High Tech, High Touch: Applied Materials builds cutting-edge technology and relationships in Kalispell

Applied Materials’ Kalispell division employs around 500 people and plans to add more engineering and production employees to help in the newly-launched Applied Frame Center of Excellence. The Center will design and develop manufacturing methods and processes for equipment developing frames. Images courtesy of Applied Materials.

Global semiconductor and display manufacturing equipment provider Applied Materials develops personal relationships in Montana and beyond

By Katy Spence

If you’re reading this online, there’s a good chance that the device you’re using contains technology built with Applied Materials’ equipment. In fact, you’d probably have a hard time finding a device that hasn’t been constructed using the company’s technology.

“Our tools are used to make virtually every new chip and advanced display in the world,” Ricky Gradwohl, Senior Director of Communications, said. “The products that we use every day, you expect them to get better, cheaper, faster. All of that really starts at Applied.”

Founded in 1967 in Mountain View, California, Applied Materials has 90 locations worldwide, including development and manufacturing facilities in Kalispell, Montana. The company engineers manufacturing equipment and process technologies used by companies like Samsung to build complex chips and displays. Rather than making the chips themselves, researchers at Applied have to first invent the technology that allows their customers to create highly sophisticated products.

Gradwohl said the waves of growth from personal computers to mobile devices to social media are indicative of how new technologies can transform an industry. Big data, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence are increasing demand for new and better products from Applied, driving them to be the #1 semiconductor and display equipment company in the world.

“The industry is really going through a tremendous amount of change right now,” Gradwohl said. “More chip advances are necessary, and that’s what we like to work on.”

The Kalispell division is a key part of the drive for better, and smaller, packaging of chips. It’s the difference between carrying a clunky GPS unit 10 years ago and wearing a faster, more capable GPS watch now.

Scott Osterman, Senior Director of Business Unit Operations, said the Birch Grove facility in Kalispell is currently launching the Applied Frame Center of Excellence for designing and developing manufacturing methods and processes for equipment developing frames, which can then be integrated locally or sent to other Applied manufacturing facilities for tool assembly.

“We’re going to play a major part in helping Applied get products to the field faster,” Osterman said.

Osterman said Applied is hiring positions in engineering and production to help with this new project.

The Kalispell division employs around 500 people. While employees have diversified skillsets, Osterman said Applied is especially interested in highly skilled laborers, like a machinist who also has an engineering degree. He added that the company is interested in working with a range of talented people in the area.

“I can see us really optimizing the talent pool we have in the Flathead valley, and the opportunities that we have here to be able to grow various specialties and capabilities that might be difficult to expand and grow in other areas,” Osterman said.

Osterman added that the company’s emphasis on customer relationships is tangible in the office. The majority of Applied’s customers are overseas, so employees will often travel to meet with them in person. Other times, the company welcomes its international customers to Kalispell for facilities and product tours. It’s not uncommon to walk around the office and hear eight different languages being spoken, Osterman said.

General Manager Rick Plavidal, right, presents a check from Applied Materials to Flathead Valley Food Bank.

Even with most of the company’s customer base outside the U.S., Applied Materials is dedicated to making a positive contribution in local communities. In addition to employee giving and volunteerism, Strategic Marketing Manager Cheryl Behr said the company bi-annually awards grants to local non-profit organizations through the Applied Materials Foundation. Grants are awarded in categories of Education, Arts and Culture, Civic Engagement and Environment, and totaled nearly $90,000 in the Flathead valley.

The Kalispell division also participates in Applied’s annual food drive, raising money and food for local food banks through employee contributions, fundraising activities and a match by the Applied Materials Foundation. In 2017, the Kalispell division raised $136,000 for Flathead food bank, nearly doubling their 2016 number.

“There’s a very big giving heart here,” Behr said. “All the employees get involved in volunteerism and giving, and it’s very heartwarming.”

Although Applied Materials acquired Semitool in 2009, Behr said the office maintained its personal and independent touch when it became part of Applied Materials.

“The agility that a small division has is nice,” Behr said. “If something needs to be done quickly, it can happen.”

Behr added that, though there can be differences of opinion on the team, everyone is working towards a common good and the multiple points of view usually lead to better decision-making overall.

Key Product Unit Head John Klocke has worked at the Kalispell facility for 20 years, dating back to when the building still housed SemitTool. Klocke is part of the development team, which determines what to make before the manufacturing arm actually makes it. He started in applications and field issues, then worked his way up through research and development, and into management. Klocke said the variety of work and travel opportunities at Applied are his favorite things about the job.

A Seattle native, Klocke said Applied Materials gives him the opportunity to live close to ski resorts but still work in an innovative technology field.

“To be able to work in a true technology job and be in a place where you’re able to enjoy recreational opportunities at the same time,” Klocke said. “There’s really no other place where you can do that.”

As part of the development team, Klocke works under Rick Plavidal, General Manager of Business Unit Operations in Kalispell, who understands that a big draw for working in Montana is actually living in Montana..

“Rick respects that this is a place that has a high quality of life and understands that we need to work hard and be very intent on our work,” Klocke said. “But a big part of being here is playing hard, too.”

While Applied is focused on customer relationships and high-quality products, Plavidal said  building a nurturing workplace is also a priority in Kalispell.

“It’s an aggressive, tough environment, but it’s also a loving environment,” Plavidal said. “Enjoying what you do and enjoying the people you’re with — you can’t ask for more than that.”

Plavidal retired from Applied Materials in 2000 to pursue his own creative project but returned in 2013. He said Applied is giving folks who moved away from Montana a chance to come back and work in their home state.

“There’s like a special gravitational force or something,” Plavidal said. “Once you go to Montana, you stay here.”

For Plavidal, Applied Materials is a special company in a special place.

When Plavidal’s director of business management returned from a trip to Australia, he brought his boss a journal as a souvenir. Emblazoned on the leather cover is the excerpt, “…but the greatest of these is love.”

“I think that really underscores the culture we have here and what we’re trying to build,” Plavidal said.


About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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