Edward Jones Financial Advisor Mike Vondra of Billings has been named to the 2023  Forbes Top Next-Gen Wealth Advisors Best-in-State ranking by Forbes/ SHOOK Research. The list is comprised of more than 1,460 financial advisors nationwide, all under age 40.

“This is an incredible honor, one I could never have achieved without the tremendous support from my branch team. And I am forever indebted to my clients for the trust they have put in me and the relationships we’ve built as we work toward the financial goals that help give them the freedom to live life on their terms,” Vondra said. “This work inspires me because I know that, for years to come, I can make a meaningful difference in the lives of my clients and colleagues, and in my community.”

Teresa Gilreath has recently joined Stockman Bank as a Real Estate Loan Officer at the Billings Heights location. She will develop and originate real estate loans while assisting clients in home purchase financing, consolidating debt, lowering monthly payments, construction financing or utilizing their home as an investment tool. Gilreath brings over 39 years of banking experience to the position, which includes 22 years in the mortgage banking industry. Her vast expertise will assist Stockman Bank in deepening client relationships and expanding our real estate loan portfolio.  She has been active in the community and will continue by participating in Stockman Bank related events.

Montana State University Billings Professor of Communication Susan Balter-Reitz, Ph.D., has been named a University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement Fellow for 2023-2024.

Balter-Reitz and her co-author, Michael Bruner, Ph.D., University of Nevada Las Vegas Professor of Communication Studies, together round out the class of ten Fellows who will be examining issues impacting democratic exchange and free expression on college campuses. Specifically, Balter-Reitz and Bruner will be assessing the impacts of the FORUM Act on free speech on public universities in the United States.

Balter-Reitz and Bruner have been concerned with the attacks on public colleges and universities under the guise of protecting free speech in their collaborated research over the last decade. Examples include their 2017 publication about the manipulation of university free speech rules by individuals such as Milo Yiannopoulous and their recent work on the passage of FORUM Acts in state legislatures around the country at the National Communication Association Conference in 2022. Additionally, the two won the Franklyn Haiman award given by the National Communication Association to honor distinguished scholarship in Freedom of Expression in 2015.

“Dr. Bruner and I are thrilled to have been selected to develop our research as part of this distinguished group of scholars from across the nation,” says Balter-Reitz. “We look forward to sharing our findings about the impact that state legislation has on shaping free expression on college campuses and the implications it has for the future of public universities.”

Aly Eggart, MSPR, CATP, recently accepted a promotion to become the Director of Leisure Marketing for Visit Billings, managed by the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Eggart was hired as the Leisure Marketing, Sales and Social Media Manager in 2016 and has since become an integral part of the Visit Billings team.

“We are proud to promote her into this well-deserved director position for Visit Billings and the destination,” said Executive Director of Visit Billings Alex Tyson. “During her seven years with the organization, Aly has become the leisure marketing leader for Billings. She has elevated this crucial visitor segment greatly impacting the visitor economy for the destination.”

Eggart’s responsibilities will include managing and leading leisure marketing and consumer sales efforts, growing leisure visitation through attendance at travel shows, and fostering the international group tour market. Additionally, she directs and manages the social media, publicity and leisure communications activities and campaigns. Eggart’s work to promote Montana’s Trailhead has been recognized as she led efforts for a campaign that won a bronze Adrian award in 2022 and the 2018 Marketing Campaign of the Year at the Montana Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation.

Stoney Field of Montrose County Colorado has been named as MetraPark’s new general manager.

According to a press release, the choice was unanimous among Yellowstone County Commissioners.

Field most recently served, for the past six years, as the Fairgrounds and Events Center Director in Montrose County, Colorado. Field’s first day on the job will be August 7.

His experience includes background in rodeo, livestock and ag related events and programs, along with community events and concerts. 

Field has worked at every level of events from being a participant, to organizing, promoting, staging and conducting numerous types of shows and productions. 

“We had a number of well qualified candidates for this important opening”, said Yellowstone County Commission Chairman John Ostlund. 

“It speaks well to the reputation earned by Metra and its staff over the years as a premier venue in our region. We sought creative leadership, the ability to build and manage successful teams, a track record that demonstrates to us that the general manager selected has the ability to involve our entire region in the mission of MetraPark, while keeping an eye on increasing revenues and keeping expenses in line in order that we give our taxpayers the best bang for their buck. Stoney has built strong ties with promoters, vendors, volunteer groups and especially his customers. We are confident that Stoney will help us grow in ag events, along with fair profitability, concerts, sporting events and family friendly events equally, giving our region a wide range of opportunities to spend their entertainment dollars with us.” s

Sherry Long, Treasurer for Yellowstone County, has informed County Commissioners of her intention to retire. Long’s last day serving her third term in office will be July 31.

Long stated, “After the last 3 years of going through the challenges of working through orchestrating the workflow, scheduling, and meeting the many deadlines, with the severe staff shortages, we are finally fully staffed and therefore are better able to serve the public in a timelier manner.  I feel my office is at a good spot now for me to retire.”

“I have enjoyed my last 8+ years serving the citizens of Yellowstone County, and I thank them for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to do so,” said Long, a Republican, who was first elected to the position in 2014.

Prior to that she was an assistant to the County Superintendent of Schools, a role that has since been scaled down a part time position, which Long also fills on a stipend. The Treasurer’s office also serves the role as county assessor, which is also a stipend position.

The County Commissioners are charged with finding a replacement for Long. According Commissioner John Ostlund the process will involve advertising the position to seek applications. The commissioners will then conduct public interviews of candidates who apply and make a selection prior to July 31.

The office of the Treasurer receives and disburses all monies, as dictated by state law, and records these transactions. The Treasurer reports to the Montana State Department of Revenue on administrative matters while the County Commissioners have budgetary authority.

The office is divided into two groups. One deals with motor vehicle matters, including registrations, title transfers and applications, and the issuance of temporary stickers and permits. The other serves as the general office for activities including receipts from taxes, fees and intergovernmnetal transfers. It also processes disbursements, invests funds, maintains bank accounts, seizes tax delinquent property, handles tax protests, and issues moving permits for mobile homes.

Billings’ very own Wayne Nelson is among those recognized as the Small Business Administration’s business people of the year.

 Montana District Director, Brent Donnelly, has announced Montana’s 2023 Small Business Persons of the Year and other Montana Small Business award winners.

The award for Small Business Champion goes to Wayne Nelson, readily recognized by most Billings business people for his 25 years providing business expertise and support for entrepreneurs, as a leader with Stockman Bank. 

Neli and Dimitar Nikolov, owners of The Corral Burger and Lodge in Gardiner, have been named as the Small Business Persons of the year.

Shellie’s Country Café, Inc., Helena, owned by Shellie Mitchell and Aimee Myles, has been named  Woman Owned Small Business of the Year.

Willie’s Distillery, Inc. in Ennis was named Veteran Owned Small Business of the Year, recognizing Willie Blazer and his late wife, Robin, for their entrepreneurial efforts.

SBA Young Entrepreneurs of the Year are Asia Caluori and Dustin Anglen owners of Pearl Boba Tea Missoula, MT

Penta Machine Company, Bozeman, owned by Michelle and Matthew Hertel have been named  Small Business Exporter of the Year, and they also won the award as Rocky Mountain Region VIII Exporter of the Year

“This year’s Montana SBA award winners are not only a testament to the grit and resiliency of Montana small businesses,” said Donnelly, “but also an inspiration as they highlight the opportunities entrepreneurship affords to make tremendous impacts to our families and our Montana communities.”

Each year during National Small Business Week , stars of the business community at state, regional and national levels , are recognized.  “More than half of all Americans either own or work for a small business, and they create nearly 70 percent of net new jobs in the U.S.” said SBA Regional Administrator Aikta Marcoulier,  “I congratulate each of our Small Business Week award winners for their pursuit to create equality in the workplace, advance innovation, and increase America’s global competitiveness.”

National Small Business Week will be observed April 30 – May 6, 2023.  State Small Business Persons of the Year winners will be formally recognized on May 1 in Washington DC and all winners will be honored locally during the week of May 1. Details to be announced at a later date.

The event will celebrate small businesses, provide critical resources and recognize SBA partners for their support in providing startups and small business owners with counseling and advice, skills development, disaster preparedness and recovery, as well as access to capital, government contracting, and market opportunities to start, grow and build resilient businesses.

Wayne Nelson, Stockman Bank

As Small Business Champion, Nelson is being recognized for his very active role in community leadership with service and economic development organizations.  After 25 years with Stockman Bank, 15 of those years leading the Billings market as President, Nelson now serves as Senior Banking Executive.  Nelson has served on the Board of Directors for Big Sky Economic Development for several terms and has referred clients to many of the programs hosted by BSED including, SBA, VBOC, SBDC, the Rock 31 Entrepreneurship program and PTAC, where they received technical assistance and access to financing. 

The Corral Burger and Lodge, Gardiner

The Corral Burger and Lodge is the longest standing business in Gardiner, Montana, the only year-round entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The business was established in 1960 and was previously known as Helen’s Burgers. “The little burger joint has always been famous for its big juicy burgers made from a variety of meats.”

Neli and Dimitar Nikolov took over ownership of the business in 2015 and grew its popularity by continuing Helen’s legacy. In 2017, USA Today voted The Corral as Best ELK Burger in Montana. The Nikolovs take pride in finding the best locally raised elk, buffalo and 100% grass-fed beef, fresh produce, and great ice cream.  When the pandemic interrupted the supply chain and increased prices, Neli and Dimitar pivoted and began growing their own vegetables to maintain their focus on using local products.

Operating a successful restaurant in a rural tourist town (pop. 833) presents unique challenges, especially when it comes to housing shortages and recruiting employees.  To tackle this challenge, the Nikolovs expanded to provide lodging for their guests and employees.  They were able to add six lodging units to an already existing house for employees and in June 2021, Corral Villas was built and opened its doors to guests for short-term rentals.   Located in the heart of Gardiner, just a building down from the restaurant, Corral Villas offers the ultimate Yellowstone getaway. Open year-round, it is the perfect headquarters  to launch a day of rafting, fly fishing, hiking, biking, hunting, cross-country skiing, or any other endeavor that calls your name while visiting and exploring America’s first National Park!

Over a three-year period during peak tourist season, the number of employees grew from 15 to 40.  However, the business experienced tragedy in June 2022 due to historic flooding that closed the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and stopped the flow of tourism through Gardiner.  Local businesses rely on tourism summer traffic for a bulk of their annual revenue, and budget to make it through the shoulder seasons and winter.  Businesses like The Corral Burger and Lodge were forced to reduce staffing and work hard to minimize expenses.  Fortunately, the most heavily damaged entrance to the park, located in Gardiner, re-opened four months later.  Business has resumed in Gardiner and Yellowstone, and visitors are once again able to continue enjoying the big juicy burgers and shakes they’ve come to know and love.

Shellie’s Country Café, Inc., Helena

Shellie Mitchell and Aimee Myles were both raised in the town in which they now run their business. In 2007, after over 30 years in the restaurant business, Shellie took a leap of faith, borrowing $800 from her son to open a small cafe. With several family members in tow, Shellie began the painstaking process of turning a true down-home start up into an ever growing operation. Her daughter, Aimee, began working in the restaurant at age 15, and after spending over half her life helping to grow Shellie’s Country Cafe, she became part owner. Their values revolve around creating a family atmosphere, being committed to their staff, and giving the community somewhere to gather with friends and family. Driving the motto “Nothing Fancy, Just Good Food!”, the Shellie’s Country Cafe family of dedicated members, have taken this small hometown vision and made it a staple of the community they continue to serve.

Willie’s Distillery, Inc., Ennis

Willie’s Distillery started in 2010 by Willie Blazer and his late wife Robin. Willie’s Distillery is a craft distillery located on the Madison River in Ennis, that specializes in products such as bourbon, vodka, blended whiskey, and cream liqueurs. Products are distributed to all 50 states, but the Rocky Mountain west region, primarily Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, is their most noteworthy market. What started with only two employees in 2010, has since grown to a team of 34 and is one of the most recognizable veteran-owned businesses in Montana. The distillery is one of the largest distilleries in Montana, is a destination and a gathering place for veterans, service members, and whiskey drinkers, and known as a place to see a friendly face, meet other service members and catch a good time in Montana.

Asia Caluori & Dustin Anglen – Pearl Boba Tea Missoula

Prior to attending the University of Montana, Asia Caluori taught English in Vietnam where she discovered her love for bubble tea. After college, Asia remained in Missoula working in the tech space, but always had a dream of bringing her love of boba to Missoula.  Dustin studied international business at UC Santa Barabara and became a technology instructor out of college. This job required international travel with long and frequent visits to East and South East Asia where Dustin frequently indulged in boba. After a backpacking trip in Yellowstone, he convinced Asia the pair would be able to pull off a boba farmer’s market stand in Missoula. After selling 500% more than targeted, the owners quickly recognized a need in the community, hired staff, and opened a temporary location in downtown Missoula. In October 2021, the duo opened their first permanent location in the University of Montana’s University Center. Eight months later, they opened their second full-time operation in downtown Missoula.  In 2022, they grew to 20 employees, served 15,500+ customers and sold 53,000+ drinks in that year alone.

Penta Machine Company, Bozeman

Michelle and Matthew Hertel moved to Washington state together after college where Michelle worked as a mechanical engineer for Boeing and Matt worked as a machinist for Electroimpact.  While they enjoyed living and working there, they knew they wanted to eventually return to Montana.  This desire inspired them to begin designing a CNC mill together that they hoped to eventually sell.  Over three years they worked evenings and weekends to develop their initial prototype before leaving their jobs and returning to Montana to launch Penta Machine Company.  It took them another year and a half to bring their product to market with a successful Kickstarter Campaign in 2015.  The company began focusing on exporting in 2019, and saw a 48% increase in revenues to over $3,000,000.  This has allowed them to continue developing new products in house while maintaining profitability.  Penta Machine Company now sells their products nationally as well as internationally in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Each year the Billings Chamber of Commerce awards exceptional leaders whose impact and example are deserving of recognition—not simply for their accomplishments, but also for their character, their leadership, and their integrity. The 2023 Business Excellence Awards honor individuals and organizations for contributions that undoubtedly make Billings a better place to work and live.

The 2023 recipients are: Outstanding Business Person Dusty Eaton, A&E Design Employer of the Year Entre Technology Services Inclusion Award William Henry, Be Better World Customer Service Excellence Matt Hall, Midway Auto & RV NextGEN Exceptional Emerging Leader Bo Bruinsma, Billings Public Schools

“A community is only as strong as its people,” Chamber President/CEO John Brewer said of the annual awards. “We celebrate our employers, workers, innovators, leaders, visionaries and what they have accomplished in building our community. Billings is uniquely us because of the businesses they have created and the people they have touched.” Award recipients are selected through a scoring process by a committee of Chamber board members and committee leaders, following a period of public nomination submissions.

“The Business Excellence Award recipients represent the very best of what the Billings business community is doing with regard to leadership, innovation, and employee care,” Chamber Board Chair Julie Seedhouse said of the recipients and the prestige of the recognition. “Each of them fully embraces the Billings Chamber’s mission as catalysts for growth and creators of quality of place. We are deeply honored to recognize the essential work they are doing to make our community better.”

Recipients will be recognized at the 2023 Billings Chamber Breakfast, March 30, 7-9 am, at Alberta Bair Theater. The event will feature Captain Sandra Yawn (“Captain Sandy”) of the hit television show, Below Deck Mediterranean, as the keynote speaker. It is sponsored by by Nonstop Local and America First Response.

Tickets are at Alberta Bair Theater Box Office or through their website.

International Jet has donated 10 total hours of flight time on a Learjet 55 (N5572) to Angel Flight West, a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization that arranges no-cost, non-emergency air travel for children and adults with severe medical conditions and other compelling needs. Thanks to this donation, Angel Flight West has been able to schedule recent missions in the Billings area for patients in need. 

Every day, Angel Flight West’s volunteer pilots fly people to their medical appointments at no cost to the passenger. Angel Flight West has spent nearly four decades—and provided more than 95,000 flights—creating pathways to healthcare across the Western United States, arranging donated flights to people in need, and providing them safe passage to and from medical care. With a network of 1,600+ pilots throughout the 12 western states, pilots donate their aircraft, piloting skills, and all flying costs to help families in need, enabling them to receive vital treatment that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Averaging $5,000/hour for 10 hours of flight time, Angel Flight West patients have been given the gift to receive the care they need thanks to the volunteer pilots, staff, and flight crew with International Jet. This charitable donation supports all expenses related to the flight missions such as fuel, flight time, airplane, and crew consisting of two FAA part 135 qualified pilots. In addition, the patients, family members, staff, and supporters of the missions have been given the opportunity to personally sign their names on the side of the airplane, making this a truly unforgettable experience for all involved.

Transportation challenges create one of the most daunting barriers to healthcare—a barrier second only to cost. Through a network of pilots and airline partners, Angel Flight West arranges no-cost air transportation for people in need, supporting more than 95,000-lifetime missions since 1983, all thanks to their volunteers. Each year, in-kind donations from Angel Flight West’s volunteer pilots exceed $6 Million, helping over 5,000 passengers reach medical treatment. International Jet’s in-kind gift of aircraft, fuel, time, and pilot expertise helped multiple patients and their families reach life-saving health care.

Altanta FCU has been named Employer of the Year and Devon Davidson of MARS of Billings has been named Business Person of the Year by the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Other award winners are Virginia Mermel, Ph.D., CNS, of Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries recognized for Customer Service Excellence and Jaidyn Simmons, Treasure Realty Group has been recognized as NextGEN Exceptional Emerging Leader. Billings Clinic is the recipient of the “Inclusion Award.”

 The award recipients were nominated by the public as outstanding businesses and professionals, and the winners were selected by a volunteer scoring committee.

 Earlier this year, the Chamber honored Kris Carpenter as the Legacy Award honoree and Bill Dutcher was recognized for Agricultural Excellence.

Award recipients will be honored during the 2022 Billings Chamber Breakfast event at MetraPark featuring Tony Hawk and presented by KULR8 and Billings Clinic on April 7. The event will be held from 7 – 9 a.m. with doors opening at 6 a.m.

Altana Federal Credit Union has served Montana for over 70 years with innovation, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to redefining what others say banking should look like. It started with nine refinery workers pooling $5 each to create a lending channel not otherwise afforded to them through traditional banking. Today, Altana’s 90 employees serve community members across seven Montana counties. Altana team members continue to uphold the promise of those nine founders by creating financial opportunities for all. 

Jaidyn Simmons of Treasure Realty Group is a Montana native, growing up in Laurel. She attended Montana State University Bozeman where she earned a bachelor’s in business finance. Jaidyn embarked on her real estate career in college, knowing that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. After a successful few years, Jaidyn launched her own real estate brokerage, Treasure Realty Group, thinking she could grow her business while also sharing her success with other agents and fill a passion for teaching others. Today Jaidyn has eight agents as part of the brokerage. With her continuing drive to grow, Jaidyn and her husband, Robert, purchased Rimrock Property Management to add to their services. With Robert as the contractor and Jaidyn as a realtor, they offer great expertise and tools to the property management business. They have five employees at Rimrock who help them manage approximately 350 rental units.

Virginia Lee Mermel, Ph.D., CNS of Backpack Meals and Teen Pantries holds both an MS and PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from the University of California, Davis, and is a board certified Human Nutrition Specialist (CNS).  Ginny spent the majority of her career working in health risk management. She has taught college nutrition courses and written college nutrition and wellness textbooks.  For the past 16 years she has focused on school nutrition. During this time, she chaired the School Health Advisory Committee for Billings Public Schools (BPS) for 4 years and worked part-time as a School Wellness Consultant for Montana Team Nutrition, a division of USDA for 6 years, in addition to her volunteer work to reduce food insecurity.

Ginny grew up in a food insecure home.  Since learning that 35%-40% of students in BPS have the same experience, she has volunteered several days each week addressing food insecurity issues in Yellowstone County and throughout Montana.  She believes, “Every child should be fed, fit and ready to learn so that they grow to be self-sufficient adults ready to earn.” 

To help this happen, Ginny started the BackPack Meals and Teen Pantry Programs for BPS in 2009 and 2011 respectively, with support from key members of the School Health Advisory Council and VISTA, Kendell Coombs and seed grants from Montana Food Bank Network.  In the ensuing years, Ginny has helped other communities across Montana and the Intermountain west do the same.  She has consulted with MSU Billings and other Montana colleges on the development of student staff pantries.

Ginny serves on the steering committee for the statewide nonprofit Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger and has served as the nutrition lead for both the Best Beginnings of Yellowstone County and Healthy By Design of Yellowstone County committees.  She is on the Family Promise of Yellowstone County Board. This organization provides emergency shelter and complex case management to some of the homeless families receiving out-of-school time meal support.

Ginny’s husband Gary Mermel, MD, a retired anesthesiologist, is her chief supporter philosophically and financially.  Together, they decided her volunteerism was an important service to the community and adjusted their lifestyle to accommodate it.  Since the onset of Covid, Gary has been her only warehouse volunteer.  He has happily done the heavy lifting required to send weekend meals to over 250 elementary school students, as well as several hundred tweens and teens that use the middle and high school pantries each week.

Gary’s love of a good Cali-style burrito motivated him to return to his family’s food service roots and obtain the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise for Billings in 2010.  The Mermels are now co-owners of three Qdoba franchises in Billings, Bozeman and Helena. 

They have two adult sons Matt and Kevin. 

Devon Davidson is originally from Froid, Montana. Devon is the owner of MARS of Billings. He is also the President of MARS Nation, the association of 19 individually owned MARS business across the United States. Devon has a bachelor’s of Business Administration from the University of North Dakota.

Devon’s professional goals include growing the business while offering the highest level of service to their customers. They strive to apply and install quality products from the best vendors in the industry, and want to help other MARS Nation affiliated grow their business as well. As for the team, they continue to cultivate a work culture and environment that is attractive and retains their great staff. The MARS of Billings mission says, “Fueled by our passion to help our customers enhance their vehicle, we go above and beyond to provide top-notch customer service, quality products, and expert craftsmanship.”

Devon is a highly motivated and driven individual. His leadership skills and business development background truly shape how he runs his business and empowers his team. His focus on relationships and his empathy for others helps to connect him with not only his staff members but also his customers. In 2019, Devon was named the Small Business Person of the Year for the state of Montana by the Small Business Administration.

Devon is married to his wife Kim Davidson of 25 years in June, and has two sets of twins: Bridger and Gentry who are 17 years old and Gavin and Paige at 15 years old.