Authors: Gerrit De Vynck, Karen Weise and Brian Womack
Before "body slamming" a reporter and then winning a Congressional seat anyway, Greg Gianforte was best known for building a successful software company in perhaps the least likely place for a tech startup: Bozeman, Montana, population 40,000.
Gianforte's former colleagues describe a driven—if sometimes overbearing—entrepreneur who started RightNow, a company that sells customer service software to other firms. Along the way, he created hundreds of jobs and an ecosystem of startups in a town best known for prime skiing and fly-fishing. After taking RightNow public in 2004, Gianforte sold it to Oracle Corp. in 2012 for $1.5 billion. The company still operates out of Bozeman, where Gianforte, 56, lives with his wife.
“The godfather of the tech community is Greg,” says David Vap, a venture capitalist who was RightNow’s chief product officer from 2006 to 2012 and says most of the two dozen or so startups in town have some kind of connection to RightNow. "Everybody knows him."
Or thought they did.
On May 24, the night before his election as Montana's lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gianforte allegedly grabbed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by the neck with both hands and threw him to the ground, according to reporters who witnessed the incident and an audio recording. Jacobs's apparent offense: persisting in asking about the Republican health care bill. “I’m sick and tired of you guys,” Gianforte can be heard shouting on the recording. “Get the hell out of here.”
Like the dozen or so Gianforte associates interviewed for this story, Susan Carstensen expresses shock about the incident and deems the behavior out of character. "I’ve seen him lose his temper, and he can get kind of mean and nasty, but I’ve never seen him be violent with anybody," says Carstensen, who worked with Gianforte for more than a decade as RightNow’s chief financial officer and then COO but backed his Democratic opponent.
Those who worked with Gianforte say a man used to navigating Montana's insular tech scene probably wasn't prepared for the gladiatorial free-for-all of a national political race widely seen as a litmus test of President Donald Trump's popularity. "I am sure he completely lost it," Carstensen says. "There was a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of money being spent—a race that was supposed to be easy.”
Gianforte, who lost the Montana governor's race last year, is one of the few tech executives to make it in U.S. politics. Fellow Republican Carly Fiorina lost to Trump during the primaries; Meg Whitman, also a Republican, failed in her bid for California governor in 2010.
Since Trump’s election, mostly liberal Silicon Valley has struggled to understand and engage with the new president. The vocally pro-Trump Gianforte has no such trouble. A conservative Christian, he donated money to the creationist Dinosaur & Fossil Museum in Glendive, Montana, which purports to present a biblical take on Earth's history. He's given money to groups opposed to same-sex marriage and abortions. In short, Gianforte is far from the stereotypical Burning Man-attending, Tesla-driving tech CEO. The campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.
Gianforte grew up in Philadelphia and revealed entrepreneurial chops in high school, according to a 2011 profile in The Inquirer. A guard on the football squad, he sold Gatorade to teammates for 10 cents less than at the local Wawa convenience store. Gianforte studied engineering in New Jersey and went to work at AT&T’s Bell Labs, where he disdained the slow-moving bureaucracy, then struck out on his own. In 1986, Gianforte started his first software company, Brightwork Development, which helped banks identify network problems remotely. Almost a decade later, he sold Brightwork to McAfee for $10 million and moved his family to Montana, according to the Inquirer.
Gianforte was already an exacting boss in those early days of startup hustling, says Michael Randazza, who worked in sales at Brightwork in the early 1990s. Gianforte was never violent and took his job seriously, even if he came off as impersonal sometimes, Randazza says. “He was very strict and very tough,” Randazza recalls, not the kind of boss to have casual drinks with employees. “He was less of a people person than most entrepreneurs would be.”
Still, he was appreciative when someone helped him out. Randazza remembers using his jeep to help Gianforte get into his house when a nearby river was close to overflowing. “For three weeks he thanked me every day,” he said.
Gianforte founded RightNow in 1997, funding the startup himself. The company survived the dot-com bust, eventually opening offices in several states, Asia and Europe. Oracle paid a 20% premium for the company, telling investors that the acquisition would help it accelerate a move into cloud-based services (and fend off Salesforce.com Inc.). At the time, Gianforte's 20% stake was worth about $290 million. He subsequently stepped down as CEO.
Dennis Gaub, a writer and part-time bus driver, joined RightNow in 2005 as a technical writer when the company already had about 400 employees. He and his wife were invited, along with other new hires, to a dinner party at Gianforte’s home. The house was large, but not opulent, and he got the sense his new boss was down-to-earth, Gaub says. “You never felt like you were in the presence of a multi-millionaire,” he says. “You could genuinely be yourself.” When Gaub retired from RightNow last year, Gianforte showed up at the bar where he was hosting a small gathering, even though the former CEO had left the company years earlier.
RightNow was a good place to work under Gianforte, Gaub recalls. If the nearby mountains got a fresh dump of powder and deadlines weren’t looming, employees were allowed to skip the day to hit the slopes, he says. Friday afternoon barbecues were a regular feature at the company. “It was a family,” Gaub says.
Gianforte courted the media as a tech executive. In a 2005 book about building a startup with minimal outside support, he underlined the importance of using journalists to tell your story to a wide audience without having to spend heavily on advertisements. Gianforte also portrayed a dim view of the press and its role in society. He wrote that "business journalists have an endless lust for 'success stories'" and that "the need to fill column inches" is "what drives most journalists." Gianforte never had trouble responding to tough questions from journalists, says Sara Crow, who worked as a public relations manager at RightNow. Still, working with tech reporters is a little different than politics, she says. “In the business world, you don’t have a microphone shoved in your face, and if you do, you are typically prepared for those questions and briefed to the point of exhaustion,” Crow says.
In a May 25 editorial, the Helena Independent Record wrote of Gianforte: “In the past, he has encouraged his supporters to boycott certain newspapers, singled out a reporter in a room to point out that he was outnumbered, and even made a joke out of the notion of choking a news writer, and these are not things we can continue to brush off.”
Though Montana's three largest newspapers yanked their endorsements, Gianforte won handily in a deep-red state (it didn't hurt that many voters had cast their ballots before the election-eve incident). Gianforte was cited for misdemeanor assault and has been ordered to appear in court. The "godfather of Montana tech" didn't apologize to the Guardian's Jacobs until victory was assured. On Friday, he filed to run for re-election in 2018.
It would be natural for Gianforte's associates to protect the man who gave them their careers, but to a person they express bewilderment about the outburst of violence. Naren Gupta, a Silicon Valley investor and early RightNow backer, wonders: “Is this what politics does to you?”