More than 20 years ago, Dave Leishman came to Montana for a vacation at a dude ranch. He worked a fast-paced job back east, and the tempo of ranch life stuck with him. Eventually, the people he met, the sights he saw, and the culture he soaked up drew him back west for good. All that, and an excellent business opportunity. He now runs one of the region’s most well-loved guest ranches, the Bar W Guest Ranch, a Whitefish Montana property just ten minutes from downtown. Here, we talk with him about his Montana migration.
** This story is from the current issue of Pure Montana magazine. Read more here. **
What first brought you to Montana?
I had been working seven days a week, 15 hours a day, for ten years. I had a hazardous waste recycling facility in Springfield, Massachusetts. I had a friend, Phil, in my office one Sunday night at 10 p.m. trying to get me to sell his product. And I just went off. I looked at him and said, “I’m blowing this whole thing.” My kids don’t know who I am. All I do is work.” He looked at me and said, “You’ve got to go to Montana with me.” I said, “You’re pushing the pendulum a little too far. I was thinking of a weekend off.” He said, “If this vacation doesn’t change your life, I’ll pay for it.” I took my 9-year-old Meghan, and my 7-year-old Emily. We went on vacation. It changed my life. We went back six years in a row.
Where did you go for that first trip?
We got off the plane in Missoula. I thought I was in the Wild West. All I remember is just the breathtaking beauty of everything. We went to Bear Creek Guest Ranch near East Glacier. It was a dude ranch, so we rode horseback in the mountains. We went up hills and down hills I didn’t know you could do on a horse. Phil called it the original four-wheeled drive. The first one we went on was called Mule Ridge. That was right at the Continental Divide. I didn’t know horses could go up hills that steep. It was a well-traveled trail through timber that landed you on the crest of a mountaintop.
What memories stand out 20 years after the fact?
The people. How calm and nice everyone was. I really enjoyed meeting the local Blackfeet Indians. I met them at an Indian Rodeo and it was a whole different culture that I’d not been exposed to before. They were riding bulls, saddle broncs bareback broncs, as well as team roping, and barrel racing.
How did you come to own the Bar W Guest Ranch?
I had a company working with gas and electric utility companies running energy conservation program. We would go into businesses, inventory all their energy uses and tell them if they changed the lighting or put new mechanicals on the roof, how much energy and money they could save. I wanted to diversify the company’s holdings by purchasing the ranch, but in the end I bought the ranch personally. From a personal perspective, I did diversify. We were looking at a couple of ranches, and on our way back to town to have supper, we passed a ranch. I asked the agent about it and he said, “Well, that is twice what you wanted to pay, but we can go and see it if you want.” We drove in and looked around—there wasn’t anybody living there at the time. We called the real estate agent selling the ranch. We looked at it and I said, “This is perfect.” We thought, “This is it. This is what we want.” We got very lucky.
What’s it like owning the ranch?
There’s so many elements in a guest ranch. You’ve got it all: the business accounting, human resources, sales marketing, staffing and employment, hospitality with reservations and guests. You’ve got the lodge, with cooks and lodge staff, and you’ve got cleaning and cooking and food and beverage. You’ve got the grounds maintenance. And you’ve got horses. You have horses and wranglers and saddles and trucks and trails. You have all the vehicles and horse trailers, and flatbeds, and dump beds, wagons, sleighs, and on and on. And then you’ve got everything else on top of that. It’s like a hotel on steroids.
How did you transition into living at the ranch full-time?
I was in Montana two weeks a month and Massachusetts two weeks a month year round for 10 years. It was my commute. I worked on both businesses in both places, and it took a lot. The learning curve for the ranch was straight up 90 degrees. There’s a difference between the ranch environment and an office that’s multi-functional, streamlined,efficient, and at times really intense. The amount of work is the same, but you’re going about it differently. The intensity of the workplace was much higher in Massachusetts than the ranch. When I would fly in, there’d be a horse tied at the hitch rail, and they’d say, “Okay Dave, see you in a few hours.” Back east, everything is contracts and here, most things are handshakes. We sold the Massachusetts company in 2014. We had grown it over 18 years from four employees in a 10 by 10 office to a 250-person company in 26 states throughout the country. It was time to sell. The industry was changing dramatically—there were new laws and regulations hitting the industry and the industry was becoming much more difficult to navigate. It was really exciting to sell the company. It changed our lives again.
What was it like for your family to live on the ranch?
When we moved, Megan was 14, Emily was 13, and Hailey was 9. They grew up on the ranch in the summertime, and went to school in Massachusetts. They all worked here. It was a good feeling that my kids were growing up on the ranch. They were outdoors. There was horseback riding. Glacier National Park was a short distance away, and they got into the park quite a bit. They loved the park—there’s so many outdoor things to do here, and it was cool as a dad to watch them grow.
What do you value about living in Montana and doing business here?
Most business out here is relationship-based, so building relationships, and keeping those relationships, is paramount. You get to build relationships and you get to build your business. From the lakes to the streams to the clarity of the water to the National Park to the fishing to the hunting, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting—it’s an adult playground out here.
PHOTO: The Whitefish Montana property Bar W Guest Ranch