The Blackfoot Valley Dispatch is the oldest newspaper devoted to Lincoln, Montana and the upper Blackfoot Valley and has been the best source for local news from Lincoln, Ovando, Helmville and Canyon Creek since 1980. With a circulation of nearly 600 in 37 towns across Montana and in 25 states, we reach an estimated 1500 readers each week. We are member of Montana Newspaper Association and are working hard to provide our readers with the best possible local news and advertising. We created this website as a portal for news and community information for Lincoln and the upper Blackfoot Valley. We’re just getting the website off the ground and will work to improve it and do our best to keep it updated We appreciate feedback, so let us know what you think and how it can be improved.You can contact us at 406-362-4131.
New CEO takes reins at Hi Country Snack Foods
Hi Country Snack Foods has been a keystone business in Lincoln for nearly 40 years, so when word got out that the company’s founder was looking at selling the business to some guy from Texas, who was also taking over as the new CEO, it’s hardly surprising that there has been a lot of speculation about the company’s future.
Texas native Michael Prater, 37, came on board as the new CEO at Hi-Country on Oct. 28 and is aware that the changes would spark both questions and rumors. On Nov. 22, he sat down with the BVD to discuss the situation and confirmed there is a plan in the works for him to buy the business, but stressed that nothing has been sold yet.
“Jim and I have got an agreement and we’re on the same page with it. We’re just going through the technicality of the stuff,” he said. “There is a purchase option for me to buy the business and it’s going to go over a series of events over four years,”
Prater expects the lawyers to have the final agreement squared away and on paper sometime within the next week.
He said he’s heard that there is concern that an outsider is coming in with plans to pull the business out of state, but he made it clear he has no plans to do so. “That is not the intent,” he said. “Part of my coming here is one, to be in a small town and two, I want to live in the mountains. So that’s what really makes this scenario ideal.”
He said he also sees Hi Country’s home in Montana “as the backbone of the company.”
Still, Prater is aware people may have reservations, but said the proof will come with time. And it doesn’t sound like he has plans to head back to Texas. “I moved to Montana because I want to live in Montana,” he said.
It was thanks to the business grapevine that Prater found the reason to move up here.
“I heard of an opportunity for the purchase of the business and that they needed someone to come in and do the management end of it, which is really where my expertise is,” Prater said.
Although the meat snack industry is new to him, Prater brings a considerable amount of managerial experience to the table.
Originally from Tyler Texas, Prater graduated from Texas Tech with degrees in Business Management and Petroleum Land Management. For six years he worked in telecom as a performance and design engineer for Sprint Nextel before moving on to manage NextEra Energy’s power plants in Texas and later BP’s Western U.S. wind energy assets. He said that gave him the hands-on production plant operation and budgeting skills he needs to lead Hi Country.
The energy industry may seem worlds away from the meat snacks, but Prater said there are actually a lot of similarities between the two.
“Energy, it’s very regulated from the federal and state, because you’re putting power on the gird. With the FDA it’s the same thing. There are regulatory controls in place so it’s very similar. And then you have a production end of the business. In power, you’ve got people and equipment making your product,” he said. “The one dynamic of it that is very different is…your customer, their pricing’s set. You still have to give that customer service and stay on top of it, but here it’s a little more dynamic because we have different styles of customers and distribution.”
For now Prater plans to maintain the health of the business and to make sure he’s up to speed on both the company and the industry.
“Right now I’m focusing more on the sales end of the business. That’s where we feel more opportunity is right now and that will help the rest of the business,” he said. “Everybody I’ve talked to, I have not heard one negative thing about the product itself. It’s really a name that’s recognized in Montana.”
Despite the brands popularity in Montana and surrounding states, it faces stiff competition nationally from large corporations like Jack Links, Slim Jim and Oberto as well as from other regional manufacturers like Tillamook. Fortunately the billion-dollar meat snack industry is expected to keep growing, and if there is one thing about Hi Country Prater does want to export, it’s brand recognition, particularly for the company’s hallmark jerky.
“The spice is easier to do outside the state,” he said, “We do a lot of business outside the state in both areas, but I think (meat snacks are) where our growth’s gonna be,” he said.
As thing progress at Hi Country Prater will have Johnson to turn to for guidance. “He’s got a lot of knowledge, a lot of information and he’s kind of mentoring me with the industry,” he said. “We meet daily and go over what’s going on in the industry and how some of the business decisions have been made and why, and the history behind that.”
Likewise, Prater said the staff at Hi Country has been very receptive, although they have a lot of questions. “They all want to know what’s going on. My perception is they all seem to be very engaged and know what they’re doing and want Hi Country to be successful, so for somebody managing a business to have a team that is engaged and looks out for the best of the business, that end of it has been really good,” he said.
Regardless of the speculation about the company’s future, Praters approach to it is simple. “Just put your positive foot forward and say what your plan is and be open.”