POLSON – Heather Knutson eventually lost the biggest argument she ever had with her father.
She insisted she wasn’t ready to take the lead in sales calls to some of the nation’s largest retailers as her parents sought to expand the market for their once-little Polson business, Country Pasta.
Dean Knutson said that was nonsense.
“My dad told me, ‘You can do it,’ and it led to this big blowout fight,” Heather says.
She preferred to work behind the scenes, helping to prepare for the meetings, and let Country Pasta marketing and account manager Dan Johnson take the point. That, despite her business degree, with a marketing emphasis, from Montana State University, and time spent working at a Billings advertising agency prior to moving home to Polson.
In 2009 – three years after Dean Knutson died – Johnson passed away unexpectedly as well. Three weeks after that, Heather found herself alone in Arkansas, for a scheduled sales meeting with Sam’s Club.
“I sat in the waiting room, and I could just imagine Dan and Dad laughing somewhere,” she says. “I could hear them saying, ‘You know what, you’re going to do this whether you like it or not.’ ”
The meeting went quite well. The relationship with Sam’s Club still exists, as do ones with Costco, Walmart, Safeway, Super 1, Rosauers and other grocery chains and independents.
Twenty-five-year-old Country Pasta today makes and sells 2 1/2 million pounds of pasta annually – all of it from 100 percent durum semolina, not a blend; with fresh eggs, not frozen or powdered; and rolled and cut the old-fashioned way.
Even though Knutson’s mother, Linda, sold the business to Fred and Amy Kellogg in 2008, the new owners quickly decided to keep Heather on.
She’s the general manager of a business she started working at in 1990, “probably illegally,” she admits with a smile, because of her age.
Whatever confidence Knutson lacked on her first solo sales call in 2009 has certainly been found. In 2013, the political novice won a three-way race for Polson mayor with 51 percent of the vote.
“It wasn’t ever a goal to run for mayor,” Knutson says, “but someone dropped a bug in my ear. Ultimately, I felt it was a way to give back to a community that’s been so great to me. I had no agenda other than to help my hometown become a better place.”
It hasn’t been easy, even though Polson has a city manager who oversees the day-to-day operations of municipal government.
Knutson and incoming city commission members inherited a situation that previous city leaders had largely ignored for years, if not decades – a looming Jan. 1, 2018 deadline for meeting Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding Polson’s wastewater and sewage treatment.
The solution – a yet-to-be-built mechanical treatment plant to replace an aging lagoon system that discharges effluent into the Flathead River – will cost millions of dollars.
“The fact that we need to do it is critical,” Knutson says, “but the whole process has been intense.”
Knutson took the lead in explaining unpopular and hefty rate increases needed to help pay for the new plant to residents, and says “the commissioners did a great job” in selecting a $14.5 million sequence batch reactor plant that will meet the EPA requirements and can be upgraded in the future.
“We may not know if we made the right decision for years,” Knutson says, “but I have no doubt we made the best decision with the information we had at the time.”
Before he dove into the food business, Dean Knutson started other successful businesses in Polson – a paint and glass store, an Earth Stove manufacturing plant, a fabricating shop – and his daughter says she grew up “with all the business lingo, all the challenges.”
“I feel fortunate I had that exposure to his unique ability to make things happen,” Heather says. “He found a way to get things done, and he did it by not focusing on the problems, but finding solutions.”
That outlook has served his daughter well in the business world, and seems to be working in her second job too, as the mayor of her hometown.