Leaders from a handful of Montana small businesses recognized as some of the country’s greatest places to work met with Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday to discuss their success in using Montana’s resources to create an attractive work environment.
The businesses were named this year to Outside magazine’s annual 100 Best Places to Work. The rankings, based in part on employee satisfaction surveys, highlight companies that use innovative means to promote a high quality of life for their employees.
Most of the organizations featured by the magazine incorporate any number of outdoor pursuits into the office culture, from Nordic skiing to slack lines to work schedules that make room for the occasional powder day.
Representatives from each organization took part in a roundtable discussion with the governor before hitting the trail for a group hike up Mount Helena.
Bullock said he hopes the businesses can be examples for other Montana entrepreneurs and serve as ambassadors to those thinking about locating their company here.
The attendees agreed that providing a high quality of life for employees has been crucial to their success and is a potential asset for other businesses in Montana. “There’s one thing you can’t replicate or reproduce, and that’s quality of life,” Bullock said.
“In the beginning, we did it because it seemed like the right thing to do,” said Reed Gregerson, president of ZaneRay group, an e-commerce and design firm in Whitefish that offers flexible scheduling for employees to partake in outdoor recreation.
But now the company is actually gaining more business because of the way it treats its employees, Gregerson said. He told the governor that potential clients are increasingly asking questions about the company’s employees in deciding whether or not to use their services.
At Outlaw Partners in Big Sky, employees work in an open, collaborative workspace with a slack line down the center and a grill on the back deck. President and CEO Eric Ladd said employees are expected to self manage. They can set their own schedule, and taking a powder day might be considered a norm. Ladd said the atmosphere has helped the marketing and media company retain its highly talented staff.
“Being in that setting is ideal,” Ladd said.
Before the hike Bullock spoke about the state’s opportunity to turn its tourist appeal into economic development. These businesses “could be located anywhere, but they chose Montana,” he said. “We’ve sold the beauty of this space. Let’s take the next step.”
Brian Morgan’s company, Adventure Life, was ranked 85th on the Outside magazine list. The Missoula travel company provides adventure and ecotourism trips around the world.
Since starting in 1999, Adventure Life has grown from one to 19 employees, and Morgan said he has learned to empower his team with more leadership roles.
He said the company faced a challenge once employees began starting families. The fledgling business struggled to accommodate the increasing amount of maternity leave, so Morgan gave employees the option to bring their babies with them to work. He said the policy has made it easier for mothers to continue working and enhanced staff relationships.
“The whole team feels pretty proud about it,” he said.
Morgan was raised in Havre, but he said he wanted to leave the state when he was young. As his years of traveling accumulated, Morgan said he realized more and more “that Montana was not just a good place, but a great place to live.”
School makes list
One of Montana’s public elementary schools even made the list at number six. Seeley Elementary, located in Seeley Lake, employs around 30 people in its pre-K-8 school.
The rural school about 50 miles northeast of Missoula has a robust outdoors program for its students and staff. The school provides Nordic skis that anyone can use, as well as bicycles, inflatable kayaks and more. The school has an early release on Thursday so students and staff can enjoy organized outdoor activities, and it offers several outdoor elective classes.
School superintendent Chris Stout said the public institution faces particular advantages and disadvantages in trying to improve its work environment. Unlike most startup companies, the school operates with a stable budget. At the same time, Stout said, “We have to create this atmosphere without looking like we’re being irresponsible with public funds.”
Teacher Michele Holmes said the emphasis has shaped the school culture and its impact has trickled down into the community at large because some school programs are open to anyone. “Overall, the whole community has increased its activity,” she said.