STEVENSVILLE – On the year before its 40th anniversary, Stevensville’s largest employer received its first visit ever from a Montana governor.
Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock toured the Selway Corp. facility and met with its founder and current president, Max Downing.
Bullock and Department of Commerce Director Meg O’Leary had a chance to see steel fabrication work being completed on large structures that will eventually keep fish out of the turbines at a Washington dam, help rebuild a 1.5-mile-long wharf in California and haul coal on a conveyor between a new mine and a power plant in North Dakota.
Selway Corp. employs about 110 people, with about 86 working in the various shops.
The company’s operations manager, Ed Anderson, said the goal is to increase the number of employees in the shops to 100, as long as the work continues to come in at current levels.
“Right now, things are good and it’s full speed ahead,” Anderson said. “We are trying to hire some more people.”
The outlook didn’t appear nearly that rosy just two years ago, when companies in this country slowed their spending for major infrastructure projects. There were layoffs and reductions in work hours for Selway employees in 2014.
“It’s been a slow economic recovery coming out of the recession, in terms of companies spending on capital projects,” Anderson said. “Out of necessity, we’ve had to find other markets to pursue.”
In his 40 years with the company, Downing told the governor he’s seen it all.
“We’ve survived a lot recessions and large changes in the industry,” he said. “I can honestly say that in all those 40 years, we’ve done it all with our own money.”
The land now occupied by Selway Corp. was initially donated by the city to a company planning to use its shops for building concrete equipment. Downing was that company’s first employee in 1972.
When that company folded, Downing took a chance. He ran an advertisement in a national newspaper and three engineers from Kaiser Aluminum from Spokane joined him to create the company that’s still operating today.
Downing sold out his interests to the company’s employees in 2000. The company is now employee-owned.
“I felt like they had taken me to the point where I was then, and I felt it was right to pay it forward,” Downing told the governor.
The company initially focused its work in the state, but after companies like Missoula’s Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. went out of business, it became more challenging.
“Now none of those are here anymore,” Downing said. “I think we’re losing all of our manufacturing. We’re hardly doing any work in Montana anymore.”
Most of their early work was focused on the state’s growing coal generation business. Downing spent a good deal of his time with the governor talking about the need to find customers for the state’s coal reserves, including the potential of selling coal overseas to China.
Downing said he was concerned about the potential of new federal regulations released this week to further dampen the potential for Montana’s coal.
The governor said his administration is just beginning to analyze the set of new environmental regulations released earlier this week by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, designed to cut planet-warming greenhouse bas emissions from the nation’s power plants.
If the regulations stand, the policy changes could shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and freeze construction of new coal plants.
“I think we’re at a point that even if some people don’t believe in climate change, the markets do,” Bullock said.
That doesn’t mean that coal is done. Bullock mentioned the potential for technological advances in carbon sequestration.
“We need to invest more in technology,” he said. “There have been more technological advances in your cell phone over the last three or four years than there has been in the last 40 years for power generation.”
Bullock said his administration is working to bring people in industry together to consider issues that are holding the state back and then look for answers that can be made at the state government level.
Today, Bullock said there are more people working in Montana than ever before in the state’s history. State unemployment is at 3.9 percent. There are only four states with higher gains in personal income than Montana, he said.
While states like North Dakota and Wyoming are starting to feel the pinch of declining oil prices, Bullock said Montana’s economy is more diversified than its neighbors.
Downing said he did appreciate that Bullock took time to visit Selway Corporation.
“You are the first governor that ever came here,” he said. “I am going to pass that on to our employees. It means a lot to know that you took the time to come here.”
Downing said he has a little over a year until he retires. Before he goes, he wants to do whatever he can to ensure this Stevensville cornerstone company survives.
“I was born in Hamilton and raised in Stevensville,” Downing said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Anything that I can do to help these guys survive is my goal.”