Entrepreneur sees Flathead’s business potential

'It can happen here'

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Greg Gianforte talks with students on Tuesday afternoon at Sykes’ in Kalispell. Gianforte also met with local business leaders and talked about his plan to create better-paying jobs in Montana.

When serial software entrepreneur Greg Gianforte started RightNow Technologies in Bozeman 17 years ago, the naysayers told him all the reasons he’d never make a go of it.

There was no venture capital. There wasn’t enough bandwidth for his company or enough employees with the needed tech savvy. Airline connections weren’t good enough.

He succeeded in spite of those obstacles, achieving success that three years later is still a marvel among those in economic development circles. Gianforte, 52, sold RightNow Technologies to Oracle Corp., one of the world’s largest software companies, in 2011 for $1.8 billion.

Then the question was — what’s next?

“I wasn’t exactly ready to hang up my tools,” he said during an interview Tuesday with the Daily Inter Lake. “So I’m a cheerleader, an encourager. I’m helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses.”

He and his wife, Susan, were in Kalispell this week in that cheerleader capacity, meeting with business leaders and students and giving a public speech about his plan for creating better-paying jobs in Montana.

Gianforte was impressed by the growing companies he sees in the Flathead Valley. After an onsite visit at ViZn Energy Systems (formerly Zinc Air), a company providing energy storage systems, he was impressed.

“They’re sitting on a massive opportunity,” Gianforte observed.

The same goes for Proof Research, a business taking a high-tech approach to firearms manufacturing.

Building on the success that’s already occurring in the Flathead is key to growing the local economy, he said, because the days of bringing in a “silver bullet” to create a massive number of jobs generally are a thing of the past.

“If you have the Montana work ethic, plus a good idea, no one can stop you,” Gianforte said. “We saw it in Bozeman ... as I travel the state, people don’t know what’s possible.”

RightNow added about $5 billion in economic value to the Montana economy just through the wages it paid and the economic ripple effect from those wages, he said.

“It can happen here,” he added about the Flathead’s potential for extraordinary business growth.

Gianforte’s business plan for better jobs takes a four-pronged approach: Promote high-tech jobs, help entrepreneurs, create organizations to support businesses and prepare Montana’s youth.

The latest tool in his job-creation arsenal is the Montana Tech Alliance that officially launched this week. Proof Research is one of the founding members.

The goal is simple, Gianforte said. It’s about bringing high-tech companies and manufacturers together and working on issues important to them.

His strategy goes beyond pep talks among business leaders, though. Gianforte wants to be able to measure the tangible effects of his work.

“I’m an engineer. I like to keep score,” he said.

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, better jobs won’t be instantaneous. They will take time, he said.

Gianforte also is taking a leadership role in boosting the number of computer science graduates. Last year Montana universities graduated 40 students with computer science degrees.

“I know the high-tech community could absorb 400 graduates,” he said.

Gianforte cofounded Code Montana, a free interactive program that encourages high school students to pursue computer science in college. The first-year goal was to have 1,000 students involved and currently there are more than 1,100 students enrolled. The new goal is 5,000 students by next spring.

The ACE (Alliance for Choice in Education) Scholarship program is another of Gianforte’s initiatives. His family foundation introduced and initially funded ACE’s Montana program at $4.6 million to give low-income Montana parents the opportunity to choose private schools for their children if they deemed them a better fit.

“I think we’re creating brighter futures,” he said.

Gianforte’s social and religious beliefs have been in the crosshairs of the media statewide recently with a news article that some faculty and students at Montana Tech oppose the university’s choice of Gianforte and his wife as commencement speakers. Opponents cited the Gianfortes’ creationist beliefs and their affiliation with Focus on the Family, a Christian-based nonprofit family support group.

“I believe, and have always believed, that discrimination of any kind is flat-out wrong,” Gianforte said in response to the controversy. “I believe in just and fair treatment for all. I built my business by hiring the best people based on ability, not ideology — period.”

The Gianfortes have said they plan to address Montana Tech graduates about engineering and how to be successful.

During a recent TedX talk in Bozeman, Gianforte said he drove home the point of feeling purpose in one’s work and in serving others. A second point was that “if there’s not some doubt in the outcome, there’s less satisfaction in achievement.”

His message to college graduates is to aim high.

“Dream big — swing for the fences,” he said. “Go find really hard work and use the skills you’ve been given. At the end of the day, it’s how you serve others that matters.”

Editor’s note: An opinion piece by Greg Gianforte responding to criticism about Montana Tech choosing him and his wife as commencement speakers will be published this week on the Daily Inter Lake Opinion Page.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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