In a conversation this week, I was reminded of the oil bust of the 1980s, and how greatly it devastated Billings. Businesses of all kinds folded overnight, and since about half the town’s population was employed in the oil industry, jobs too disappeared.
I was reminded that while that was a terrible ordeal for Billings, it also laid the foundation for what was to become the strength of Billings’ economic future.
Compared to the response by the community to the COVID-19 economic shutdown, the tone of the oil bust seemed more gloomy, and people seemed more distressed than they are now. Whether that is because the impact is more severe on businesses, is yet to be seen.
It’s been commonly stated that we have yet to see the full economic impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown, and one has to believe that is undoubtedly true. There seems to be reasons for greater optimism, given that the business closures were arbitrary and not connected to underlying fiscal issues.
Optimism was not very evident with the 1980s oil bust. The bust followed what had been a period of amazing, robust enthusiasm, which permeated business and all aspects of society and the community. New businesses were opening, a new technological era was upon us, and a building boom was booming.
One of the most memorable aspects of it was a party-like atmosphere. Every afternoon as every bar and lounge in town offered “happy hour,” young engineers and other industry professionals arrived in caviler fashion, in spanking new cars, to celebrate. Every day was “happy hour” in Billings.
At Christmas time, because they were so flush, businesses hosted lavish open houses with dinners, buffets or elaborate hors d’oeuvres, and all kinds of party invitations quickly filled ones social calendar for the holiday season.
And, then it all quickly ended in a most devastating way.
Besides the obvious financial losses of businesses directly linked to the oil fields, other businesses also collapsed, primarily because they were over extended. People working for oil –related businesses were suddenly unemployed and almost all had to leave the state, and some left the country, in order to find new jobs. The ruin and hurt were palpable in Billings, just walking down the street. Houses all over the city had foreclosure notices prominently displayed. Dark empty windows of closed businesses loomed forlornly. Social events were “going away parties,” where neighbors and good friends said good-bye forever.
Moving vans were a common sight. Up and down the street, one could see, at every other house, vans and trucks being loaded with furniture; it was reminiscent of movie scenes of “Atlanta burning.”
What was not seen, however, were the positive things that were happening. Among those businesses that did not fail, were business managers, owners, investors and bankers who were fast learning profound lessons that would allow them to go forward to become some of the best and smartest business managers, which enabled them to build some of the biggest and strongest businesses in Billings today.
Without doubt that is once again happening. As the entrepreneurs in our community struggle to come through this economic catastrophe, they are learning lessons, devising strategies, innovating and recreating their approaches to doing business in ways that will not be forgotten.
They are learning how to do more with less, apply technology, and better manage their resources. And from what they are learning, they will provide foundations for the successful businesses which will dominate our community, 20 or 30 years down the road. They are learning to stand strong, to push back and to persevere, in ways never before imagined, which will make them more prepared and savvy in dealing with future economic challenges. They will be the ones who will build the future for Billings, who will create and sustain the regional economic hub that has long been Billings’ hallmark.
So while we see things crumble and we mourn our losses, let’s not overlook what’s undoubtedly happening behind the scenes, and know that it is upon the lessons being learned now that our future will be built.