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Storied history, bright future

It was part high school reunion, part documentary on how one of North Dakota's most successful business stories unfolded.

Friday's Great Plains Software reunion at the Fargo Theatre brought hugs between old friends, stories of trial and error and reflections on what it took to transform the company from midmarket accounting software firm with fewer than 50 employees into a publicly traded international corporation.

"It's overwhelming that almost 1,400 people would take their own time and expense to come back and be part of this," said Steve Sydness, who started at the company in 1987 as a consultant and went on to become an executive vice president for sales, marketing and support.

Sydness, who left in 1999 and now lives in Wellesley, Mass., said taking a Fargo company and turning it into a global enterprise with offices in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Australia was a satisfying part of his Great Plains tenure.

He said he still feels connected to the camaraderie brought about by working at Great Plains.

Some of that spirited atmosphere was on display at the Smith, Follett & Crowl building, 309 Roberts St., as Great Plains partners, vendors and former employees perused an exhibit dedicated to the company's growth.

Among the items was an archaic-looking Apple III computer from 1982, softball jerseys with the Great Plains logo, and polo shirts and bandanas from the company's Stampede events.

From CEOs who used Great Plains as a foundation to build their own businesses, to former employees who met their spouse while working for the software company, attendees at the reunion had a story for how Great Plains shaped his or her life.

Those in attendance viewed a documentary called "The Great Plains Journey" and were treated to a party in the evening.

Errol Schoenfish started at Great Plains 20 years ago Friday, with a group of 11 other employees.

Schoenfish met his wife Cheri on the first day of work. The couple had the first "Great Plains" baby in 1991 when their first child was born.

"We were basically right out of college and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into," Errol Schoenfish said as a Microsoft band played live music outside the Fargo Theatre.

"It was like college. We were all young, single and not married. We sort of grew up together," Cheri Schoenfish recalled.

The company's longest serving employee, Dave Gaboury, said it's staggering to look back at 26 years of Great Plains history at once.

Gaboury started at the Great Plains Computers store on Broadway in June of 1981, when graphic machines and the Apple III computer were sold in the showroom.

Hired as a programmer, Gaboury still works in research and development for application programs at Microsoft's Fargo campus. Technology advancements within the company have come a long way since he started, he said.

"What we had to work with back then is inconceivable compared to what we have now," he said.

Great Plains milestones

1981

- The original Great Plains Computers store is located downtown on Broadway in the former Mandels Clothing Store.

- Accounting software development begins.

1982

- Company introduces software for the Apple III computer.

1983

- Doug Burgum joins Great Plains as vice president of marketing.

1984

- The company changes ownership when Joe Larson and Roger Turner sell their shares of Great Plains Software to the Burgum family. Doug Burgum is appointed president of Great Plains Software.

1985

- Crop and Livestock accounting software package is designed for farmers, ranchers and agricultural-related businesses.

- Plains & Simple for the Apple's Macintosh includes general ledger, accounts receivable and accounts payable functionality.

1986

- Great Plains announces an accounting series for IBM computers.

- The Great Plains Accounting Series for the Macintosh introduced.

1987

- Great Plains begins research and development on Dexterity, the forerunner to the Dynamics product family.

1989

- Great Plains Software begins shipping its Macintosh accounting series to Australia and New Zealand.

- Great Plains Software recognized with a PC Magazine's Editor's Choice award.

1992

- Discussions of building a new home and campus begin.

1993

- Great Plains and Microsoft unveil joint venture and introduce Microsoft Profit, a business management and accounting computer software program for small businesses.

1997

- Great Plains files registrations statement for Initial Public Offering.

1998

- Opens West Coast office in Seattle.

1999

- Great Plains begins offering public stock.

2001

- Microsoft Corp. buys Great Plains in a $1.1 billion stock deal.

Source: Great Plains exhibit

Readers can reach Forum reporter Melinda Rogers at (701) 241-5524

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