investing in Kalispell,” said Kim Morisaki, business development and marketing director at Montana West Economic Development. [Flathead Beacon]

Lewis and Clark County receives grant to help business growth

Lewis and Clark County (where its county seat is Helena, Montana) was one of two counties awarded to split a $1.2 million-dollar grant through the Montana Department of Commerce’s Community Development Block Economic Development Program (CDBG-ED) to assist local businesses and help them retain Montana jobs. $400,000 of the grant money will go towards Hi-Country Snack Foods (hiring), which is Lewis and Clark County's largest employer and has been part of the community since 1976. The grant money will help retain 42 Montana jobs for the long-standing business operation. The program is designed to stimulate economic development by helping the private sector to create or retain Montana jobs in high-needs communities. Stillwater County, along with the City of Hardin, will split the rest of the grant money to help support the Big Horn County Memorial Hospital (hiring) and Montana Silversmiths (hiring). [ABCFox Montana]

Montana Connection industrial park a hub for Butte’s economic future

The Montana Connections Business Development Park in Butte was developed specifically for its premier, strategic location. According to Stephanie Sorini, the head of the Butte Chamber of Commerce, “What we have to offer out at Montana Connections is absolutely amazing. We have a rail out here, we have our interstate, so when we want to see the future of growth, this is the place.” And economic leaders of Butte-Silver Bow County are working overtime to try to market this industrial park to entrepreneurs all over the country. “We work diligently as a group to promote these endeavors. In fact, most of our team is heading to a site selectors guild in Salt Lake City next week. I will be going to a different site selectors forum in June, and we’re always out there actively recruiting new businesses to come out to the park,” said BLDC Director Stephanie Joe Willauer. [KXLF]

Billings, Helena and Great Falls named in "Top 100 Best Places to Live in America" list

According to Livability.com, Billings, Helena and Great Falls have been named a few of the 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live. Billings ranking #24, Helena, #27 and Great Falls #97, each outpacing more than 1,000 cities (with populations between 20,000 and 1,000,000) in this data-driven ranking. “The cities on this year’s list represent the best of the best when it comes to affordability and opportunity,” says Livability.com Editor-in-Chief Winona Dimeo-Ediger. “These 100 cities are not just fantastic places to live in terms of their amenities, education, health care and infrastructure, but they are places where young people can build amazing careers and communities.” The full list of the 2019 Top 100 Best Places to Live is featured on Livability.com, along with each city’s LivScore and information about the qualities and amenities that helped them make the list. [KULR8] [KTVH

Incoming CEO of Montana Chamber of Commerce talks business and building a future

Todd O'Hair was recently named the new CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce after Webb Brown announced his retirement last fall following 20 years at the helm. He will begin his role May 1 as Montana's top business advocate. As CEO of the state chamber, O'Hair will be responsible for all chamber activities and will act as a representative for the interests of chamber members. As he steps into this new role, O'Hair wants to focus on the chamber's "Envision 2026" plan moving forward. The plan, which started in 2016, is a 10-year approach to focus on the challenges that business owners face. The chamber engaged businesses who named workforce development, infrastructure, business climate and entrepreneurship as primary areas of need. [Helena Independent Record]

Student startups compete for cash in the 30th annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge

Recently, College students from across Montana competed in the 30th annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge. Hosted by the University of Montana’s College of Business and backed by the Blackstone Launchpad, students pitched their ideas and plans in front of business experts. Teams competed for $50,000 in awards while also having the opportunity to network with venture capitalists, investment bankers, economic developers, corporate executives, early-stage investors and successful entrepreneurs. The event brought 12 teams from a pool of 25 applicants in front of nearly 60 judges, along with attending spectators and students. The business startups included an enterprising nature network, ecologically conscious jackets and a new method for adding kale to smoothies. Some of the winners from the event included Kubed for the best team led by women; the Ant Network, which took first place, May West, who took second place and won for best elevator pitch and manufactured product; and Sellout, which took fourth place. [Montana Kaimin]

Missoula partnership backs state grants, eyes growth in high-wage Montana jobs

The Missoula Economic Partnership (MEP) is watching the legislative process in Helena and the future of a program that has helped create 435 high-paying jobs in Missoula County over the past five years. If the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, a program managed by the Montana Department Commerce and implemented locally by Missoula County, remains intact, local advocates believe it will continue to pay dividends in the local economy. “It’s been a very impactful program in Missoula,” said Grant Kier, executive director of MEP. “It has allowed the state to invest over $3 million in our local companies in long-term economic growth that’s stable and diverse and helps move our local economy forward.” In Missoula, a number of firms have benefited from the program in recent years, including Orbital Shift (hiring), VIM & VIGR, LumenAd (hiring), Consumer Direct (hiring), the Audience Awards and ClassPass (hiring). However, despite the program’s success, concerns have risen over the past year that the program may be targeted by the Legislature as a potential area to cut. Before the 2019 Legislature got underway, program advocates anticipated defending the program during the session. “I think it’s still under threat, not because it’s not valued, but because some people try to deploy these funds in other uses, which makes it hard to keep the program alive,” said Kier. “There’s more demand than we have resources for, and I think that message is getting through to Helena, and we’re optimistic the program will be strong for the next couple years.” [Missoula Current]

New membership-based medical practice opens in Bozeman

A new medical practice is coming to Bozeman next month. Bozeman Primary Care will use a direct primary care model. The model gives members unlimited office visits and access to providers via text, email and phone. Members can also access primary and preventative care without having insurance as the program is designed for people who have no insurance or a high-deductible plan, said Dr. Terry Edwards. The practice will accept all private insurance as well, he said. Services offered include urgent care visits, basic mental health, wellness exams and routine care, lab work and minor procedures, said Melissa Blixt, nurse practitioner and co-owner of Bozeman Primary Care with Edwards. [Bozeman Daily Chronicle]

Montana high school girls encouraged to learn cybersecurity skills to bridge employment gap

The demand for lucrative cybersecurity jobs is rising rapidly, but experts in the field say they’re having a hard time finding people to fill them. There’s also a severe lack of women in cybersecurity. Data from 2017 shows women make up just 11 percent of the workforce. In Montana, there’s a push to bridge that gap by attracting more women to the field, starting with girls in high school. This is the first year Montana is participating in Girls Go CyberStart. The national initiative is a free educational program to encourage girls to learn critical thinking and problem solving skills, using an online game. It also offers the opportunity for at least ten high school girls in Montana to win scholarships. [KXLH]

Sibanye-Stillwater Mines quietly making an enormous economic boon statewide

It’s no secret that the Sibanye-Stillwater Mines (hiring) in Nye and East Boulder — tucked away in the scenic foothills of the Beartooth Mountain front — are financially important to Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties. But, as it turns out, the company is important to the entire state as well — economically speaking. According to an independent study conducted by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, when factoring in all the direct and related Montana jobs created by Sibanye-Stillwater’s presence, plus tax payments, the mine’s financial impact on the state includes bringing in nearly 6,000 Montana jobs (such as government, retail trade, professional technical services, transportation, hotels and food, healthcare, etc); $500.9 million in personal income; $94.7 million in selected tax revenues; $1,556 million in output; and a population increase of 10,724 people. And the financial impacts identified in the study don’t count the actual economic value of the production of palladium, platinum and other precious metals. The study also does not factor in elements such as cleaner air from reduced emissions of vehicles made possible with catalytic convertors, which are produced with the mine’s product. [Stillwater County News]

Commissioner Hollenbaugh announces $150,000 in apprenticeship grants to assist businesses and educators in creating new apprenticeship programs

Commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Galen Hollenbaugh,  announced this week that the Montana Registered Apprenticeship Program will award more than $150,000 in grants to assist businesses and educators in creating new apprenticeship programs across the state. “We are thrilled to offer these apprenticeship grants to our partners who know creating good Montana jobs and developing an educated and well-trained workforce is critical to maintaining a strong economy in Montana,” Commissioner Hollenbaugh said. “We will continue to pursue innovative ways to ensure businesses remain competitive and workers are prepared for in-demand jobs.” A total of $151,530 will be awarded to employers, industry associations, colleges, or other workforce groups. Existing employer sponsors seeking to add a new occupation to their program will also be eligible. The maximum award is $4,500 and will be awarded on a first come first serve basis until the funds are exhausted. Funds can be used to offset some of the initial program costs incurred by sponsors such as tuition for related instruction or the purchase of new training materials. [Montana Department of Labor and Industry]

Missoula-based WGM Group uses technology, homegrown talent to build Montana’s future

Founded by a pair of former Forest Service employees in 1966, planning and design firm WGM Group’s first project was the lift at Montana Snowbowl, just in time for the 1967 world championship ski races. Today, WGM Group is involved with some of the biggest construction projects in western Montana, including the ongoing Old Sawmill District development and the upcoming Innovation Corridor in Missoula. It saw 50 percent growth last year as the firm brought its total number of employees to 75 and is hiring more. And, WGM continues to expand their offerings and use high-tech tools and a diverse team to tackle unique challenges. President and CEO Brent Campbell said it can be hard for established businesses to adapt to a changing economy, but his passion for economic development and entrepreneurship help keep him sharp and open to new ideas for WGM. Most WGM employees work out of the Missoula headquarters, though the company is expanding its presence across the state. WGM has offices in Bozeman and Kalispell, as well as a remote employee in Helena. And while the firm emphasizes high quality work, it also allows flexibility in the office to ensure employees enjoy a healthy work/life balance. Laferriere said flexible schedules allow employees to pursue personal passions at their own pace; for example, a heavy work week may be balanced by a three-hour lunch visit to the ski slopes, in the shadow of the ski lift that started it all. [Missoula Current]

Montana Ag Network: Technology helping ranchers market cattle

Montana has been called the seedstock capital of the world. Seedstock refers to registered cattle used for breeding. In the spring and fall, seedstock producers host production auction sales, where purebred and commercial ranchers gather to purchase bulls for the upcoming breeding season. Their goals are to enhance their genetic potential and customers’ bottom lines. Klompien Red Angus of Manhattan is owned by Dave and Kay Klompien and their family. Their Red Angus herd has been in their family for more than 45 years, making it one of the oldest established herds in the nation. Recently, they held their annual spring production bull sale. By combining hard work, traditional marketing methods and 21st Century technology, they are helping ranchers improve their herds. To be competitive in today’s marketplace, Klompien Red Angus teams up with Frontier Productions to expand their customer base with online, live bidding and a whole host of other online digital services. “Not everybody can be here to attend the sale,” Klompien said. “In that respect, it’s good that we have the online bidding platform.” The goal of all seed stock sales is to help fellow ranchers succeed in business. [KXLF]

The rise of remote workers, and Montana has the fourth-highest per-capita ratio of remote workers in the country

The 2017 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” revealed that 43 percent of the U.S. labor force worked remotely the prior year, defined as employees who spent at least part of their time working from a different location than their coworkers. The report noted that not only were more people working remotely, they were increasingly doing it either full-time or nearly full-time, with almost one-third of those surveyed spending more than 80 percent of their time working remotely. Christina Quick Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, says Montana follows this trend with the fourth-highest per-capita ratio of remote workers in the country, propelled by a number of economic, technological and social factors: high-speed internet connectivity and technological advancements opening up more opportunities, more workers emphasizing quality of lifestyle and flexibility of schedule, and more employers willing to incorporate remote employees - not to mention a burgeoning tech industry led by a string of successful startups. As Henderson puts it, technology has removed the “geographical constraints” that once created distance between Montana and the global economy. “With technology, we’re empowered to be able to work from anywhere,” she said. [Flathead Beacon]