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Montana’s quality of life, home prices that are lower than the national average and the opportunity to bring families together make the state the perfect place for former Montanans to return to and work remotely from, said potential GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte at a roundtable discussion with business leaders at the Helena Chamber of Commerce Friday.

“We’re so incredibly blessed here, and all you have to do is go live in some concrete jungle for a while to figure out how good we have it,” said Gianforte, founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman that sold for $1.5 billion in 2011.

In 1997, Gianforte founded RightNow in a spare bedroom after moving his family to Montana with “the idea that Internet removes geography as a constraint to where you locate a business.”

When attracting employees to his quickly growing business, job candidates who did not grow up in or were not married to someone from Montana were difficult to attract without the amenities of more urban areas, he said. What he did find was a high number of candidates with Montana ties who wanted to come back, but were wary of finding a job matching out-of-state opportunities.

Technology has eliminated many of the barriers that once required employees to work on site, allowing them to telecommute from anywhere in the world, Gianforte told the roundtable, which included representatives from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Business Assistance Connection and Mountain-Pacific Quality Health.

He and his wife Susan were in Helena as a “catalyst” for getting Montana-raised kids to come home, bringing with them telecommuting jobs, he said.

The Gianfortes’ work includes the “Come home to Montana (and bring your job with you)” initiative, which showcases Montanans successfully telecommuting for companies worldwide. The booklet that chronicles those stories was mailed to 15,000 Montana State University graduates that have left the state, with plans to increase circulation, he said.

One issue with marketing a city like Helena to telecommuters is that many workers do not self-identify as a telecommuter, but rather by their job that may have clients anywhere. Many people assume that telecommuting only applies to technology jobs, but it has been proven effective in many other fields, he said.

A major challenge for workers considering telecommuting is convincing their employers that productivity will increase working remotely, he said. But the time saved on physically commuting and lifestyle bonuses have often proved it workable to even the most skeptical bosses, he added.

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Demanding an apology

While Gianforte spoke inside, about 20 protesters rallied outside objecting to comments he made to the Montana Bible College in February, in which he is quoted as saying that retirement is not mentioned in the Bible, but is an accepted aspect of today’s culture. He went on to use the example of Noah, saying in part that Noah was working and building his ark and not receiving Social Security payments.

“We’re out here because we’re demanding an apology from Greg Gianforte for his disparaging comments on Social Security and retirement,” said protester Bryan Watt, communications director for the Montana Democratic Party. “This is just a conglomeration of folks that are retired, or one day want to retire, that care about our promise to Montana seniors.”

Gianforte was asked what he meant by his comments by a member of the roundtable, and he replied that he was proclaiming the “nobility” of work.

“Unfortunately, some people have made this political and clearly it’s not, and they put words in my mouth that never came out,” he said.

He never used the word “lazy,” as some have proclaimed, to describe retirees, but encouraged the college to be stewards of their work skills for life, he said.

The Helena Chamber of Commerce, the host of the roundtable, was never interested in politicizing the event, and only wanted to talk about jobs for Montana, said president Cathy Burwell.

As Republicans gathered in Helena for their state convention this weekend, Gianforte said he had not decided yet on whether to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016, but that he would announce one way or another once he and his family do decide.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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