A wealthy conservative businessman from Bozeman is promoting the benefits of telecommuting to keep high-paying jobs in the state, while fueling speculation about his political ambitions.
Greg Gianforte, 53, is familiar with the advantages of working from home.
He founded the software firm RightNow Technologies in a spare bedroom in 1997 and grew the company to be the largest commercial employer in Bozeman. He sold the company to Oracle in 2012 for $1.43 billion, and has since used his wealth to promote a variety of conservative causes.
On Monday, he announced his statewide “Bring Our Families Back Tour," a series of stops in places like Wolf Point and Hamilton to advocate recruiting families back to Montana by highlighting the growth of telecommuting.
“There’s a misconception that all high-wage jobs are out-of-state jobs,” he said. “The reality is that the Internet has removed geography as a constraint. Our graduates can live virtually anywhere in Montana and work for Fortune 500 companies with global client bases. We just need to make sure this opportunity is front and center so we stop exporting our most precious resources, our kids and grandkids.”
Gianforte spoke to business leaders at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center in Missoula to kick off the tour, which includes dozens of stops in every corner of the state.
“I’m here to talk about how we can bring our kids back home,” he said. “Montana’s been exporting young people for decades, in large part because Montana today is 49th in the country in wages.
"Since we have had tremendous success at RightNow Technologies in Bozeman – that business grew to 1,000 employees over a 15-year period with an average wage of $86,000 – we’ve been looking for ways to serve Montana, particularly across the state, to create high-wage jobs. This new initiative focuses on the fact that we have a tremendous work ethic here and that the Internet allows you to work from anywhere. Today, there are probably thousands of people that telecommute in Montana every day to jobs all over the world and earn high wages.”
Gianforte partnered with the Montana Chamber of Commerce and Montana State University to mail glossy brochures to 15,000 MSU graduates who no longer live in the state, inviting them to consider coming back and telecommuting to work. The brochure states that Montana’s natural beauty, lack of traffic, below-average housing costs and recreational opportunities make it a natural fit for those who want to work from home.
“This guide is meant to introduce the concept of telecommuting as a way to get your family back together,” he said. “Telecommuting is great for Montana because it creates high-wage jobs here and Montana is great for telecommuting. The smartest people move to the most beautiful places.”
At Monday's event, Doug Odegaard, a software engineer in Missoula, spoke about the benefits of telecommuting.
“It’s been supporting my family for the last 13 years,” he said. “I was one of those people who was faced with a choice. Do I move to a Seattle or somewhere else to be able to have a job? One thing I really appreciate with telecommuting, or remote work as it’s sometimes known as, is I can do my work and have flexible schedules but also work around my family.”
Gianforte said the biggest challenge facing the growth of remote work is simply raising awareness, and he thinks the university system in Montana is doing a good job of preparing young people for high-tech jobs.
Gianforte’s statewide tour is sure to spark more speculation that he is considering a run for governor in 2016 or some other public office. He hasn’t announced any political ambitions yet, but he and his wife Susan donated nearly $100,000 to Republican candidates in the 2014 elections.
The man who was once U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ boss also has given speeches at Republican Lincoln-Reagan dinners across the state.
Gianforte is not without controversy, however.
His foundation made a large donation to help build a controversial creationist dinosaur museum in Glendive that poses the following question on its website: “Did the dinosaurs die out 65 million years ago, or did they coexist with man and diminish within the last five thousand years?”
Gianforte also gave MSU $1 million to boost computer science programs.