photo by Adeolu Eletu via Unsplash

2021 Billings Chamber Business Excellence Awards: Recognizing Exceptional Businesses and Leaders

June 2021

by Kelly McCandless; Director; Communications & Workforce Development, Billings Chamber of Commerce 

Recognition comes in many forms, and while most find it uncomfortable to be in the spotlight, it’s also generally appreciated. From words of affirmation and small notes to major awards and pomp and circumstance, it’s important to let those around you know they’re valued.  

The Billings Chamber takes the opportunity to recognize the incredible businesses and leaders in our community often, but our greatest opportunity comes in the form of our annual Business Excellence Awards. We are thrilled to share a bit about our 2021 winners. Read on to learn more about some of Billings’ best.  

Customer Service Excellence 

This year, our scoring team landed in a tie for Customer Service Excellence, so we’re privileged to celebrate two amazing individuals.  

Erica Kimble, General Manager, Hilton Garden Inn 

Erica Kimble

While in college at MSU Billings working toward a degree in Business Management, Erica Kimble recognized hospitality as her career path. “I once tried to leave the hotel business, but only lasted for a couple of months before I missed it terribly. I returned to the industry and quickly moved up.”  

Hitting the ground running, Kimble serves the industry well beyond her role as General Manager for the Hilton Garden Inn. She is the past president of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association (MLHA), the Sales and Marketing Council, and is currently sitting on the Board of Directors for MLHA. She is an active community member and encourages her employees to get involved, too.  

When it comes to service, it’s a foundational part of how Kimble leads. “I want my guests and my employees to feel like they’re at home when they’re in my hotel,” she explained. “I seek out opportunities to recognize when staff go above and beyond, which encourages them to do their best work and that we’re all ensuring the best experience possible for our guests.”  

Kimble’s nominator, Amanda Remington described her as the type of boss who works just as hard, if not harder, than staff ensuring everything goes smoothly. “She gives all of us motivation to stay positive and work hard.” 

Mitch Fox, General Manager, Buffalo Block Prime Steakhouse

Mitch Fox

The Larson Family, owners of Buffalo Block Prime Steakhouse, hired Mitch Fox as General Manager in the spring of 2019 to help realize their dream of opening a fine dining steakhouse with a strong emphasis on an exceptional guest experience and the best quality food.  

The vision for the restaurant fits exactly with Fox’s goals professionally. “I have a guest first mentality,” he explained. “I encourage great experiences for guests by training our staff to have exceptional knowledge and respect for each other, our restaurant and products. Setting this expectation automatically delivers a better experience for everyone.”  

In describing his leadership philosophy, Fox said, “As a general manager, I have to be able to do whatever is needed, set the energy for the restaurant, keep things positive and rally my team no matter the circumstance.”  

That approach, particularly over the last year, has been difficult to say the least. During COVID, when the restaurant was closed, Fox developed and implemented continuing education programs for staff and created programming to keep guests engaged with the restaurant during quarantine. 

Fox was quick to mention how important his team is to the success of the restaurant. “I’m grateful to the crew. We couldn’t do it without each other.”  

Outstanding Business Person: Joy Ott, Regional President, Wells Fargo 

Joy Ott

The award for Outstanding Business Person is given to someone who demonstrates leadership skills, motivates their team, and has made an impact to the business community through increased job growth and community involvement. Joy Ott demonstrates each of these things and more. She has served on the Billings Clinic board since 2008, and was nominated by their CEO, Dr. Scott Ellner.  

Ott’s philosophy on leadership emphasizes that no one can do it alone. “I’m surrounded by talented, smart people and I seek opportunities to learn from them daily,” she explained. The best leadership advice she’s ever received is to be genuine and authentic in everything you do. “Everything else falls into place if you remember that,” she said.  

The sentiment carries through her nomination, “As a leader, Joy has a talent for crafting a shared vision and driving action to achieve results,” Ellner said. Her remarkable leadership shines through her professional resume as well: She was recognized for her leadership qualities and advanced through a variety of increasingly strategic roles, roles that allowed Ott to pursue her primary passion in business leadership: inspiring others to lead. 

“Followers are drawn to her authenticity and give 100% because she gives 100%,” Ellner remarked. “This is the very essence of a great business leader. She is a shining example of passionate community service and impact.” 

Inclusion Award: Downtown Billings Alliance 


In our inaugural year offering this award, Downtown Billings Alliance (DBA) is an exemplary example of inclusion. The award was created to honor individuals and/or employers who champion diversity and inclusion in business and community.  

Verbiage from DBA’s Strategic Plan reads, "Downtowns are for everyone. They are accommodating to individuals and groups alike. They go out of their way to make people from all backgrounds feel welcomed, included, and celebrated."  

Mehmet Casey, Development Director for DBA as well as the nominator, noted his observations shortly after being hired. “I quickly learned that the team represented men and women, Native Americans and LGBTQ+ members, locals and transplants. This informed me that our leader is not just accepting and welcoming of different populations bur rather celebrates and seeks out people for who they are and what they're capable of.” 

Katy Easton, CEO for the DBA, further explained the organizations’ approach to being intentionally inclusive. “We aim to model a diverse and inclusive culture not only within our office, but throughout downtown. The vision is to have downtown model this culture for the rest of the community.”   

Dedication to that approach builds a unique vitality downtown. “This award is one of the most meaningful our team could receive,’ Easton remarked. “It means everything. There’s a lot of ways to say you’re doing a great job downtown, but to be recognized for truly being inclusive, nothing could be more meaningful.”

NextGEN Exceptional Emerging Leader: D’Vaughn Hayes, General Manager, Profile by Sanford 

D’Vaughn Hayes

D’Vaughn Hayes seeks opportunities to get involved all over Billings. From NextGEN, to business advocacy and diversity and inclusion advisory boards with the Chamber, to leading the effort to host TEDx Billings in 2022, Hayes touts a strong network and careful leadership.  

This leadership, noted by his nominator, fellow NextGEN member April Clark, sparks others to raise their hands to get involved as well. “I believe communities are made stronger by individual contributions,” Clark explained. “In Billings, it would be hard to find an individual who contributes more than D’Vaughn Hayes. Not only is he incredibly active individually but he also recruits and includes others to grow their involvement.”  

“And,” she continued, “He’s just getting started.”  

Hayes is a problem solver eager to uplift Billings and connect with people who want to celebrate the community and seek solutions. “When I moved back to Billings in 2013, I was looking to connect with people who saw the greatness in our community. I found NextGEN and found a home with people looking to do the same thing,” he said. 

“That is what is inspiring about D’Vaughn,” Clark noted. “He is not threatened by helping grow other people; instead he sees the opportunity for everyone, including himself, to grow and to be included.” 

Employer of the Year: Phillips 66

Employer of the Year Phillips 66

Donald Susanen, General Manager for Phillips 66, has been with the company for 19 years, coming to Billings in 2017. When asked what makes Billings stand out, he credits the culture of safety, honor and commitment which is part of everything they do. “Our employees embrace those values and utilize the principles both inside and outside the facility,” he said.  

Phillips 66 is a leading energy manufacturing and logistics company that produces energy for cooking and heating homes, gasoline to drive to work and school, diesel and aviation fuel to move people and goods, and natural gas and liquids that power businesses. Phillips 66 has operated in Billings for over 70 years and creates over 800 jobs for employees and contractors in Billings today.  

Being an exceptional employer is critical to the organization’s success. They set the expectation to be exceptional citizens as well, allowing employees to donate over 1,000 volunteer hours, supporting over 200 organizations and donating over $800,000 to the Billings community in 2020. 

Susanen expressed gratitude for the people who show up every day, living the Phillips 66 values. “I want to thank the team for their hard work. This is a wonderful award, but we could not do what we do without each employee.” 

Business Champion: John Felton, CEO/Public Health Officer; RiverStone Health 

John Felton 

The last 18 months have been unlike any other in living memory. We’ve seen leadership take all forms during an incredibly turbulent time. John Felton, CEO of RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County’s Public Health Officer, walked the line making incredibly difficult decisions for businesses and individuals daily. For that reason, he’s receiving recognition as Billings’ Business Champion.  

When asked about how he balanced the needs of public health with the demands of business and economy, Felton is quick to note that public health is about much more than physical health status. “It’s also about education, economic vitality, social connectedness, psycho-social stability, and more,” he noted.  

Felton explained two things critical to recognize early: there were no good options and there were no risk free options. Steve Arveschoug, Executive Director of Big Sky Economic Development and Felton’s nominator noted, “RiverStone Health served our community in tremendous ways during our 2020/21 COVID-19 crisis. Without compromise, they put the needs of the community (including our businesses) at the top of their priorities and showed all of us what it means to "serve" and put the needs of the customer first.” 

From the beginning businesses and public health worked together so the two could be complementary, not at odds, which is why Felton says this award means so much to him. “It’s really very special because people in public health have been treated badly across the country. The perspective was you had to choose a side: health or business. The fact that this award comes from the business community is really very meaningful and says we found that balance.”

If you’d like to learn more about these award winners, visit our blog at And, we invite you to join us in celebrating excellence in business. It’s been a tough year for most people; pause to extend your thanks to the leaders and businesses in your life exhibiting perseverance, grit and, of course, excellence.  

Originally printed in the June 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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