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Location doesn't matter in online world 4-30-07

BUTTE, Mont. (AP) - Location used to be everything in business.

But the Internet and other technology is shrinking the world marketplace, opening up opportunities for Montana and other rural, remote states like never before, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and others said Monday at the fourth annual Montana Economic Development Summit.

“The personal computer connected to the Internet with the magic of software has become, in many ways, one of the most empowering tools we've ever had,” Gates told attendees via satellite from Redmond, Wash. “And it's really changed the rules.”

Business opportunities, he said, are now less determined by location and “much more determined by the amount and quality of education you've received.”

Gates joined Anheuser-Busch Cos. President and CEO August Busch IV and ambassadors from China and five other countries in opening the two-day summit at Montana Tech sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer were expected to speak Tuesday.

In opening remarks, Baucus urged the more than 2,000 attendees to “think outside the box” and not let politics get in the way of good ideas to keep the state's economy humming.

“Nothing of consequence ever comes without working together,” he said. “And if we cannot work together, we won't achieve the goals that we have set out.”

Montana's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation at 2 percent, and state wages are growing rapidly, Baucus said.

But energy, housing and health care costs are also rising, and Montanans need to think of new ways to keep that job and wage growth going, he said.

“Montana has the resources to create economic progress for the long term,” Baucus said. “We have the best workers. We have a governor committed to making our great schools even better. We have energy resources, and we have an entrepreneurial spirit.

“These ingredients will add up to success, if we keep looking forward, engaging the world and adapting to meet tomorrow's challenges. If we remain innovative, nothing will limit our potential.”

Fellow Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., stressed education and work force development as key to keeping up with technology. Harold McGraw III, chairman, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Cos., said removing barriers to free trade sparks economic development and warned against a growing sense of “protectionism” in the United States.

“The world is growing up. ... We must not wall ourselves off from the global economy,” he said.

State business leaders said Montanans need to stop thinking of themselves as victims of geography.

“It's time to turn the tide and take the Big Sky (Country) to the big city regardless of what state or country that city may be in,” said Scott Billadeau, owner of Liquid Planet in Missoula.

Liquid Planet offers coffee and other beverages to “health-conscious, globally interested individuals.”

Success in the modern marketplace, they said, largely depends on a Web site, quality marketing and international networking through travel, trade shows or contacts with congressional leaders like Baucus.

It also still takes a lot of hard work and, sometimes, a little luck.

Havre-based ENELL Inc. spent years bartering its sports bras at trade shows and submitting them to women's fitness magazines before a key contact landed their product on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

The month the show aired in 2005, ENELL sold six months of its inventory in just two days and had to hire more employees to deal with the influx of phone calls. The company now exports its no-bounce bras to Australia, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and other countries and is developing new products, Chief Financial Officer Wayne Koepke said.

“The key is finding a niche and marketing for that niche,” he said.

In a panel discussion, ambassadors from Bahrain, Chile, China, Indonesia, Panama and South Korea expressed interest in strengthening trade ties with the Treasure State - and not just for Montana beef or wheat.

Bahrainian Ambassador Naser M. Y. Al Belooshi said his country's booming jewelry market would welcome the palladium and platinum produced at Stillwater Mining Co. in Billings, while others expressed interest in Montana-grown lamb or soybeans.

“There is a broad mix of industry opportunities that we have seen. ... and Montanans have been very fast at finding them,” said Panama Ambassador Frederico A. Humbert.

Carl Venne, chairman of the Crow Tribal Council, urged the business sector not to forget about Montana's American Indians, saying the average annual income on his reservation is $6,000 to $7,000.