Cowboy Jewelry CEO Fashions UM MBA Degree

University of Montana MBA candidate Lance Neirby also serves as the CEO of Montana Silversmiths, a Montana-based Western fashion label based in Columbus. Photo courtesy of Montana Silversmiths.

April 21, 2023


MISSOULA – University of Montana MBA candidate Lance Neirby has spent a career perfecting one of the world’s oldest trades to make beautiful things.

His craftsmanship has taken the form of NFL rings, World Series Championship trophies and the world-famous Tiffany & Co. solitaire diamond engagement rings, to name a few pieces.

Spending more than 20 years honing production and manufacturing, metalsmithing and craftsmanship, he’s abided by a personal mantra: ABL.

Always be learning.

“I guess I hate being bored,” he said. “If you’re not looking at the next growth step in your own leadership skills and getting better at the things that make you and your team successful, then you’re not going upward.”

Neirby was encouraged by mentors to seek additional business education to expand his business and financial acumen. Three years later, he was named CEO of Montana Silversmiths, a Montana-based Western fashion label based in Columbus in its 50th year of business.  In his new role, Neirby now leads the multimillion-dollar private equity company and continues to focus on expanding his leadership skills.

“Life is all about the mentors and leaders you have around you, and I’ve been lucky to have surrounded myself with both my entire career,” Neirby said. “So, when people who I really respect suggested I seek an MBA, I thought long and hard and knew this was the next step for me.”

Montana Silversmiths has an employee program that financially supports professional development and education. But Neirby wanted to fund the MBA himself.

“It was important to me that I own this and that I do it myself,” he said.  “I wanted the MBA program to be Montana-based, so it was UM all the way.”

So Neirby enrolled in UM’s Master of Business Administration in the College of Business. The MBA program is purposefully designed for flexibility. Students can select remote instruction and tailor the classroom delivery to meet them where they are. He chose to complete the program fully remote in Columbus.

Balancing a full-time job, a spouse and two kids and about 15 to 20 hours of coursework a week wasn’t easy, but the three-year program provided Neirby the rich training and skills he now counts as necessary.

He said UM business classes taught by Professors Jakki Mohr, Theresa Floyd and Michael Harrington were particularly impactful in the areas of fundamental business law, accounting, high-tech marketing and organizational management.

“The classes I took were outstanding, and I really respect the faculty because they make you work hard, no question,” Neirby said. “For someone like me, coming from the arts, everything is explained at a level and in layman’s terms in a way that’s directly applicable.”

“In my course, students learn how to apply the principles of adaptative leadership to a current challenge they are facing in their career,” said Theresa Floyd, UM associate professor. “Lance took full advantage of this opportunity. He was an excellent student and deeply engaged in every conversation. I know he’ll continue to succeed in any path he chooses.” 

Neirby said the cohort of fellow students in the program was a value-add, too.

“I got to know other folks around the state in different areas and businesses, and that’s been great to make connections – particularly when it comes to business networking.”

Nationally renowned for its cowboy-culture line of belt buckles, jewelry and lifestyle products, Montana Silversmiths is the official licensed jeweler for Professional Bull Riders, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the American Quarter Horse Association. It also holds a Guinness Book of World Records for producing the world’s largest belt buckle.

In addition, the company is also the officially licensed jeweler for the TV series “Yellowstone.” The show’s popularity has injected $70 million into Montana’s economy and helped consumers connect with the authentic designs of Montana Silversmiths, Neirby said.

Neirby added that the popular show has catapulted the culture of western jewelry on the national scale, with a particular revenue impact at the company’s beginning year sales opportunities in Texas.

But Neirby is clear that the country has long been “obsessed” with the romantic mystique of the West. He even made a graph tracing popular Western cinema from the early ’70s and its impact in urban areas that Neirby said shows “an appreciation of the greater cowboy culture over time, which has resulted in widespread adoption of Western fashion and accessories all over the country.”

He said the “Western” values of faith, family and freedom are evident in Montana Silversmiths’ design aesthetic, which he thinks resonated with a large percentage of the country long before the Duttons arrived.

“The mark of a healthy business is not, ‘Are we still going to be successful if Kevin Costner stops wearing our product?’ but ‘we are stable and sustainable even if he doesn’t.’ Our distribution network is not dependent on the show, even though it’s a major asset. The MBA program helped me articulate this understanding.”

Before joining Montana Silversmiths in 2016, Neirby spent 11 years creating luxury pieces for Tiffany & Co. as the iconic jeweler’s master silversmith and senior manager for the company’s elite sports league trophy shop and exclusive solitaire diamond rings. 

“I learned so much at Tiffany’s about mentorship, training and leadership,” Neirby said. “Their company has the smarts and wherewithal to understand that well trained employees in management and leadership translates to a successful team and company.”

Neirby holds a bachelor’s degree in studio arts from Carleton College and an MFA in metalsmithing and jewelry from Rochester Institute of Technology.

He will add an UM MBA to his resume this May when he attends UM Commencement.

On his to-do list in the near future: find ways to leverage more manufacturing in Montana and create an employee pipeline in jewelry, fine arts and technology.

“I’m proud to be a Grizzly,” he said. “For every other art kid out there, let me tell you it’s possible to find your path. You can do a lot when you’re focused.”


The University of Montana is the flagship university of the state. The College of Business at UM is nationally renowned and has been named the top business school in the Big Sky Conference by U.S. News and World Report for seven consecutive years.