Tech Executives Network Over Coffee and Eggs

By Beacon Staff

The executives who gathered one morning last week at CenturyTel’s offices, as part of Kalispell’s Technology Roundtable conference series, came for the egg burritos but stayed for the networking opportunities. Those in attendance comprised representatives of the Flathead’s top technology, telecom and Web development firms.

Executives for large, well-known businesses like Plum Creek and Montanasky.net showed up, and were joined by companies that are smaller and younger, but every bit as dynamic, like Nomad Technologies, The ZaneRay Group, Avail Media and Torrent Technologies, Inc. The faculty of Flathead Valley Community College’s Web and information technology department also attended – the better to stay informed about what skills and training these tech businesses need in new employees, and to gain a sense of where these industries are headed.

While diverse in its composition, the Technology Roundtable’s goal is to foster connections between businesses that share a common location in the Flathead, but might not otherwise interact, according to Kellie Danielson, director of community and economic development for the city of Kalispell. She formed the group in February of this year, and it meets on a roughly bi-monthly basis. Last week’s meeting was its sixth.

The companies participating in the Roundtable share challenges common to technology firms located far from urban centers, like hiring skilled staff, staying abreast of industry trends and, at present, reacting to a rapidly changing economy. Bringing these executives into the same room to discuss such common issues allows for greater awareness of shared problems, and hopefully increases the likelihood of creative solutions.

The Roundtable meets at a different member’s business each time, and since CenturyTel was hosting, Jeremy Ferkin, general manager of the Kalispell office led the discussion. He opened with a quote from legendary CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch: “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Those words had particular resonance for Ferkin, he said, because unlike a startup company, CenturyTel has been focused on evolving from a basic phone company providing landline telephone service, to one offering a range of services, from broadband internet to video for home and businesses. Those changes have required a serious investment in updating training and certifications for technicians, Ferkin said, as well as a commitment to building reliable, redundant data networks through Western Montana’s rugged terrain. Because some of the businesses represented in the room were CenturyTel customers, the talk provided an explanation of what they’re paying for.

Responding to a question about hiring, Ferkin said recruiting skilled staff remains his “No. 1 problem,” and he estimates the last 15 technicians he hired came from outside the area. Others in the room nodded in agreement.

“If our employees hadn’t changed, we wouldn’t have the employees that we do today,” Ferkin said. “One problem is we find a lot of people that are our generation, that are still really stuck in their ways.”

The discussion then turned to the economy, with some executives noting that they are witnessing a segment of their customer base dropping off, while Ferkin said telecommunications firms are among those industries that remain resilient in economic downturns. Internet and TV services are not usually the first things customers tightening their budgets cut down on.

Danielson took advantage of the meeting to make several announcements, like a manufacturing firm considering moving to the Flathead could be in need of Web services, and the availability of grant assistance for businesses looking to upgrade their facilities.

After the meeting, Reed Gregerson, president of The ZaneRay Group, praised the talk by Ferkin, and the previous Roundtable discussion at Nomad Technologies led by its president and CEO, Will Schmautz.

“He’s solving problems we all share,” Gregerson said, whose clients include Patagonia and Competitive Cyclist. “We all struggle with hiring.”

Gregerson also derived some affirmation in that the approach many of the other executives had for weathering the economic downturn mirrored his own: focus heavily on improving customer service.

“I’ve been saying that for at least a year,” Gregerson said. “When you need to talk to someone, pick up the phone, because every other tech company is sending e-mail back and forth.”

As the participants filed out, an FVCC Web design instructor made plans to contact Gregerson to visit his firm and learn more about his business, then bring that knowledge back to her students: another Technology Roundtable, another connection made. The hash browns and coffee didn’t hurt either.