MSU Billings' Inaugural Hall of Fame Class of 2014
The year was 1978. The Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” topped the billboard, the first-ever cellular mobile phone system was introduced and the golden age of arcade video games was born.
Meanwhile, Schaer left his secure teaching career at Montana State University to start up Computers Unlimited in Billings, offering computer hardware and software solutions to local businesses.
The self-taught computer programmer and his wife, Cara, withdrew $3,000 of retirement savings to live on for the year, taking the wager for an industry that was largely unknown.
“It may seem like it was a big risk, but I don’t think entrepreneurs really think about failure,” 75-year-old Schaer said. “It’s not until much later, when you employ a lot of people, that you start worrying about failure.”
It’s safe to say the gamble was worth it. While Bill Gates, also in 1978, co-founded in Seattle what would become the world’s largest software business, Schaer’s startup business in Montana has also been successful.
This week marks the company’s 36th anniversary of developing software specific to industry need, ranging from welding and gas distributors to medical equipment companies.
Computers Unlimited, at 2407 Montana Ave., serves more than 20,000 users worldwide through the company’s flagship product, Total Information Management System, and employs nearly 200 people.
Since his move to Montana Avenue some three decades ago, Schaer has established roots in Billings’ historic district with millions invested in the purchase and restoration of more than a dozen buildings, helping other businesses get established including CTA Architects, Venture Theatre, Carter’s Brewing and Uberbrew.
The investment was an effort to revitalize Montana Avenue in the late 1990s, when he and a handful of other property owners put up half the $1.2 million cost of street work, sidewalks and landscaping. The historical avenue has been thriving ever since.
“By helping others move into the neighborhood, more businesses, more people, more opportunities will follow,” he said.
Born and raised in Chicago, Schaer earned a bachelor’s degree in 1960 from the Illinois Institute of Technology in chemical engineering.
Five years later, he received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Oregon State. He came to Montana in 1969 to teach at Montana State University in Bozeman.
He and Cara have three children and three grandchildren.
Throughout his career, Schaer was appointed to the Academy of Distinguished Engineers in 2001, named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2003 by the Montana Ambassadors, and received the Business Person of the Year Roche Jaune Award for Business Excellence in 2009.
In 2009, Schaer’s son David took over the presidency of Computers Unlimited. Mike Schaer remains on the board as chairman.