Panels encourage MT manufacturers

Helena Independent Record

by Julie Baughman

“Montana produces what America needs to prosper.”

Those were U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s opening words of advice to the more than 150 attendees of his 14th Small Business Opportunity Workshop at Carroll College Friday.

“We had a really good turnout,” Tester said of the event, which featured two expert panels and a prominent keynote speaker.

Tester holds the workshops – each featuring a different genre of focus – all across the state of Montana as an opportunity for local business owners to hear advice from successful people in their field.

“We’ve touched on startups. We’ve touched on veteran-owned businesses. We’ve touched on women-owned businesses,” Tester said. “I think it’s really important to let people know what support is available out there.”

Friday’s workshop was broken up into two panels, a networking break and a keynote speaker all with a focus on the state’s manufacturing industry.

The first panel featured professionals from Lewistown, Billings, Missoula, Poplar and Kalispell.

“(It was) an opportunity to share our story and give hope to people who might be in the same spot we were in 15 years ago,” said Paige Darden, former owner and current marketing manager of

The company began in Red Lodge about 15 years ago as a way for hikers and hunters to create personalized maps. They have since been purchased by Trimble Company and provide customers with GIS coordinates for map making in the entirety of the United States and Canada.

Darden was thankful for the opportunity to speak Friday and encouraged attendees to follow their dreams, however groundbreaking they may be.

“If you’ve got an idea, start it,” she told the audience. “Ours started very, very small and now we have product we never could have even imagined 10 years ago.

“There are lots of good ideas, lots of potential as evidenced by the diversity of the presenters and the people in the audience,” Darden said. “Trust that you can make it, and trust that you can take that first step.”

Bill Nicholson, vice president of plant operations for In Dimension3 Printing in Kalispell shared not only his experience breaking into the 3D printing industry but also where to find resources for new and growing businesses.

“The resources that are available to entrepreneurs in this state are mind boggling,” Nicholson said. “But I think most people don’t know about them.”

The company started in 2009 and manufactures 3D printers which now are shipped all over the world.

He said that even in a high-tech manufacturing field like that of 3D printing, employers should sometimes look more for character, rather than skills sets, when seeking new hires.

“When I hire individuals, I look for character,” he said. “Even though we have highly technical products, I can teach you a skill; I can’t teach you attitude.”

Attendees took part in a question-and-answer session following each presentation.

Mallory Riphenburg said the workshop provided her an opportunity to bring suggestions back to her managers at the Port of North Montana in Shelby.

“We are creating a multi-modal facility,” she said. “We’re trying to attract as many different businesses (as possible).

“Now we can better market our fare,” she said.

Riphenburg said the workshop was not only a great place to network but an uplifting environment where business owners could hear from people who had already been through the wringer.

“It shows you so much about where these people come from and how their businesses start,” she said of the panels.

Storm Olson, member of the regulatory commission for the Chippewa Cree tribe, was also in attendance Friday.

“As all tribal communities, we are interested in pursuing any opportunities for small business developments,” Olson said.

The workshop provided a great way to start forming connections with local businesses and not just with state and federal entities, she said.

“We need to start reaching out and building those connections,” she said. “Let’s start investigating the actual businesses themselves.”

Olson said she found the panel presentations powerful.

“I was really fascinated by the panels,” she said. “I think it offered a really broad base [of experience.”

“The challenges they faced from startup money to expanding their business,” Olson said was inspiring. “That focus on taking your idea and continuing to think outside the box and reach that goal.”

In all, Tester considered Friday’s workshop a success, much like many of his previous offerings.

“Over 2,000 folks have attended, and they’ve made some great connections,” he said. “I can assure you there will be another one.”