Zoot Celebrates 25 Years: Single Dad Turned Software Pioneer Created Hundreds of High-tech Jobs in Bozeman

Employing some 250 people, Zoot Enterprises is a cornerstone of Bozeman, Montana’s high tech sector. Its headquarters, built in 2001, sit on the edge of town in Four Corners with panoramic views of the Bridger, Gallatin, and Madison mountains. The architectural grandeur fits the image of a global tech firm whose clients include three of the top-five banks in the U.S.

The lobby of the three-story brick building features vaulted glass ceilings and a huge bronze bison sculpture, while oak trim and iron railings form precise geometric patterns. The swirls of the Zoot logo are inlaid in the marble floor and computer servers that have the capacity to process billions of instant credit and loan decisions per year blink behind glass.

Lobby of Zoot Enterprises headquarters near Bozeman, Mont.

Lobby of Zoot Enterprises headquarters near Bozeman, Mont.

The $18 million campus is a testament to Zoot’s exciting growth since founder and CEO, Chris Nelson started the company in his basement in 1990. It is also a reflection of a company culture that emphasizes high integrity, communication, and continual learning in a casual atmosphere.

“I wanted the building to be like a college campus where people talk and exchange ideas,” Nelson said. “I don’t care when people work or what they wear, as long as they do great work.”

Employees enjoy an onsite gym, coffee bar, ping pong tables, underground parking, cafeteria with homemade fare, and the freedom to display collections of Star Wars bobble heads or go outdoors for a game of Frisbee golf. Employees even bring their canine friends to the office. Once in a while you’ll see Zoot’s president, Dennis Dixon, and his Doberman, Red, playing catch in the yard alongside colleagues and their dogs.

Creating the Company He Wanted to Work For

Chris Nelson, Founder of Zoot Enterprises

Chris Nelson, Founder of Zoot Enterprises

Nelson’s path to entrepreneurship began with his own frustrations working for a company that denied him the flexibility he now offers his employees. He is a Billings native with degrees in accounting and information systems from Montana State University-Billings (formerly Eastern Montana College).

In 1988, as a single dad with an 8-year-old son, Nelson relocated to Bozeman for a bank services position with the understanding he could wear jeans and come to the office after 8am so he could take his son, Shawn, to school.

But Nelson found that his new managers frowned on his wardrobe and work schedule. He ended up frustrated and started looking for ways to go into business for himself.

At that time, most credit reports came over teletype machines. Moonlighting for a credit union, Nelson wrote a computer program that made credit reports available via PC. He then developed algorithms that would automate the credit decisioning process based on each lender’s requirements.

According to Nelson, credit card applications that once took eight weeks to process now took eight seconds. He quickly found new customers for the technology, including a leading credit issuer.

Nelson named his fledgling company after an alias he used in college. “I used to play computer pranks and sign them Zoot, but everyone knew it was me,” he said.

Leading Two Decades of Growth and Innovation

Zoot Enterprises quickly outgrew Nelson’s basement. He took on a partner to handle marketing and hired programming help. The company doubled its workforce every 18 months for the first decade.

Zoot pioneered instant-decisioning software and was an early adopter of the cloud-based software as a service model. The company’s powerful decision engine processes transactions in a fraction of a second. Over the years, Nelson and his team racked up an impressive list of innovations. Zoot was the first company to offer a graphical user interface for customers to manage their own platform, the first to do instant credit prescreening, and the first to provide internet-based home equity applications.

By 2000, employees were working out of five separate locations in Bozeman. So, Nelson bought 160 acres in Four Corners to build a new facility that would bring employees under one roof while still providing plenty of room for expansion. He designed the inner workings of the facility’s system himself, adding special loops and networks for redundancy giving it more bandwidth and reliability than most cities.

As stewards of client data, Zoot’s data centers have to be even more reliable and secure than banks. Everything is encrypted twice. For redundancy and global reach, the company has five data centers – three in the U.S. and two in Europe.

While Nelson remains CEO and is still heavily involved in management, he hired a president in 2005 to oversee the day-to-day operations of the company.

Over the years, Nelson has launched additional business ventures, including real estate development around the Zoot campus and in Billings. He and his brother, Mike, recently renovated Billings’ historic Northern Hotel.

Zoot grew during the tech bubble burst and recession of the early 2000s, but took a hit during the volatile market that rocked the financial industry from 2007-2009. The company continued to innovate through the setback, creating a credit risk lab solution to help lenders comply with regulations and adjust to changing conditions.

This year, Zoot celebrates its 25th year of creating technology that supports the financial industry. Chris looks forward to what the next decade will bring and many more successful years.

Caption for top photo: Celebrating its 25th year in business, Bozeman’s Zoot Enterprises employs around 250 people. A pioneer in instant-decisioning software, Zoot’s clients include three of the top-five banks in the U.S. Zoot’s $18 million campus (pictured above) is a testament to the firm’s exciting growth since founder and CEO, Chris Nelson started the company in his basement in 1990.

All photos courtesy of Zoot Enterprises.

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