Peaks and Valleys Summer 2016

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ZOOT ENTERPRISES P I O N E E R O F A R E A’ S S U R G I N G E C O N O M I C S E C T O R Anyone familiar with Bozeman’s outdoor adventure options and vibrant entertainment and restaurant scenes, knows the city takes care of its tourists. That economic sector is so obvious. The surprising boom town of the city’s economy is the high tech/computer services industry. Yes, in Bozeman. In Montana. The past two years, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance’s study of the industry’s growth has sparked huge headlines for good reasons. The 2016 numbers: The high tech sector is growing seven times faster than other Montana business sectors and paying wages twice the state’s average. Median industry wages increased 12 percent over last year, with starting computer science graduates earning $65,000 to $80,000 a year. “The last five years, Bozeman has seen the birth of lots of high tech startups, lots of little firms. What attracts them? MSU’s phenomenal engineering and biotech programs, great pay and high quality of life,” said Chris Nelson, founder and CEO of Zoot Enterprises, which employs 250 people working to provide credit decision and loan origination solutions for large financial institutions. 30


Another draw is the presence of more than a handful of highly successful high tech companies like Zoot. They fought the early battles for funding and laid down the communications and power infrastructures the startups now count on. Nelson started his company in 1990 in his Bozeman basement. A single dad, he’d moved from Billings for a bank industry computer job that would flex to allow him more time with his young son. When that didn’t go as promised, he picked up an after-hours programming job for the Credit Union National Association. “They wanted a program that could pull credit reports on PCs,” he said. His solution – which could pull consumer financial information from multiple credit bureaus in seconds – changed the industry. The association licensed and installed it in 4,000 credit unions. American Express called. For them, he developed an algorithm that could calculate credit decisions based on the financial lender’s requirements. It cut the processing time for an American Express card from eight weeks to eight seconds. That changed the world. Bank of America and the Spiegel catalog company called next.