Bringing Technology to the Flathead, One Entrepreneur at a Time

By Beacon Staff

There’s technology rising up in these woods. With the global connection powers of the Internet, entrepreneurs such as Web development gurus are discovering that close proximity to a metropolitan center is no longer a prerequisite to run their businesses. They can set up shop in paradise without missing a beat.

It helps that the Flathead Valley has a quality infrastructure system, including a DSL circuit that is both extensive and modern. This serves as a welcoming sign for techies who are considering the Montana lifestyle. Lyle Phillips, president and chief executive officer for Montana West Economic Development, describes it this way: “For being in the sticks, we really do have good access to those needed utilities.”

Montana West Economic Development, located in downtown Kalispell, recruits out-of-town companies to the Flathead Valley, generally focusing on progressive industries and high-paying jobs. Much of the organization’s emphasis is on technology, Phillips said. Tech companies often bring in skilled people who stimulate significant dollars for the local economy.

One of his organization’s biggest recruiting tools, Phillips said, is the appeal of the Flathead lifestyle. Tech companies such as Avail Media in Kalispell and the Zane Ray Group in Whitefish can run their businesses surrounded by Flathead’s beauty, as opposed to towering skyscrapers. The owners and chief operators of such companies often say they’re here because they want to be here – they get to live in the Flathead Valley.

As the region’s manufacturing base continues to wane, local economic development leaders are increasingly turning their attention to technology. Though he couldn’t discuss the details, Phillips said his organization is on the verge of bringing a tech company to the valley that will provide up to 30 jobs, some with salaries in the “six figures.”

“One of our tactics is that we know CEOs and owners and principals come here to recreate or have second homes here,” Phillips said, “and what we’re saying is that if your business was here you would already be home. We do capitalize on that.”

Keith Brown knows what Phillips is talking about. An avid outdoorsman, Brown moved his family and business to the Flathead after years in the tech industry in cities such as Seattle. His resume includes helping to start Orbit Travel, which laid the groundwork for Orbitz, and serving as vice president of information technology for Starbuck’s.

He was most recently CEO of Merlin Information Services, a database that helps people find people. Law enforcement agencies are major clients. Merlin serves over 5,000 customers, both in and out of the valley, and currently has more than 50 employees.

Brown said the valley lacks a high-density population of skilled members of the technology community, but he believes in the adage: If you build it, they will come. If a technology company starts up in the valley, Brown said, it usually is able to bring in the expertise it desires. With good wages, the valley isn’t a tough sell.

“Let’s put it this way: I’ve never had any problem recruiting technology people here,” Brown said.

Ever the innovative thinker, Brown has conjured up an idea that he believes will help draw attention to Montana as a destination to settle down and make a living, not just vacation or retire. Beginning on July 2, In Country Television will air an outdoors show hosted and produced by Brown called “Montana: My Backyard.”

On its surface, the show is a fun opportunity for Brown to do what he loves – fish, hunt and explore the countryside – for an audience. But he also envisions the series serving a more business-minded purpose. Part of his focus is to appeal to out-of-state professionals who can watch his adventures and get enticed to live a similar lifestyle. It’s possible, he believes the show will help prove, to be both an entrepreneur and a full-time Montanan enjoying the offerings of Big Sky country.

There are shows that have similar conceptual foundations, but Brown isn’t aware of any that have such a singularly minded emphasis on a specific region. In Country Television is channel 230 on DISH Network and www.ictvnow.com on the Web.

“I don’t see anybody out there focused specifically on a state,” Brown said.

Several of the valley’s largest employers are in the technology field, including Semitool and the outsourcing company TeleTech. Before TeleTech arrived in the valley, a major technology employer called Stream International occupied the same space. Phillips said Montana West Economic Development was instrumental in bringing Stream to Kalispell.

Centurytel, which is largely responsible for setting up the region’s modern DSL infrastructure, is also a significant employer. Then there are other smaller technology companies that don’t offer a high number of jobs but do offer a handful of high-paying, quality positions.

The list is continually growing, with the likes of SnowDog Development and the Zane Ray Group in Whitefish and a few major companies in Kalispell, such as Avail Media, Nomad Technologies, Cradlepoint and Torrent Technologies. Local Internet providers such as Mountain Max and MontanaSky.net have found their niche alongside Centurytel and Bresnan. There is also a well-received technology roundtable series hosted every other month by the city of Kalispell.

Echoing the sentiments of Brown and Phillips, Mike Kazmier of Avail Media said he doesn’t generally have trouble recruiting skilled employees, though he said in previous years the housing boom raised the cost of living here enough to create a slight deterrent.

Also, there is a double-edged sword with recruiting technology experts to the valley. On one hand, there isn’t usually another tech company in town doing the same exact business as another one, so employers don’t have to worry about employees bolting to the competitor across the street. But on the other hand, Kazmier said, potential employees occasionally feel they’re taking a risk by joining an upstart company when there aren’t any backup options available within the region.

But for Kazmier, Avail’s chief technology officer, these are details he no longer has to worry about. His company is established and growing. And recently, through a merger, Avail became what he believes is the largest independent television content distributor in the world. Avail’s headquarters are in Reston, Va., and the engineering branch is in Kalispell.

“I really put my foot down on the fact that Kalispell is a great place to be it’s easy to recruit people here – they’re not easily distracted (by competition) and they like it here,” Kazmier said.

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