HELENA – After international software giant Oracle Corp. bought Bozeman software firm RightNow Technologies in 2012 for $1.8 billion, economists saw a noticeable jump in earnings for Gallatin County and the state.

“It was so large and it was a one-time event, that it showed up in the data for earnings, and has kind of a legacy effect,” says Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Some RightNow executives who walked away with millions after the sale also had cash to invest in other projects and potential start-up companies, Barkey adds.

Yet whether the big buyout benefited a wider swath of RightNow employees is questioned by some, who allege that stock options for average employees were less than generous, and that top executives and investors took home the lion’s share of the pay-off.

Greg Gianforte, who co-founded the company with his wife, Susan, acknowledges that they controlled 20 percent to 25 percent of the stock, worth $300 million to $400 million when Oracle purchased RightNow.

“As a (company) founder, I took the risks, so I got the benefits,” he says matter-of-factly.

Company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate that a dozen or so top executives and investors came away with at least another 10 percent of the payout.

But Gianforte says stock options were available to all employees in the first years of the company, and that RightNow also later had an employee stock-purchase plan, allowing workers to use part of their paycheck to buy stock at a slightly discounted price.

“There were dozens and dozens of millionaires created out of this business,” he says. “It was not a tight-knit, little group (that benefited).”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Daines, an executive at RightNow from 2000-2012 who has made his role in the company a pillar of his campaign, had stock options to buy at least 120,000 shares at a cost of about $1.4 million, SEC records show.

Daines says he sold some of those shares before and after the 2012 buy-out by Oracle, which paid $43 a share for RightNow. Daines’ financial-disclosure records filed in 2012 and 2013 say he earned between $2 million and $10 million selling his RightNow stock options.

Opinions differ on whether proceeds from the sale were widely distributed.

Some current and former employees, who requested anonymity, say stock options could have been more generous for the average employee – while others say opportunities for employee stock acquisition were the same or better than at many companies. As one former RightNow worker put it, “there were a lot of people who made a lot of money” on the sale to Oracle.

Bozeman Mayor Jeff Krauss says he believes “the impact of RightNow on Bozeman and its future cannot be underestimated,” and that it infused a lot money into the area, leading to other startups and spinoff companies.

“It’s a Bozeman success story; it’s a Montana success,” he says. “It’s a big one.”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.