Driving around the Eagle Bend Golf Course in Bigfork, Webb Scott Brown greets players left and right. There are executives from national companies such as FedEx and Montana companies like Dick Anderson Construction. Every one of them waves and shouts to Brown.
But as the president/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce for two decades, it’s not surprising that everyone knows Webb.
“Webb is Webb,” said Max Baucus, a former Montana senator and ambassador to China under the Obama administration. “He’s always the same: full board, 100 miles an hour, enthusiastic and upbeat.”
After 20 years of leading the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Brown will conclude his career at the end of 2018 and he heads off into retirement and new adventures.
Sparking Growth At State Chamber
Brown is a fifth-generation Montanan who was raised on the family ranch in northwestern Montana near Trout Creek.
He attended Trout Creek Elementary and Noxon High School, but he graduated from Lima High School. Brown earned his bachelor’s’ degree in political science from the University of California at Riverside in 1983. During that time, he completed internships with the Greater Riverside Chamber of Commerce and Baucus in Washington D.C.
After graduation, Brown returned to Montana and joined his two brothers as a business partner to form 2B’s Logging. He worked with his brothers from 1983-1991. Brown also served on the board of the Montana Logging Association from 1985-89.
During this time, Brown also organized and became the executive director of the Sanders County Economic Development Corp. With all of his exposure to business, Brown decided to make advocacy his career. He jumped into the chamber world in 1991 when he became the executive director of the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce.
He moved to the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce in 1995 and was named the new CEO/president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce in 1999.
One of the programs created during Brown’s tenure was Chamber Choices. This was an associated healthcare plan that many of the chamber members took part in, including Tami Christensen with Tri County Implement in Sidney.
“I used Chamber Choices and it was really good for business,” she said. “When we had the Chamber Choices plan for my small business it worked that it cut the cost for what health insurance cost because we were part of a bigger group. I totally supported that.”
In 2014/15, the board of directors created and adopted a 10-year strategic plan, Envision 2026. This plan has four key goals that include being seeing Montana in the top 10 of all U.S. states in Gross State Product Growth, top half of per capita personal income, top 10 of all U.S. states in percentage of job growth and the top 10 of all U.S. states in per capita personal income growth. These four goals are to be accomplished through improving infrastructure, workforce development, entrepreneurship and business basics.
In the two years Brown has helped lead the efforts of Envision 2026, the Montana Chamber retained 95.2 percent of their pledges and raised more than $1 million dollars for Envision 2026. The investors range from companies such as Stockman Bank to TowHaul. One of these investors is NorthWestern Energy.
“Webb’s focus on Montana infrastructure is really a part of his overall commitment to Montana,” said Bob Rowe, the president/CEO of NorthWestern Energy. “Investing in infrastructure is a long-term commitment. There are immediate paybacks, but the real value is over the years and decades to come, and those are tempting to discount when facing short-term pressures. Webb helped all of us keep our eyes on the ultimate goals, while taking care of today’s business as well.”
Bridging the aisle
The Montana Chamber of Commerce prides itself on being a nonpartisan organization, and Brown has led the charge. Over the years, the Montana Chamber has endorsed candidates at levels who are both democrats and republicans. In its Champions of Business recognition, the chamber has also recognized state legislators from both sides of the aisle.
“I’m a democrat, and sometimes when you meet someone who is a republican they might stiffen up and you can’t talk to them,” Baucus said. “Not with Webb. I don’t even know what his political affiliation is and I never asked him. I didn’t care. It was an opportunity to work together. Webb saw a great advantage to working with both sides, and he saw the twinkle in my eye and I did too. We just connected.”
During his 20 years at the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Brown quickly became a mainstay at the capitol. Over the years, he helped lobby on a number of bills while also helping to lead the Business Caucus. Some of the bills Brown and the chamber supported included: HB 344, SB 96 and HB 473.
HB 344, which was signed in 2011 by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, brought savings of about 25 percent or about $100 million, off Montana’s workers compensation rates. Brown lobbied up at the capitol for this bill with the then government relations director, Jon Bennion.
“For somebody like me coming from the legal side, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of business issues,” Bennion said. “It was like going to school. Webb of course had at least four sessions under his belt. He was an incredible mentor on the legislative side and on introducing me to key people within the business community, in the Legislature and people that represented organizations that often opposed chamber priorities.”
Another legislative leader he connected with was former Gov. Judy Martz. Martz was the first and still only female governor for Montana. Shane Hedges, Martz’s campaign manager and chief policy advisor, experienced working with Brown firsthand.
“I think what makes Webb unique among other people who do what he does is he values relationships,” Hedges said. “He works hard to develop strong ones. He approaches it in a way that other people don’t. He gets to know people on a very personal level. The reason he does that is when you know somebody’s heart and they know yours it makes doing business more significant.”
Hedges point to several examples of Brown’s commitment to forming strong relationships. During the weekly coffee meetings Martz had with leaders from across Montana, he said Brown helped the group thrive and brought fun to the meetings. On a Friday night, Hedges recalled having an old-fashioned movie night at the governor’s residence and not discussing business or policy.
“Judy had a special affinity for Webb and I think he with her,” Hedges said. “It was that friendship and trusting relationship that was meaningful to Judy. She valued him not just as a professional, but as a deep personal friend. She really valued that relationship. It carried over into their work and the impact that had.”
A Champion For Local Chambers
Before moving into the state chamber world, Brown cut his teeth at the local level. After Brown helped found the Sanders County Economic Development Corporation in his home county, he jumped into the chamber world as the executive director of the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce. As the executive director, Brown got involved with the Montana Association of Chamber Executives (MACE), a statewide organization for local chamber of commerce executive directors.
During a MACE meeting in Great Falls, Brown met Cathy Burwell, who was then the executive director at the Beaverhead County Chamber of Commerce in Dillon.
“We immediately became friends,” she said. “He was my mentor. He was in the business a year longer than me. He was so much help because I didn’t know what a chamber was. I wouldn’t be who I am today without him.”
Even though Brown moved to the state chamber in 1999, throughout the years he has championed MACE and the value of local chambers.
MACE has two meetings every year in the spring and the fall. These conferences are open to chamber executives and their staff. During the MACE gatherings, the organization brings in a speaker to present about membership and other relevant topics.
Brown was the MACE president in 1995 while at the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce. In his role with the state chamber, Brown served as the Treasurer since 2009. During his tenure, he also started the Butch Ott Memorial Scholarship, in memory of the former Billings Area Chamber of Commerce executive director to help offset the costs of attending MACE conferences.
Each MACE conference is held in a different town. Under Brown’s tenure, meetings were held across the state in towns such as Billings, Glasgow, Polson and Butte. This geographic diversity allowed for chambers to network and see different towns.
“I still cherish and look forward to MACE conferences,” said Kim Latrielle, the executive director of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce. “I look forward to the sharing of how people do things different ways. You can always learn something. It is a profession.”
Unlike the local chambers, the state chamber’s main role is as a business advocacy organization. Joe Unterreiner, the president/CEO of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, has seen Webb’s work at the state level in Helena during the Legislature. Over the years, the two entities have teamed up.
“He’s been a real mainstay for the chambers,” Unterreiner said. “Certainly at the state level, but he’s made sure to work with the local chambers. … We’ve always worked very closely with the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
The Legacy of Webb Brown
So how do you wrap up a story about someone’s dedication and career of 20 years to Montana and its businesses? By talking to his best friend of course.
Ed Bartlett was on the Montana Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors when Brown was hired. Bartlett said it wasn’t long before the two became best friends outside the chamber and the duo began spending time together outside of work with their wives.
Bartlett was there when Brown came in and helped the state chamber overcome being slapped with a large political practices fee. He was there when Chamber Days at the Capitol was rebranded as Business Days. He was there for the nine sessions when Brown lobbied for Montana businesses.
There have been numerous moments Bartlett has shared with Brown over the years, and Bartlett has seen every chamber success.
“Whether he’s with the chamber or not, he and I will continue as best friends.”
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