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Effort looks to re-launch manufacturing alliance

Daily Inter Lake | February 20, 2022 12:00 AM

An alliance targeted at both existing manufacturers and potential entrants into the industry is looking to relaunch itself with its first event this week.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is hosting an event on Feb. 22 for manufacturers to kick off Manufacturing Alliance 2.0, the resurgence of a previous effort to support manufacturing in the area.

The original manufacturing alliance started in the mid-2010s with events and tours at local manufacturing centers like Applied Materials and Weyerhaeuser. The alliance fizzled in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which impeded the hands-on nature of the initiative.

Now, the Chamber board and local business leaders are hoping to bring the effort back to life.

“The intent is to really hone in and help provide educational information and build out our community’s understanding of the value of manufacturing jobs in the valley,” said Chamber CEO and President Lorraine Clarno.

She wants to make sure the new alliance is tailored to today’s manufacturing climate.

“We want to always be addressing current needs,” Clarno said.

ONE MEMBER of the manufacturing community who is eager for the re-launch is John Ghekiere. The Columbia Falls native has been tapped to lead the new alliance.

“We want to carve a space here for manufacturing,” said Ghekiere, Vice President of Product and Technology at ClassOne Technology.

ClassOne is a semiconductor equipment manufacturer in Kalispell that has experienced rapid growth over the past few years. ClassOne employs 100 people worldwide, including 60 in the Flathead Valley. Ghekiere said the company is eyeing a building expansion soon since the company has seen 41% growth year-over-year for the past two years.

Through the manufacturing alliance, Ghekiere hopes to create a local climate that makes that kind of growth sustainable. He wants to raise awareness among community members and foster collaboration between key players in the valley’s manufacturing industries.

“The dreamers are assembling,” Ghekiere said.

Through this assemblage, Ghekiere hopes to address a number of challenges facing local manufacturers. Workforce difficulties top the list.

Ghekiere wants to encourage potential manufacturers to consider careers in the trades, just as he wants to see employers get more creative in their hiring processes. He hopes to inspire more manufacturers to follow ClassOne’s model of on-the-job training to address staffing shortages.

He would like to see more creativity in the way manufacturers source their materials, too, because Ghekiere sees the valley’s perceived inaccessibility as an unnecessary deterrent to building a manufacturing business in the Flathead Valley. The overall goal for Ghekiere is to convince more manufacturing businesses to root themselves in Northwest Montana.

And on the side of the general community, Ghekiere wants to contribute to re-envisioning the public perception of manufacturing. Instead of an outdated image of dirty machinery and factory work, Ghekiere wants to paint a modern picture of an industry creating exciting technology while benefiting its surrounding area.

Overall, Ghekiere would like to see an embrace of change. “You can complain about change or be proactive about it,” he said.

ONE OF the ways the alliance seeks to be proactive is through Talent Pipeline Management. This initiative looks to open channels between students and employers to introduce potential manufacturers to the possibilities in various fields.

Jenn Cronk, the Chamber’s Workforce and Special Initiatives Director, is going to participate in a training through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to prepare her to lead the workforce development side of the alliance.

Another crucial element of the alliance will be facilitating collaboration between manufacturers, rather than competition.

Clarno, the Chamber’s CEO, believes building connections between industry members will be the best way to solve problems facing the valley’s manufacturers.

Ghekiere, for his part, subscribes to Clarno’s vision. “Difference-makers have to work together,” he urged.

Manufacturing Month, which formerly took place in October, will also be making a reappearance.

Clarno said the members of the alliance are currently looking at “how best we can create that month and innovate it in new ways.”

The Chamber is still ironing out the details for Manufacturing Month and the other components of the alliance, but Clarno stressed she aims to make sure the alliance’s goals are actionable and its undertakings are realistic.

“To deliver on results, that’s key,” Clarno said.

The manufacturers-only kick-off event will be held from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 upstairs at Brannigan’s Pub, 101 E Center Street. To register, go to https://kalispellareachamberofcommerce.growthzoneapp.com/ap/Events/Register/DpB9lKOr?sourceTypeId=Website&mode=Attendee.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.


ClassOne Technology CEO Byron Exarcos, right, talks with Craig Meuchel next to a Solstice S8 automated electroplating system at the ClassOne Technology Development Center in Kalispell on Wednesday, Jan. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)


A gold-plated wafer is processed inside the Solstice S8 automated electroplating system at the ClassOne Technology Development Center in Kalispell on Wednesday, Jan. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)


A wafer of metal processed by ClassOne Technology's semiconductor electroplating systems at their development center in Kalispell on Wednesday, Jan. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)