Looking out on the largest crowd at 1 Million Cups Fargo – the most attended 1 Million Cups in the nation – Michael Solberg told the hundreds gathered that what makes his dad a legend is how Richard Solberg treats people.
“To this day, he still calls each of our employees on their anniversary to wish them a happy anniversary,” Michael remarked. “He still hand-writes birthday notes to each employee and their spouse. And he still hands out bonus checks every Christmas in his famous Santa hat.”
During 1 Million Cups Fargo’s Living Legends Day, Richard Solberg, Bell Bank’s board chairman, and Steve D. Scheel, SCHEELS board chairman (and former Bell board member), were interviewed by their sons and business successors, Michael Solberg, Bell’s president and CEO, and Steve M. Scheel, SCHEELS CEO and a member of Bell’s board.
“My dad has led our company to become one of the largest privately owned banks in the country, going from $25 million in total assets to $5.2 billion in total assets, and I think the real remarkable part of that growth story is that almost all of it is organic growth, built one customer and one employee at a time,” Michael noted.
One of the first points Richard made was that he and Steve D. both started golfing much later in life.
“We were really busy working,” Richard pointed out. “I used to say all the other bankers in town were golfing, and I was calling on their customers, and I got most of them.”
While Richard and Steve D. are still involved in their companies, they have a little more time for golfing now that their sons are leading the businesses. Golfing together one day, they met up with a recently retired SCHEELS employee. On the way home, Steve D. asked Richard what he thought the value of the man’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) stock was. He hadn’t been a high-level employee, but the ESOP stock was worth more than $1 million.
“Steve was so proud of that,” Richard noted. “We are now an ESOP company, and we’re following that SCHEELS model.”
Both SCHEELS and Bell Bank share similarities in how they prioritize customer service, employee happiness and philanthropy. Both companies are also proudly privately owned – allowing them to invest in people over profits and grow with a patient mindset.
“I partnered with the Snortland family back in 1982 when I joined what was then State Bank of Fargo, and they taught me about patient capital and leaving that capital in the company,” Richard commented. “They were never concerned about next quarter’s earnings. For the entrepreneurial people here, you’re going to have to partner with people. Try to find somebody who’s patient and just enjoys being part of the growth of the company.”
In talking about patience, Steve D. mentioned opening a store in Nevada in 2008 – during what many economists consider the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
“It was the worst time you could possibly open a store in the United States in probably the worst location,” he said.
Building costs came in above projections, and sales fell below expectations. Steve D. made a point to mention that Bell Bank stuck with SCHEELS when other banks fled.
“Now when those other bankers call, it’s just fun to say, ‘Remember 2008 when you said, ‘Get your bank loan somewhere else? We’re still getting our bank loan somewhere else,’” he noted.
When asked about the hardest part of stepping back after 40 years in business and watching the transition to the next generation, Richard said he and Steve D. are both just trying to guide the businesses.
“You guys are going to do it a little different, and sometimes it is not easy for us to see you do it differently,” he told Michael and Steve M. “But you’re both doing it really well, and so we’re proud of you, and we’re also proud of the employees who work with you every single day, because we know that’s what’s making our companies great. But don’t change everything!”
Hosted by Emerging Prairie, 1 Million Cups Fargo is an entrepreneurial conversation held weekly at The Stage at Island Park. It’s part of a national program of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation based on the idea that entrepreneurs discover solutions and engage with their communities over a million cups of coffee.
You can watch 1 Million Cups Fargo’s Living Legends Day here.