KALISPELL – One day after edging boards at the recently reopened Plum Creek Timber Co. stud mill in Evergreen, working alongside millworkers in a Montana industry that flagged with the housing collapse and is now rebounding, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus plied members of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce with a question – how can the state build on that momentum?
At Thursday’s listening session at the chamber, Baucus said Montana was “on the cusp” of economic well-being, and asked for input from the Flathead Valley’s business leaders on how to further stimulate the state’s economy.
Baucus, who recently announced he will retire at the end of his term, also encouraged members of the business community to attend his Montana Economic Development Summit in Butte on Sept. 16 and 17, and announced two widely known entrepreneurial heavyweights with backgrounds in cutting-edge technology who will headline the event.
The headliners are Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who was listed among Time magazine’s “The World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2012,” and Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal who has been referred to by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful people in the world. At 41, Musk’s credentials include co-founding PayPal and Tesla Motors, and founding SpaceX, a space transport company. In March, Forbes estimated his net worth at $2.7 billion.
“Having one of the most visionary entrepreneurs of our time in Montana will continue to help put our state on the map as a growing hub for technology, innovation and manufacturing,” Baucus said. “It’s my job to get the right investors in the door, and from there Montana businesses blow them away with all the exciting things they are doing across the state.”
On Wednesday, Baucus spent the day at the Evergreen mill, which reopened on March 27 after being shuttered in 2009 because of a national collapse in housing starts. The visit was one of Baucus’ signature “working days,” his 94th, which allows the senior Democratic senator to lend a hand at a Montana business. He said the stud mill was significant because its reopening signaled a recovering market in one of Montana’s staple industries.
Joe Unterreiner, president and CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said the Flathead’s business community has been buoyed by recent success stories, including a rebounding housing market, the reopening of the Plum Creek stud mill and an additional shift of workers at its medium-density fiberboard mill in Columbia Falls.
“He sees that we are on the cusp of something great and there is an opportunity to take it to the next level,” Unterreiner said. “I think the conference could be a good opportunity to connect with people who are already doing business with the state, to leverage our current success and do more.”
Glacier Bank President Bob Nystuen proposed forming a small-business development panel so that entrepreneurs could share their own success stories, as well as describe the challenges they faced in mounting enough credit and capital to get started.
On May 16, the University of Montana is hosting its 24th annual John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition, and Nystuen proposed granting capital to those young entrepreneurs with the best ideas.
“A lot of time, these folks with great ideas don’t have the capital and logistics. But maybe there is somebody with a great idea,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear some top business plans and help them with access to capital?”
The most recent Montana Economic Development Summit in 2010 attracted more than 150 businesses and 2,500 participants. It featured nearly 40 panels and breakout sessions with entrepreneurs from around the state, business leaders from around the country and ambassadors from around the world.
Past headliners have included Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and panelists like the U.S. energy secretary and ambassadors.