MOORHEAD — Michelle Kommer is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
"I believe God places the hard things and the good things where they’re supposed to be, and I do believe that that’s what happened here," Kommer said.
She's referring to her latest venture as owner, CEO and president of HighRoad Partners, an agency specializing in HR and insurance solutions for individuals and small businesses.
Kommer resigned from her position as North Dakota's commerce commissioner earlier this year after serving four years in Gov. Doug Burgum's administration. She also served as labor commissioner and executive director of North Dakota Job Service.
Kommer said when she received the call from Burgum four years ago that she only intended to serve one term.
"We (my family) were only in it for four years," she said. "We thought that was a bold enough commitment."
So when the opportunity arose to buy the Arneson Ovsak agency in Moorhead, she knew the time was right to move on.
Levers of business
After graduating with degrees in business administration and psychology from Mayville State University, Kommer was awarded an auditing internship with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
She intended to return to North Dakota to attend law school, but instead she took a position as an auditor for Community First Bankshares in Fargo, and said she's very grateful for the opportunities she had to advance there.
"If you were there and you were willing to work hard and learn, you had an abundance of opportunities that you were not qualified for on paper," she said.
She worked her way up to head of regional operations, where her job was to help manage the growth of the company from an infrastructure perspective. When she started, Community First had 21 banks in three states. Eleven years later, it had grown to 258 banks in 12 states.
"As you grow from 21 banks to 50 to 75, so on and so forth, it becomes evident that you really do need some standard operating procedures and some level of consistency and we were growing so fast," Kommer said.
She was eventually named head of human resources, where she said she learned an important lesson. Until then, she believed there were just two levers of business: operations and finance.
"It was in that job that I realized that the third and most important leg of the stool is people," she said. "You can lay out the most lean process in the world, but if people hate it or they hate the change or they weren’t engaged in the conversation to get there, it’s not going to work."
When Bank of the West purchased Community First in 2004, Kommer took the opportunity to attend law school at the University of North Dakota.
After law school, she spent time as general counsel for Otter Tail Corp. before becoming their head of human resources. From there, she spent several years with Western State Bank before joining Burgum's administration in 2016.
Kommer said she's now "come full circle" with her return to the private sector.
"I am firmly planted in the importance of a strong HR function to an organization and that in many cases that is the most important thing a company can do well is have its people infrastructure in place because I do believe that if you prioritize that, the other things will come. And, it’s not an opinion I hold. It’s an experience that I’ve lived," she said.
Kommer was not the only party interested in the Arneson Ovsak agency. Owner Tammy Halverson said she had a financial goal to meet, but beyond that she wanted to select a buyer who shared similar values.
"The other companies I was talking to were good, too, but they were very large and more corporate in nature. I wanted to preserve our boutique small-town atmosphere, but yet modernize everything with technology. Michelle was just the person to do that," Halverson said.
Kommer and Halverson agree that success is not based on the number of policies sold.
"Under Tammy’s leadership, success is how do we get our clients the right products for them right now and then how do we walk with them along this journey? What differentiates us from other insurance agencies is that service along the way," Kommer said.
Arneson Ovsak offered insurance services to individuals and small businesses. Their agents were known for going the extra mile to help clients appeal disputed insurance claims.
That will continue under HighRoad Partners. In addition, Kommer is now offering "in-sourced" HR services. She saw Arneson Ovsak's group employer portfolio as the perfect platform for growth.
"We already have a relationship with these employers that trust us. So, we can start there and build and grow brand new client portfolios that may or may not want insurance, but may want some of that HR assistance," Kommer said.
She calls it "in-sourced" HR services for a reason.
"It’s not HR outsourcing because nobody should give away their responsibility when it comes to their people, but we will come in and partner with a company to help do that work together," Kommer said.
Those services include payroll, HR compliance, benefits administration, recruiting, onboarding, payroll surveys and more.
HighRoad Partners provides "big company technology" and services to small businesses at an affordable price, Kommer said.
It's a business plan she shares with her husband, Toby Kommer, who owns Haga Kommer CPAs and Aspire Bank, among other businesses.
"They wrap services around a small business client," Kommer said. "... It’s the unique model that allows them to partner with the client to look at their whole scenario as one in a really holistic way."
Halverson, who will stay on at HighRoad Partners to help with the transition, approves.
"Ever since I made the decision, I haven’t regretted it one moment. I haven’t had seller’s remorse at all," Halverson said. "A lot of that is to do with how Michelle has handled everything. She’s very good at human resources, clearly, and I can see how my employees are happy. There’s that fear at first of how this is going to play out, but she’s made everyone so comfortable with her coming on board."