The Roots of Philanthropy

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Mike Goguen has good instincts. When he and his Silicon Valley venture capital partners were approached by two techies working on the beginnings of an idea for something called “Google,” their instincts told them to invest. Thanks in part to their startup backing, Google was born. The same went for Yahoo! before then and YouTube later. Sequoia Capital, the venture capital firm where Goguen is a managing partner, has helped give birth to companies that today represent more than 20 percent of the value of the entire NASDAQ stock market, including Apple.

Goguen, who has a home on Whitefish Lake, employs those same instincts when confronted with a promising idea or a pressing need in the Flathead. He makes an assessment and then makes a call. After hearing that law enforcement and search crews could use a quality helicopter, he upped the ante, forked out $10 million and bought two state-of-the-art helicopters. And when he started looking into a grassroots movement to protect thousands of acres outside of Whitefish and build a recreation trail, he devised a plan to help.

To date, he has spent well over $10 million in personal funds on an expansive state trust land plan that has spawned the popular Whitefish Trail. Millions and millions more of his dollars have poured into an assortment of local philanthropic causes and community investments, particularly in Whitefish. His generosity has earned praise down the line from the governor to the sheriff to the mayor and throughout the valley.

If someone starts connecting the dots and doing the math, the scope of his charity is startling – and evidence of how much can get done when a man of means decides to invest in his community. Casey’s Bar and PROOF Research exist because of him. The Wave, North Valley Music School and Dave Olseth Skateboard Park have all received his funds. So have the Whitefish Review, Whitefish Mountain Resort and Alpine Theatre Project. The list is long and constantly growing.

So the inevitable question arises: Why? When your resume includes helping get Google, Yahoo! and YouTube off the ground, why worry about a trail in Whitefish? His answer seems almost too obvious, or maybe just poignantly direct: He wants to make his community a better place and he has the means to do it, through a “combination of community-based philanthropy and community-based investing.”

“I love this place for the same reasons that everybody else does,” Goguen told the Beacon recently in a rare interview. “I find it incredibly satisfying and rewarding when I do something that helps people in a significant way or solves a tough problem.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer says Goguen has broken the mold for wealthy transplants. While it’s not uncommon for transplants to purchase a second home in Montana and then seek to implement their own ideas in the community, Schweitzer said “Mike Goguen came to Whitefish and he put his money where his mouth is.” And he did so, the governor said, by bringing people together, as opposed to dividing them by politics or social circles.

Schweitzer noted that supporters of the Whitefish Trail and those involved in the project “run the gamut politically from the far right to the far left.” He described the trail, and the rest of the land-use plan outside of Whitefish, as impressive and unprecedented.

“Mike is actually one of those people who not only came with ideas, but he listened and he modified his ideas so they worked for everybody,” Schweitzer said in an interview last week. “Then he did the thing that’s rare: He reached into his pocket and he wrote checks to have this vision come true.”

“He’s a great asset for the Whitefish community,” the governor added. “I’m proud that I know him as a friend and I’m proud that I know him as a neighbor.”

Long before Goguen entered the high-octane, 24/7 world of Silicon Valley investing, he was captivated by a far more serene setting: the pastoral mountains of Maine. Growing up outside of Boston, he would accompany his father, an avid outdoorsman, on hunting trips to Maine near the border of Canada. He grew to love the outdoors but was then forced to abandon them to pursue his educational and professional interests.

Goguen attended Cornell University, where he received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and then traveled west to Stanford to get his master’s in electrical engineering. He then embarked on his Silicon Valley career, more than 3,000 miles away from Maine’s mountains. Yet the urge to reconnect with the mountains never left him, leading to his search for a rural getaway second home. That search brought him to Whitefish over a decade ago. He has been with Sequoia Capital since 1996.

“I started really missing that part of my life,” Goguen said of the outdoors.

These days, the 48-year-old venture capitalist tries to spend nearly every weekend and holiday at his Whitefish Lake home – or basically whenever the unrelenting nature of his job allows a break. His outdoor interests are many, including hunting, hiking, backcountry exploration, shooting sports and skiing. He has invested more than $8 million in Whitefish Mountain Resort since 2001.

“I view coming up here as a relief valve,” he said. “It’s a wonderful counterbalance to my day job.”

Venture capitalist Michael Goguen talks about investing in Whitefish while at Montana Coffee Traders on Central Avenue. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Goguen is known best in Whitefish for his contributions to the Whitefish School Trust Lands Neighborhood Plan, of which the Whitefish Trail is an integral part. To get the trail project moving forward, he donated $3 million in 2008. Since then, he has contributed millions more to permanently protect watersheds, scenic views and wildlife habitat from development while ensuring the public has recreational access in perpetuity. Twenty-two of an anticipated 55 trail miles have been completed. Many of his own acres have been involved in land transactions with the state to make the project possible.

Schweitzer said the state Land Board often sees similarly ambitious community plans, but they fizzle out from a lack of resources or organization or both. But the plan put forth by supporters of the Whitefish plan was different, Schweitzer said, and it bore the fingerprints of a successful businessman like Goguen.

“It was a hell of a business plan and he’s one hell of a businessman,” Schweitzer said. “The plan that came to (the Land Board) was spectacular. It’s the first time a community has come to us and said we will pay you to have recreation in perpetuity.”

Lin Akey, branch president of Glacier Bank in Whitefish and chairman of the Whitefish Legacy Partners board, said “there’s a cast of thousands who have made this project work but the catalyst is Mike Goguen.” Whitefish Legacy Partners is the nonprofit overseeing the plan’s implementation.

“I don’t know what more can be said: He’s a great and gracious guy,” Akey said. “I’m impressed that a gentleman who’s been so successful in his professional career would find it in his heart to do this for the community. He’s a very modest and quiet man. He’s humble and soft-spoken.”

“My observation in my interactions with Mr. Goguen,” Akey added, “is that his motivations are quite pure. His passion for the community runs quite deep. And he has the ability to make things happen that most of us can only dream of. What a neat thing in a small town.”

When Goguen first started looking into school trust lands, having come from a business background, he said he could see both sides’ perspectives: the conservationists’ desire to protect the land but also the state’s need to make money off the land for schools. Echoing Schweitzer, Goguen says the neighborhood plan has proven to be a “win-win” situation in which schools get millions of dollars and the community gets a valuable asset forever. He has also contributed to the Nature Conservancy’s North Fork NOW! campaign to protect the transboundary Flathead.

“The conservation and the trail have been some of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” he said. “Montana might be the ‘Last Best Place,’ but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better and better.”

In the past couple of years, Goguen has branched out considerably in his community investments. He was the sole investor in Casey’s Bar and Grill, a huge undertaking that reconstructed a prime corner of real estate in downtown Whitefish. He also purchased the coveted empty property kitty corner from Casey’s and is exploring development options, including a hotel. And he contributed to PROOF Research, a firearms manufacturer that moved earlier this year into a new high-tech facility – funded by Goguen – on U.S. Highway 2 outside of Columbia Falls.

One of his newest philanthropic efforts is the purchase of two state-of-the-art helicopters for law enforcement and search and rescue. That effort grew out of conversations he had with Jordan White, the former Flathead County undersheriff who started the nonprofit Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources (FEAR) last year. White told him about the need for a helicopter to aid search and rescue efforts in the region. Goguen told him he’d take care of it.

The Bell 407 has already been used in search and rescue missions, while the even more advanced Bell 429 is being completed and is expected to arrive in the valley in the spring. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said the Bell 429, including its voice-activated technology, is a world-class aircraft of the likes probably never seen in Montana before, and certainly never in Flathead County. And the 407 is an impressive ship in its own right.

The price tag of the two helicopters is more than Curry’s entire annual budget, and he says the initial expense is only a fraction of the overall cost: “the expensive part is upkeep and staff,” the sheriff said. Goguen has committed to pay for everything, including maintenance and staffing the highly trained pilots.

“This is being provided at zero cost to the taxpayers,” Curry said. “That’s a huge distinction.”

Curry says the helicopters allow the county to provide superior – and safer – law enforcement and search and rescue services. They won’t be used as an air ambulance, as he said those services are already well covered by the very capable ALERT out of Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

“Philanthropy like this – in my 30 years in the business – I haven’t ever seen,” Curry said. “He recognized the need that existed here. I’m personally just amazed at the generosity. Certainly Mr. Goguen has a big interest in our valley and the services we’re able to provide here.”

The fact that the Bell 407 has already been used in rescue missions proves to Goguen that his money has been well spent. He figures you can’t put a price tag on a life saved.

“I thought if in the first two years if we actually saved someone’s life who wouldn’t have otherwise been saved, the whole thing would be worth it,” he said.

By nature and by profession, Goguen is always scouting for potential – the potential of “scribbles on a whiteboard” to become a tech giant or the potential of a grassroots effort to become an unprecedented land-use project. So when he says he is feeling “bullish” about the Flathead’s economic future and potential to become a destination for tech firms, his words carry particular weight.

Goguen says he could envision any number of tech executives drawn to the region’s quality of life, no longer burdened by geography in a modernized world where entrepreneurs can set up shop almost anywhere. In fact, to a degree, it’s already happening in the valley.

“I have very high hopes for an area like this,” he said, and offered an example: “I don’t know why you couldn’t grow a software company here.”

Goguen is encouraging Whitefish school officials to prioritize technology at the new high school, which he says “could lead to high-paying jobs but allows them to stick around here.” When he starts talking about schools and local job creation, he sounds like somebody who’s in it for the long haul – like somebody whose days of community investing are far from over.

“My passion for Montana is only increasing,” he said.

As Schweitzer noted, a man of Goguen’s means “could live anywhere in the world and recreate anywhere in the world,” not to mention spend his money anywhere in the world, “but he has acquired a particular affinity for Whitefish.” Schweitzer counts himself as one of the many fortunate beneficiaries.

“The beneficiaries are not just the current residents, but the generations to come,” the governor said. “It’s pretty spectacular.”