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Heralded as ‘a leader’s leader,’ Bell Bank’s Richard Solberg honored with Legacy Leader award

Richard Solberg, whose banking career spans decades, was honored as the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce's Legacy Leader Tuesday afternoon. Solberg is best known for his 40 years with Bell Bank, which has grown considerably during his tenure.

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Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber CEO Shannon Full presents Richard Solberg with a custom made art piece as he is honored as the 2022 Legacy Leader Award at the Delta by Marriott on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — Hundreds of familiar community faces and business leaders gathered Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 18, at the Delta by Marriott to commemorate the career of Bell Bank chairman Richard Solberg.

Solberg was formally honored as this year’s Legacy Leader during the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Celebration.

Solberg’s career has spanned decades in the banking industry, beginning in Grand Forks before he became the president of Finley State Bank in his hometown of Finley, N.D. In 1982, Solberg moved to Fargo and became the president and CEO of what was then State Bank of Fargo.

During his 40-year tenure at the helm, State Bank became Bell Bank, but the financial institution has done more than just change names under Solberg.

Bell Bank has grown from a single location in the Northport Shopping Center to 20 full-service locations in North Dakota, Minnesota and Arizona. Additionally, Bell Bank has mortgage offices in 11 states.

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In terms of total assets, Bell Bank has grown from $28 million to $11 billion under Solberg’s watch. “It seems really hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since my wife Jo Ellen and I moved from my hometown of Finley,” Solberg recalled. “I can assure you that there was no plan for State Bank of Fargo to expand to what Bell Bank has become today.”

Taking a moment to look back on his legacy, even Solberg had to admit he was surprised by how far Bell Bank had come. “I sometimes get asked about how this happened,” he said. “I give one answer, which is the same answer to all those who ask: ‘I don’t know.’”

What Solberg said he did know, however, is that banking is “a people business and a service business,” which is why he attributed Bell Bank’s success to its employees. “They deserve all and much of the credit,” he commented.

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Solberg’s employee-focused attitude played a major role in Bell Bank being named among the 100 best places to work by Fortune.

Solberg possesses foresight, cares about employees and never cared where a good idea came from, former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness remarked in an introduction. “He is a leader’s leader,” he summarized.

A video tribute to Solberg painted him as a genuinely caring man whose impact extended beyond the banking world.

Over the years, Solberg has been involved with Hope Lutheran Church, Red Willow Ministries, Fargo Kiwanis and led Bell Bank’s support of the Fargo Theatre and Fargo Film Festival. He was also the first chairman of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation.

Solberg brought that personal involvement to Bell Bank, overseeing the start of the company’s “Pay it Forward” program. That program gives full-time employees and part-time employees $1,000 and $500, respectively, to use on causes of their choosing. To date, that program has led to $22 million in employee giving, Furness said.

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Solberg and Jo Ellen co-chaired Concordia College’s C400 alumni donation efforts. Also at the college, he raised $100 million while serving on the board of regents with another prominent Fargo businessman, Ron Offutt. “That happened because of Dick pushing the envelope all the time, encouraging us to make one more call,” Offutt reflected in the video tribute.

Solberg’s son Michael became the president of Bell Bank in 2009 and the bank’s CEO in 2015. During the video tribute, Michael joked that he’s the only employee at the company who could get grounded and fired on the same day, but working with his father has been a positive experience. “Working for my dad has been fantastic,” Michael said. “I’ve loved working for my dad. He has been the best boss I could have ever had. He’s even a better dad than he is a boss.”

Chamber changes

Also during Tuesday’s gathering, the Chamber offered a look back on the past 12 months before turning its gaze on the coming year.

Topping the list of highlights was the $9.62 million Good Jobs grant the Chamber received in August. The Chamber was among 509 applicants for the grant in what CEO Shannon Full referred to as a “ridiculously competitive” process. It was the only grant recipient from either Minnesota or North Dakota.

The grant will be used to address the workforce issues currently “hindering our economy,” Full said. It “comes with a lot of deliverables,” she added, specifically focused in the areas of precision agriculture, advanced manufacturing and information technology.

The grant will be used to train about 900 workers for jobs in the precision agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and cybersecurity and internet technology industries.

Also up next for the Chamber is a move out of the Hjemkomst Center and into a new building near the visitor’s center in Fargo. Chamber staff have run out of space at the Hjemkomst Center, with several employees sharing offices.

The new Chamber office is envisioned to be a hub of resources for business and trade organizations all under one roof. Full also described it as a “treasury” of the stories and companies that have built the metro area and region. “It’s time for us to get a new building, but we want something way more than a building,” Full said. “In order to have a really high performance organization, you have to have a culture and a space that the team believes and they can call home.”

At the Fargo City Commission meeting Monday, Nov. 1 the Chamber laid out a preliminary vision for a move into an up to 15,000-square-foot office on the same property as the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. The City Commission voted 4-1 to direct city employees to look into drafting a lease agreement for the use of the land.

Lastly, Full and new chairman Peter Stenehjem discussed the possibility of another iteration of the Fueling our Future initiative. The “2.0” version of the program will be designed to have a “collective impact,” Full said, with a major focus on growth for the region.

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In short, Full said she expects a strong future for the region. “We are well-equipped for a really successful and fun ride in the future,” she said.

CATCH UP ON THE INFORUM BUSINESS BEAT PODCAST
Downtown Fargo hotel project canceled, A&A opens in expanded space, pizza shop closes
Fri Feb 03 08:18:00 EST 2023
In this episode of the Business Beat Podcast, we hear about the brakes being put on a downtown Fargo development project and a new home for the popular Asian & American Supermarket. Plus, an all-natural soap company expands into the Red River Valley.

For more business stories, visit us at https://www.inforum.com/business.

00:54 Downtown Fargo hotel and apartment project canceled 01:46 Asian & American Supermarket opens in new, expanded location 02:26 Punk Chef Pizza closes 02:54 New nightclub to open in north Moorhead 03:31 Buff City Soap to open in Fargo and Grand Forks 04:07 Mexican Village to close downtown Fargo location

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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