Peak performance: Billings, Mont.

If you don't mind a little isolation, Billings combines gorgeous scenery with low taxes.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all RSS FEEDS (close)

Beartooth Mapping co-owners Paige Darden and Kevin Toohill visit the Rimrocks.
Why I Launched Here
We asked entrepreneurs in all 50 Best Places how their hometown treats business owners. See how the cities stack up.
What do you consider most important for a business-friendly environment?
  • Low taxes
  • A growing local economy
  • Affordable homes
  • Low crime
  • High-quality labor pool
Tax havens
Want to keep more of your profits? Check out these 5 states from our Best Places to Launch list, where taxes are low -- and in some cases, nonexistent.

(Fortune Small Business) -- Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Kevin Toohill yearned to experience the wide-open vistas of the western U.S. Today, the avid outdoorsman lives with his family in Billings, Mont., where he runs Beartooth Mapping, a firm that sells customized topographic maps and other geographic products. Its Web site,, allows consumers to customize maps by choosing the location, center, area, size, print finish and numerous other specifications. The company grosses between $2 million and $3 million annually.

The vast majority of MyTopo's customers live in more populous states such as California, Michigan, New York and Texas. So why stay in Montana? One word: lifestyle.

"If big mountains and recreational activities are what you like, Billings is your place," explains Toohill, 35. "We are two hours from Yellowstone National Park. There's the best fly-fishing in the country. We've got horseback riding trails and white-water rafting. That's what keeps us here."

The biggest city in Montana, Billings is still a small town in size and spirit. It's the largest urban area between Fargo, N.D. (No. 3 on our Best Small Places to Launch list), and Spokane, and it serves as the regional hub for more than half a million people. But with a population of a little more than 100,000 (150,000, if you count the suburbs), Billings remains the sort of place where the average commute time is a mere 16 minutes and business proprietors are on a first-name basis with their UPS delivery guy.

"It's friendly here and not stuffy at all," says Ritch Rand, owner of Rand's Custom Hats, a 30-year-old family business that supplies Western-style hats to cowboys and film stars alike. "I can walk into the bank and visit with the vice president if I need to."

Major local industries are agriculture, energy, transportation, healthcare and education. An eclectic mix of businesses call Billings home, including three oil refineries, First Interstate Bank and Kampgrounds of America, which operates campsites throughout the U.S.

"Billings is unquestionably the business capital of Montana," says Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. "It has a real dynamism."

Billings's business climate is best described as temperate. Unemployment is rising but remains well below the national average. The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, ranks Montana's tax climate as the sixth most favorable in the country. And the national real estate bubble skipped Billings -- today Montana's foreclosure rate is the fourth lowest in the country.

Billings is not complaint-free, however. Some argue that Montana's lack of a state sales tax places an excessive burden on property owners. Others point to Montana's general isolation and wish that there were more price competition among the airlines serving Billings Logan International Airport.

Nonetheless, Billings is growing rapidly. According to Census Bureau estimates, the metro area's population increased by about 10% between 2000 and 2008.

Toohill, for one, has found his home. "I want the smaller cities and bigger spaces of Montana," he says.  To top of page

To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.

QMy dream is to launch my own business someday. Now that it's time to choose a major, I'm debating if I should major in entrepreneurial studies or major in engineering to acquire a set of skills first. Is majoring in entrepreneurship a good choice? More
Get Answer
- Spate, Orange, Calif.
Tech's highest paid women Silicon Valley isn't known for its diversity, but it is home to a handful of highly paid female executives. More
9 reasons to be hopeful about women in tech These startups are working to leverage technology to level the playing field for minorities and women in tech. More
10 best states to retire in Forget Florida. Residents of these states are happy, safe, and have good health care -- all for the right price. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play