Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) What stood as an abandoned sawmill in the heart of Missoula 25 years ago now hosts millions of dollars in new development ranging from housing to retail, student living to office space.

A Fortune 200 company and a familiar Missoula startup are among the latest tenants of the Old Sawmill District and, on Thursday, they “sawed the log” on the company's new office building.

The roughly $40 million project marks additional growth in the district's tech center and further strengthens a robust partnership with the University of Montana. It also punctuates the future of one of Missoula's fastest growing companies.

“Fasten your seat belts because it's about to take off,” said Tom Stergios, the senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at Cognizant-ATG, and the general manager of the Missoula Solutions Center. “We're truly just getting started.”

A report released by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research last month found that between 2017 and 2021, Cognizant-ATG more than tripled its number of jobs and grew its economic output roughly five times.

Employees and city officials attend Thursday's celebration at Cognizant-ATG. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
City and county officials join employees in Thursday's celebration at Cognizant-ATG. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The study also found that in 2021, Cognizant's economic impact on Missoula reached more than $122 million. The company's presence also supported 814 jobs in the local economy, the study noted, including the company's own payroll of around 300 local employees.

The rapid growth prompted Cognizant-ATG to leave its old downtown office building and invest in the Old Sawmill District. In 2019, it took up residence in the new Cambium Building. This week, it cut the ribbon on its new tech campus, located in two buildings across the street.

“There's a passion – a sense of work ethic and investment I've not seen in a lot of places around the world,” said Rob Vatter, Cognizant's executive vice president of enterprise platform services. “What I've seen here and reflected here is really what we strive to be and what I think we can be at Cognizant as a community.”

Not only did Cognizant need more space in which to grow, it also needed a solid pipeline of employees skilled in the world of today's technology. That proved challenging in the beginning when the company recognized its potential for growth in Missoula but couldn't find the workers skilled in the field.

To solve the problem, Stergios and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar worked to create a new program that would provide students the skills they needed to succeed at Cognizant. The resulting Aim Higher program has since graduated seven classes and is set to kick off another round.

“One might expect that a university and a business could do something like this, and in three years you might have a program up and running,” Bodnar said. “Well, it was three months later that the Aim Higher program launched. Fast forward to today and we have seven cohorts through that program and more than 150 members of our community working in exciting, high-tech jobs here in Missoula. It's incredible progress.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, left, Tom Stergios, the senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at Cognizant-ATG, center, and Rob Vatter, Cognizant's executive vice president of enterprise platform services, also center, tour the new facility with Gov. Greg Gianforte, right. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Pictured from left to right are University of Montana President Seth Bodnar; Roshan Subudhi, global head of Salesforce Practice; Rob Vatter, Cognizant's executive vice president of enterprise platform services; Tom Stergios, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at Cognizant-ATG; and Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The success of the Aim Higher program was also recognized by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry and the administration of Gov. Greg Gianforte. The concept that helped UM educate future Cognizant employees was expanded to become Accelerate Montana.

“This kind of catalyzed a lot of our thinking about Accelerate Montana that we're now taking to other sectors and industries,” Bodnar said. “In the tech world today, given the dearth of talent and the battle for talent, we can't go out and find people. We have to build them.”

Gianforte, who created his own Bozeman startup in RightNow Technologies and grew it to employ more than 1,000 people before it was acquired by Oracle, praised Cognizant-ATG for its own success.

ATG began as two employees in Missoula in 2011 and quickly grew. By early 2018, it claimed 130 employees. Later that year, ATG was acquired by Cognizant, a global provider of Internet technology that employs more than 260,000 people worldwide.

The merger has proven fruitful for Missoula. All three Missoula County commissioners were in attendance on Thursday, along with the Missoula City Council's president and vice president, and members of the Missoula Economic Partnership.

“The secret to our success is what Cognizant has discovered, and that's the Montana work ethic,” Gianforte said. “When it's harvest time and the tractor is broken, you don't call a consultant or form a committee, you just fix the tractor. That's an incredibly competitive weapon in today's marketplace.”

Employees with Cognizant ATG at Thursday's celebration. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Employees with Cognizant ATG at Thursday's celebration. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Gianforte also praised UM for its quick response to meeting today's workforce needs. He said the state has taken the Accelerate Montana program to help other companies, including Boeing in Helena and Hyundai in Bozeman, find the skilled workers they need to be successful in Montana.

“These rapid training programs are really critical, and through the Department of Labor, we're working with other employers who are either here or want to relocate to build similar workforce pipelines,” Gianforte said. “When we provide our kids and young people better opportunities to thrive in in-demand careers, everyone thrives. That's why these public-private partnerships are so critical.”