Good impressions: Laos Chamber visitor finds much to emulate in Kalispell model

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Phouxay Thepphovong of the Laos National Chamber of Commerce and Industry went to the the Flathead County commissioners meeting with Glencore, the Swiss-based parent company of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., on Wednesday. The meeting was included in his busy agenda while visiting the Flathead Valley as part of a U.S. State Department fellowship. In the background is Haley Beaudry, former external affairs manager for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has worked hard to create smooth transitions among the services that promote business and tourism in the Flathead Valley.

And one high-level visitor from Laos has been very impressed with the Chamber’s success in that regard.

 Phouxay Thepphovong, head secretary of the Laos National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spent almost two weeks with Kalispell Chamber President Joe Unterreiner during a five-week U.S. State Department fellowship program, leaving Friday for Helena before making his way to Washington, D.C.

Thepphovong (who asked to be called Xay during his visit) said his first order of business back home will be to stress the importance of the social and professional networks he saw in Kalispell.

Even at social events, such as 7 a.m. Rotary breakfasts and after-work UnWind networking times, Thepphovong saw entrepreneurs pulling together to promote local business and support each other.

“Here the Chamber will suggest you go over there and then over here, which is very important for people who want access to services, mostly free of charge,” Thepphovong said. “In our country, it’s quite hard for companies to get access free of charge.”

Thepphovong met with representatives of the offices at the Kalispell Chamber site — the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau, Flathead Job Service Workforce Center, Business Expansion and Retention, Northwest Montana SCORE, and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

He also met with Montana West Economic Development and Flathead Valley Community College workforce-development representatives.

“We’re very fortunate in Montana that all of the Chambers and other economic and community development organizations work hard to make things seamless for businesses,” Unterreiner said. “We work hard to make sure that everyone is aware of the other services and make good referrals.”

 A visit to Montana makes sense for a Laotian representative, Thepphovong said, because he is looking for ideas for promoting small- to medium-sized businesses. The Laos economy is also very tourist-oriented, with a good percentage of the country’s income related to tourist activities, Thepphovong said, along with mining and electricity production.

Laos is described by the Lonely Planet guide as having “Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, intact cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on Earth.”

The country of 6.5 million borders Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China and is full of natural beauty, with mountains, waterfalls and national parks. It also is rich in cultural heritage sites, with attractions such as 1,000-year-old Buddhist temples.

Thepphovong said Laos is always looking for ways to promote ecotourism and cultural visits, and Montana marketing campaigns, promoting a similar landscape, are full of relevant ideas.  

What his biggest priority will be after visiting Kalispell, Thepphovong said, is to develop communication channels among Laos business communities.

“We always do for ourselves, but here you have very strong cooperation,” he said.

Unterreiner said that he doesn’t believe this is necessarily always the case in American cities.

“We just have some great partners here to work with,” he said. “We’re very fortunate. It doesn’t happen everywhere. We have so many talented people who want to work together.”

Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at


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