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Several local business leaders comprised a panel discussion during the joint annual retreat of the sister organizations, Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC).
Together the panelists touched upon a broad range of topics designed to give board members, of the two groups, insight into the local economy and what’s needed in terms of economic development.
Dave Brown, President of Wyo-Ben, gave a glimpse of how far-reaching a small business, based in Montana can be. The company, in business for more than sixty years, has markets throughout the US and around the world.
Steve Corning, a local commercial developer and President of Corning Companies, delineated the Billings retail market as a mature industry that continues to grow “incrementally.” And, that recent developments, have catapulted Billings to a premier position in the region that has no equal.
Onkar Dhaliwal, President and chief Executive Officer of Aspen Air, made clear, how important is the assistance provided by EDA to newcomers to the area. The agency was instrumental in helping him establish his plant in Lockwood, and continues a long-term relationship, as Aspen Air now explores the possibility of expanding.
The rapid growth of the 90s in the retail business won’t be seen again, according to Corning, as the “big box phenomenon” has pretty much run its course; but, the recent announcement from Scheels All Sports that they plan to build a 220,000 square foot store at Shiloh Crossing, is a “game changer” in the retail business in Montana, according to Corning.
While the retail business in the state became somewhat spread out as the corporate chains located stores in some of the smaller communities, the Scheels store— with amenities like an indoor Ferris wheel and giant aquarium where divers feed fish — will be a tourist destination. “It’s the kind of phenomenal store that will only exist in Billings,” said Corning, in describing Billings’s position as a retail trade center for the state.
Corning said as a result of the Scheels’ announcement three or four retail companies are now quite interested in locating at Shiloh Crossing. So even though the retail industry is “a little less strong” as a result of the economy, the Billings retail business “continues to advance.”
Impacting the retail business significantly is the increase in internet shopping. But as that plays out into the future, Corning said he believes that those companies which will be successful will be those, “who are developing a dual strategy. The ones with an internet strategy and which have bricks and mortar stores are in stronger position over long term.”
Retail will always have customers who want to “touch it and try it on and experience it,” said Corning, “especially for women’s fashion.”
Wyo-Ben is a producer of bentonite products for global use in industries such as oil and gas exploration, water well drilling, horizontal direction drilling, foundry, iron ore pelletizing, waste water treatment, and environmental sealants for landfills, sewage lagoons, and hazardous waste sites. The boom in the oil and gas industry in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, definitely means big things for Wyo-Ben.
Bentonite is also used a wide range of products in the pharmaceutical business, food, medical products, cat litter, beauty products, etc. “There is always something new,” said Brown, “and we are chasing those markets not only in the US and North America, but on every continent.”
Some prospective customers from China will in fact be visiting Wyo-Ben, soon, interested in using bentonite in trenchless construction. Wyo-Ben has hired a Chinese translator to help in pursuing that market. Similar things are happening in India, Chile and Brazil, said Brown.
Wyo-Ben bentonite is mined and processed from three mines in Wyoming, but the company is headquartered in Billings. Why Billings? Because Billings is a manufacturing center, said Brown. “It’s more of a manufacturing center than Bozeman, because of its transportation accessibility. Also, because it is trying to attract that kind of business.”
Wyo-Ben employs some 200 people in Wyoming and 28 in Billings.
In the realm of economic development, Brown said that he doesn’t know how to deal with the subject without becoming somewhat political, because some of the problems impacting economic growth stem from government involvement in business. For example, he said, “While we mended the workers comp problems during the last state legislature, we are still 45th, while North Dakota is number one in being the least expensive.” That’s some stiff competition.
Brown is especially passionate about the importance, to the state’s economy, of aiding Montana’s family businesses – which are most of the businesses – successfully transferring from generation to generation. Most of them fail in making that transition, he said.
Also, concerned about that issue, said Brown, is the Scott Family of First Interstate Bank, and together they hope to develop some kind of center that will help family businesses address those problems.
“The stuff I’m talking about is the stuff that is not being taught in the curriculum of the colleges and it is more about governance. How do they govern themselves? How do the do succession planning, meeting liquidity needs, etc. That stuff is usually not dealt with in the university,” he said.
“Economic development agencies are a good thing to have,” said Dhaliwal, who came to the Billings area from Canada. EDA was the first people to help him, he said. They gave him introductions to the area, provided him with legal insights and direction, helped in his search for employees.
Dhaliwal recommended that a template be developed so that newcomers can easily tap into it for information – kind like “an easy button to push to find out what they need to do.”
The fact that EDA has continued their contact with his company is also commendable, said Dhaliwal, pointing out that the first two or three years of a business is a critical time to their survival.
“They did a very good job for me when we started in 2006,” said Dhaliwal. Aspen Air is a manufacturer and distributor of gas products, such as oxygen, nitrogen and argon.
Encountering the economic recession just as they were getting off the starting block, the company’s growth was slower than projected, but it has grown steadily nonetheless, and they are currently in the process of doing the engineering for an expansion.
Aspen Air currently employs 12 people and has eight full time subcontractors.
In looking at opportunities for economic growth in the area, Dhaliwal points to the demand for professionals to do such work as engineering, electrical work and design, civil work and oil-patch work. Much of that kind of work can be done here for clients located in other areas, he said. “People don’t necessarily have to be where the action is, they can be based in Billings,” he said, pointing out that Billings has also become a hub for the trucking business. People are setting up shops in Billings for maintenance because of the availability of workers and the ease of getting parts in a timely manner.
Issues of getting skilled labor and providing training and education to meet the growing need for such workers, prevailed throughout the conversation. Meeting that challenge will be important to being able to continue to grow the Billings area economy.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103