Belgrade businessman Keelan James has been named the 2020 Montana U.S. Small Business Administration Small Business Person of the Year, an honor he hopes will draw attention to the “hundreds of companies in the Gallatin Valley that are expanding and succeeding” in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All we see out there right now is negativity,” said James, owner of Easy Lawn Hydroseeding, which has been operating out of Belgrade since 2005. “I’d like to show there are tons of companies out there succeeding – it’s not the doom-and-gloom market we see on the news every day.”
The usual pomp and circumstance afforded to winners of the prestigious prize has been canceled this year, including an awards banquet in Helena and a trip to Washington, D.C. However, Yellowstone Bank officials who nominated James for the prize are hosting a free community barbecue Monday at Easy Lawn Hydroseeding to recognize James
and his family.
“We’d love to have anyone come,” said Kurt Buchl, president of the Bozeman branch of Yellowstone Bank. Free hamburgers, brats, chips and drinks will be served to all who turn out for the 11 a.m. celebration on Sept. 21, at the company’s headquarters at 24 Skyway Blvd. in Belgrade.
“We look at Keelan as a very progressive, self-made entrepreneur operating a very well-run business,” Buchl said.
Added bank Vice President Randy Tyler, “Even in these times, this business has flourished.”
James is humble about the award – “I could throw a rock around here and find companies better suited for this,” he said – but he is hopeful the recognition and celebration will illustrate that many local businesses are thriving through the pandemic.
Easy Lawn Hydroseeding has grown and prospered during other difficult times. In fact, James said decisions he made during the economic downtown that hit a few years after he took over his father’s “hobby business” set it up for the success it enjoys today.
During the economic downturn that began in 2008, he explained, he chose to ride out the recession while a number of Easy Lawn’s competitors left for jobs in the oil fields of North Dakota. Because Easy Lawn was a small company with small margins, the strategy worked to its advantage.
“That single decision was very profitable,” James said.
Easy Lawn offers its seeding, erosion control and land reclamation services to commercial and residential customers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. It also focuses on land restoration after major construction projects, environmental cleanup, river and stream restoration, wetland mitigation, and private land improvements and management.
James said his wife Brianna, a science teacher at Belgrade High School, has been part of every major business decision since he took over Easy Lawn in 2005. Both are graduates of Montana State University – he has a degree in construction engineering – and they decided to settle in Belgrade because they had no desire to leave the Gallatin Valley. They are committed to contributing to the community through service and philanthropic projects, an effort their two young daughters also help with when appropriate.
“We’re very proud of this family and what they’ve accomplished,” Tyler said.
Easy Lawn Hydroseeding employs eight people and continues to expand. James expects to hire three more employees within the next year.
Buchl explained that any bank participating in the SBA program can nominate clients for the annual award.
“It’s a great source of pride to have had our customer named SBA Person of the Year,” he said.