Student business exchange looks to bridge urban-rural divide

Students from Hellgate High School and St. Regis High School gathered in Missoula on Monday to tour several local businesses as part of the Rural-Urban Student Entrepreneur Exchange. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Steve Klimkiewicz teaches business to his students at Hellgate High School, the coursework is often focused on accounting, marketing and human resources. There are lessons on writing a business plan and the economics of running a successful venture.

But on Monday, the students escaped the classroom and joined their peers from St. Regis High School to tour several businesses around Missoula in a program aimed at pairing urban and rural students in an entrepreneurial setting.

The day’s tour covered heavy manufacturing at Felco Industries, marketing at Partners Creative, the food industry at Biga Piza, and the tech industry at the Audience Awards, among others.

“They get to meet the owners and ask them any questions they might have,” said Klimkiewicz. “It allows us to take whatever we’re learning in my intro to business class and see how it works in the real world.”

Now in its sixth year, the Rural-Urban Student Entrepreneur Exchange has reached students from Miles City to Missoula. More than 130 high-school students are poised to participate in the program this year.

Funded by the nonprofit One Montana based in Bozeman, the program serves as something of a bridge-builder, encouraging students from different backgrounds to become “teenpreneurs” in service to their communities.

“Our primary mission is to be a catalyst to bring urban and rural communities together and help build a more vibrant Montana economy,” said Jim Masker with One Montana. “Oftentimes, the rural kids and urban kids don’t come in contact with each other that much. It’s part of our effort to merge that divide and have them understand each other’s issues a little better.”

The students arrived at Felco Industries for a tour of the company’s production facility, where they were met by international product specialist Kirt Weishaar.

The company traces its roots back to 1983, when then-owner John Felton invented a new series of compactors after tackling a tough job in downtown Portland. The company is now owned by Dell and Mark Ehlke and is a sister product to Montana Hydraulics based in Helena.

“We’ve been manufacturing a special kind of compaction bucket, specifically for the utility industry,” said Weishaar. “Any time you have water or sewer construction, there’s always a requirement for soil compaction. That’s what our products were designed to do – compact soil.”

Weishaar offered a tour of the firm’s production facility and discussed the stages of manufacturing Felco’s attachments, from compaction tools to trench boxes and conveyors. The implements are cut, shaped and welded on site before heading out the door with a gleaming coat of paint for distribution across the country.

But as is the case with any industry, the logistics of shipping from Montana can be costly. It was part of the day’s business lesson.

“Shipping a heavy product from here to Florida can be quite expensive,” said Weishaar. “When you’re working up in Canada, you have the broker fee at the border. Certain provinces have a provincial fee, and of course you have the exchange rate.”

One Montana runs similar bridge-building programs for the farming and ranching industry, along with hunters and landowners. On the entrepreneurial front, it seeks out a diverse range of businesses hoping to spark a student’s interest.

For communities facing tough economic times like St. Regis, the hope remains that a student may launch a business and bring jobs into the community.

“I can bring my kids from St. Regis and really get them to go through different businesses and see different industries and the kind of things that are possible,” said Chad Eichenlaub. “They’re kind of restricted to that view and the opportunities there.

“The ultimate goal is that one of our kids picks up on the entrepreneurial side and starts a business in St. Regis and brings jobs into a county that’s struggling pretty bad.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com