This month the Big Sky Business Journal is 30 years old.
That's a long time. That's 720 issues.
It's been a wonderful experience. The challenges and deadlines have given Dennis and I a great window upon the community, as well as a thumb upon the heartbeat of the state. We have had an excuse to be eavesdroppers on the many business ventures in our midst, and to become acquainted
with the amazing people responsible for them, to marvel at their successes, and to note their contribution to the community. For that, we thank you.
I've always said, and always believed, one can find no greater group of people than business people.... those with the imagination, ambition and internal fortitude to start, grow and manage the adventure of a business. There is nothing that more thoroughly defines a community than the commerce that happens therein, and publishing the Big Sky Business Journal is a great excuse to be part of it all.
Thirty years ago, what was happening?
Ted Schwinden was governor and was championing a $12 million "Build Montana" program, which was made up of a number of programs aimed at bolstering and attracting new businesses to the states. (Sadly, later analysts concluded they had little positive impact on business growth.)
The outlook for the coal industry was reported as being rather poor for Montana. Some things haven't changed.
Montana was also recovering from a recession 30 years ago, and Maxine Johnson, who was head of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said that recovery would be the result of the strength of our basic industries – as always. But, unlike today, "Montana's most hopeful prospect" was identified as the woods products industry – that's an industry that hardly exists in Montana any more.
Eastern Montana was suffering from low agricultural prices, a depressed oil market and declines in employment, as the construction of Colstrip plants neared completion.
The legislature lowered the severance tax on oil production by one percent to incentivize the industry. A decline in drilling of 75 percent in Montana had reduced employment by 2,300 jobs.
A Governor's conference on tourism stressed the potential of drawing tourists from Japan and Taiwan to Montana.
Montana was designated as the official US gateway to the winter Olympics in Calgary, with the hope of helping to put the state on the map in terms of being a winter recreational area.
Burlington Northern had laid off 597 employees, Mountain Bell was consolidating, and the Milwaukee Railroad was folding, as was the Anaconda Company, which alone ended 800 jobs in Montana and 1600 derivative jobs.
Billings experienced a boon in improved air transportation following the deregulation of the airlines. Regional commuter service emerged which made it possible to get to almost anywhere in the country from Billings and back in the same day.
The national unemployment rate was 10.3 percent.
A good wage in Montana was considered to be $25,000, and analysts were worried that the loss of jobs in basic industries which paid well, were being replaced by lower-paying service industry jobs.
Computers were just beginning to find a place in business offices. The "floppy" disc was the common icon for the new-fangled gadgets, which business people were scratching their head about and wondering how they would incorporate them and their cost into their operations. There were a number of new businesses emerging to help companies in their computer purchases, selling computer paper, providing computer based services to other businesses, or offering training on how to operate the new technology. "C cursor" was a new part of language, but a "mouse" was still a little gray rodent.
Doing business in Billings were Computerland, The Computer Store, Computer Paper Supply, Advanced Electronics, Inc. and Professional Billing Systems.
There wasn't even the hint of cell phones. The telephone monopoly was breaking up and for the first time people were actually purchasing the phones in their homes. Prior to that, all phone equipment was on lease from the phone company, "Ma Bell." Because of deregulation people were being warned that phone bills could rise as much as 85 percent, but there loomed the possibility that long distance rates would drop dramatically.
The phone monopoly was shedding the shackles, which were put in place in 1934, to both protect consumers and enshrine Mountain Bell as a monopoly. It was becoming evident that an "industrial revolution" was ready to explode, with the marriage of phones to computers, and the company, as well as its emerging competitors, needed the maneuverability of a free market to take advantage of the opportunities.
Satellites were being touted for their ability to provide "instantaneously shared information." It was predicted that "during the next ten years we will build and install more communications technology than presently exits"; by 2000, satellite farms could provide between 22,000 and 43,000 channels for communications; teleconference will grow between 20 – 40 percent; satellite and cable-based newspapers are a reality and some predict the decline in dependency in communications on paper; by 2000, 67 percent of the American work force will be employed in education-information industries.
In Billings, Comtel and ExecuLine were offering savings on long distance rates. Golden Nugget Motors was recycling used Volkswagons. The Rex Restaurant opened. The Overland Express Steakhouse closed. Advanced Electronics, Inc. was offering personal paging. Gainan's opened their green house in the Heights. Dubois Schennum Associates was planning to renovate the depot for retail tenants. Broadway Bistro expanded its fare to include dinner. Safeway opened their zone headquarters in Billings. The Homestead Business Park was announced by developers Bruce Crippin and Don Dubeau.
Billings Clinic was building a $7.7 million facility. The Montana Magic Hockey Club was playing hockey in MetraPark. After months of renovation the Northern Hotel was re-opening for business. Mike and Linda Overstreet had launched Corporate Air. K&M Industries rolled out the first hay balers built by Ideal Manufacturing in Billings. Agri-Systems launched The Pork Factory in Hardin to sell hogs to Pierce Packing.
Pierce Packing filed for bankruptcy relief. MDU began fueling their fleet with compressed natural gas. Federal Express Corp. began full service in Billings. Ted Kober was named "contractor of the year."
The concept of fitness was just beginning to be discussed and the first fitness facilities were emerging.
Businesses were opening to rent movies and VCRs.
For the first time there was discussion of "footloose industries" coming to Montana – companies which could operate anywhere and were being brought into the state by native-sons who wanted to return to Montana.
State leaders and economic gurus were abuzz about the potential of trade with "Pacific Rim" countries, who were bursting forth into the modern world. These countries were increasing beef and wheat consumption, beer consumption and consumption of many other western world products, offering great potential markets for Montana agriculture. A trade delegation from Taiwan was hosted by Governor Schwinden.
Solar energy was being lauded as energy for the future, by Conservation Technology, whose owner Fred Wilson, said "Billings is far ahead in the Northwest," in terms of cultivating the industry. Solar Works, Inc. reported installing solar energy in a number of commercial buildings and of building a subdivision of 18 homes powered by solar energy above Poly Drive, and was planning a subdivision of 240 units on 32nd St. W. Solar homes were selling for $100,000 and touted as saving 60-80 percent in energy.
In an editorial of 1983, I quoted extensively from the late Joseph Schumpeter (1883 – 1950), an economist who saw a bleak future for capitalism.
It's very success will lead to its demise, he predicted. Instead of rational arguments, capitalism will be tried in "the arena of values and emotions," he said. No one will rise to defend capitalism, he proclaimed, least of all the consumers who it primarily benefits. Consumers do not connect their affluence with the capitalist system, and are incapable of understanding it. And, they will be taught by the intellectuals to dislike the system and, especially, to resent it's central figure, the businessman.
Wow – it's amazing how many things have changed and yet how many things are much the same.
What will the next 30 bring? In reviewing the news of the past to make this compilation, I was convinced of only one thing, no one has a lock on predicting the future.