Montana State University

Spring 2017

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Mountains and Minds

All in the family June 06, 2017 by Anne Cantrell • Published 06/06/17

When Rita Elliott’s then school-aged daughter, Lyndee, came home with cookie dough to sell as a fundraiser for her rural Montana school, Rita thought the preservative-filled product could be fresher and made in state. A licensed caterer based in Fort Benton, Elliott already had facilities to handle food production, and as an entrepreneur, she recognized the potential business opportunity. Elliotts of Montana was born.

That was in 2003. Since then, Elliotts of Montana has grown into a successful, well-respected business that also helps organizations achieve their fundraising goals. The company’s line of 22 products ranges from cookie dough to trail mix to flapjack mix. Last year alone the company’s customers—primarily schools and nonprofit organizations in Montana—raised approximately half a million dollars for their causes.

“In (Rita Elliott’s) mind, if you’re going to do something and make it worth your time and effort, it should probably be for a cause,” said Lyndee Elliott Haire, Rita’s daughter, who has worked with her mom at Elliotts of Montana since 2009.

Like Elliotts of Montana, about 98 percent of all businesses in Montana are family owned, according to George Haynes, a professor and agricultural policy specialist with Montana State University Extension. That was the motivation for MSU’s College of Business—now the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship—to start the MSU Family Business Program, now in its 23rd year.

And, like so many other family businesses based across Montana—particularly in rural parts of the state—Elliotts of Montana is, in fact, the heart of the state, according to Tim Alzheimer, director of MSU’s Family Business Program and a teaching professor in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship. Family businesses serve as the lifeblood of their communities, Alzheimer said, with the owners helping to drive their local economies, serving as business leaders and supporting local causes. Those are just a few of the reasons that MSU, through its State Farm Insurance Family Business Program, chooses to honor family businesses annually with Family Business Awards, Alzheimer said.

Since its inception in 1994, with support from State Farm, the Family Business Program has honored 150 family businesses from across the state. Businesses are nominated for awards and then must complete an application in order to be eligible for recognition. A range of award categories are available, including very small business (fewer than 10 employees); small business (10–30 employees); medium business (30–50 employees); large business (more than 50 employees); old business (operating at least 50 years); and new business (operating 10 or fewer years). An independent panel of judges reviews the applications and selects the award winners. Over the years, honored businesses have ranged from farms and ranches to breweries to manufacturing companies. They have also included furniture, funeral home, roofing companies, as well as grocery stores, general contractors and vehicle dealerships, among many other businesses.

“We here in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship love our relationship with family businesses in Montana,” said Kregg Aytes, dean of the college. “We feel strongly that part of our college’s mission is to contribute to the economic vitality of the entire state, and small businesses, particularly family businesses, are the lifeblood of many Montana communities. Celebrating those businesses helps bring recognition to the important role they play in our economy.”

“I am so excited that MSU supports entrepreneurs because that has been what my lifestyle has been from the get-go,” Elliott said. “I haven’t worked for anybody since I was 19 years old.

“I love seeing that entrepreneurial spirt in people and love that (the university) honors it,” she added. “You don’t expect recognition as a family business, so it’s such a pleasant surprise when somebody recognizes you.”

Elliotts of Montana was one of six businesses honored with a Family Business Award in 2016. The company was honored in the very small category. Their journey began when Elliott and her husband, Stuart, settled in Fort Benton after marrying in 1975 to begin a family and to continue working as third-generation Montana farmers.

Elliott began looking for ways to supplement her family’s farm income. Over the years, she founded several businesses. She provided take-home meals for clients, sold gift baskets and ran a successful catering company for 20 years that served groups of up to 400 people at weddings and other events.

After Elliott got the idea for the cookie dough business, her existing catering facilities enabled her to quickly start Elliotts of Montana. What began in a 160-square-foot converted kitchen outgrew its space over the years, and in 2012 the business moved to a 5,000-square-foot building in Bozeman so the Elliotts could live close to their three children—all of whom graduated from MSU and live in the Gallatin Valley.

Haire, who now oversees facilities, human resources and some financial parts of Elliotts of Montana, said that one of the biggest benefits of having a family business is that it has enabled the family to grow closer.

“Elliotts of Montana has allowed us to grow closer as a family as adults, and it has allowed us to stay closer,” she said. “If we need help with something like a delivery, my brothers will jump in, or my sisters-in-law will help. It has allowed us as adults to stay close and committed.”

Another joy: Haire said she feels pride and ownership in the business and in its products.

“I don’t come to work because it’s something I have to do. I chose to do this,” she said. “(Rita Elliott) chose to do this, and the company itself is like a family member that does a lot for us and for our community.”

On the other hand, the business is simultaneously an ever-present, all-consuming part of the family’s life, Haire noted.
“There’s never a day when we’re not thinking about how to improve our products or what we might change,” Haire said. “Mom and I will be cooking Christmas dinner, and we’re talking about those things.”

Perhaps that’s part of why being a family-owned and operated business gives stability and an expectation of quality to the business’s products, Haire said.

“This is our name. Even if the company wasn’t called ‘Elliotts,’ if we put out a product somebody doesn’t like or we don’t reach our customers’ expectations, that gets put on us personally,” she said. “We’re invested in this company.”

Kaufman’s Menswear won a Family Business Award in 1996. The company was established by Mose Kaufman, a German immigrant who arrived in Montana in 1880 via riverboat. Kaufman worked for his brother-in-law at stores in Butte, Fort Benton and Great Falls before founding Kaufman’s Menswear in Great Falls in 1894. Since then, the company has remained in the family, with two of Mose’s three sons, Fred and Ira, and then his grandson Ike and great-grandson Brian, joining the business.
At its height in the late 1970s, the company employed 23 people, according to Ike Kaufman. Now, the company has about 12 employees, including three members of the family. Kaufman’s Menswear prides itself on being a full-service shop, with both men’s and women’s clothes, shoes and accessories for sale, a tailor available on site, measuring and pressing services and tuxedo rentals available.

Ike said the best part of running a family business has been the connections he has established with his customers over the years.

“You know everybody,” he said. “If you’re civically involved, you care about relationships, and these people become your friends.”

Still, there are big challenges associated with running a family menswear company. The business has had its share of ups and downs over the years, Ike said, and current challenges include relaxed dress codes—which diminish the need for the products Kaufman’s sells—and increased competition, particularly from discount retailers and internet companies.

Yet, Ike said he enjoys the work and, even at the age of 81, still spends the majority of his time at the store.

Ike noted that the business owners who have been recognized by the Family Business Program are, themselves, a sort of family.

“The program connects you to other people like yourself,” he said. “It’s nice to have those relationships and to have others to talk to about similar issues in business.”

Perhaps that’s why, over the years, college administrators can’t recall a time when a business that has won a Family Business Award from MSU has ever failed to have at least one person attend the award ceremony in Bozeman, according to Audrey Capp, director of communications and public relations for the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship.

“Family business owners toil for years without notice,” Alzheimer said, adding that the winners often remark how much the program means to them. “It feels good to be recognized.” ■