This Minot-raised entrepreneur and philanthropist helped hundreds of North Dakotans, even a history columnist
North Dakota history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Clint Severson, who was raised in Minot and became an nationally-known entrepreneur and philanthropist.
FARGO — One of the really nice things about writing a weekly column that features fascinating people who have lived in North Dakota is the ability to include good friends who fit that criterion. Another benefit is making new friends with people who enjoy those articles. One of those friends is Dale Brown, the Minot native whose coaching success led him to be enshrined in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Through emails, Brown introduced me to one of his good friends, Clint Severson, who also grew up in Minot. Although we have never personally met, I consider Clint a good friend. Each week, for over two years, we have exchanged emails about my articles and other things, and he always gives me encouraging feedback. I am not the only North Dakotan to have received support from Clint and his wife, Conni Ahart.
In 2010, Clint and Conni made a $1 million gift to establish the Severson Entrepreneurship Academy at Minot State University. They added another $500,000 to the academy in 2014, which was followed by an additional gift of $2 million in 2016.
In 2019, Clint and Conni donated $1 million to Minot’s Roosevelt Park Zoo. The Severson’s are also supportive of Minot’s animal shelter services and MSU women’s hockey.
Outside of North Dakota, Clint and Conni have donated $2 million to establish the Veterinary Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Management Center at Long Island University. Clint knows a thing or two about Entrepreneurship. In 2007, Forbes Magazine named him “Entrepreneur of the Year.”
Clinton Howard Severson was born on April 24, 1948, in Minneapolis to Howard and Ruth (Chrislock) Severson. Howard, a navy veteran during World War II, was attending the School of Agriculture in St. Paul on the GI Bill and Ruth was finishing her nurses’ training internship.
After a brief period living in Minnesota, the Seversons moved to Minot in 1949, Howard’s hometown, with designs on taking over the family farm. Howard’s parents, Henry and Alma Severson, were first-generation Americans whose parents immigrated from Norway. In that country, the practice of primogeniture, giving the family farm to the oldest son, was the norm. Even though Howard was two years older than his brother Alton, their parents decided to let Alton oversee the farm.
This put Howard and Ruth in a bind. Howard was denied running the farm and since Clint was only two years old, Ruth felt she needed to stay at home to care for him and her infant son, David, rather than seek employment. Howard found work at the farmers’ elevator in Minot where he became general manager after a couple of years. During Clint’s early years, the family's focus appeared to be on the church, where Howard was extremely active. “We did not know it at the time, we were pretty poor. We never dined in restaurants and vacations were visiting relatives in Minnesota or camping," Clint once wrote.
At an early age, he discovered that making money was the key to obtaining the things he believed he needed. At the age of 12, Clint signed up as a paper boy, and at the age of 16, he got a job as a bag boy at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Minot. “This is when my business career started. I was consumed by the complexity of a grocery store, thousands of products, many employees, and lots of cash going in and out," Clint said. "I was like a sponge soaking up all the information I could get from the various store department managers.”
He discovered that the key to success in a larger enterprise was learning and understanding the management system. “How inventory was controlled and how orders would be generated when a stock hit a certain level," he described.
About a year later, a new store opened in Minot on May 27, 1965. The Garden Valley Super Fair was described as “the most beautiful and modern supermarket in the area.” Clint saw this as an opportunity to advance his career by starting anew at a brand-new store.
He sent in his application and was hired by Peter Maragos, the store manager. Knowing that the produce department would be the most difficult department to manage because of the short shelf-life, Clint let Maragos know that he wanted to spend time working in that department. When the produce manager quit, Clint was assigned as manager even though he was only 18 years old and still in high school. "I made the department sing big time," he wrote.
During the first year-and-a-half, sales at the supermarket more than doubled. Clint credited Maragos for giving him his first big break which built his confidence and empowered him to solve other business problems.
Determined that business success would be his destiny, Clint read books and articles on how to excel in sales and, following graduation from Minot High School, he enrolled at Minot State College, now Minot State University, and majored in business administration. While in college, Clint spent much of his nonacademic time selling lawn and garden merchandise as well as heavy appliances at the Anderson Ace Hardware store in Minot. “Then after a couple of years, the new car manager of Auran Chevrolet came to Ace looking for a lawnmower and a refrigerator. I fixed him up and he offered me a job selling new cars," Clint recalled.
He accepted the offer and besides enjoying his work, a side benefit of working for Auran was the sales instruction he received from General Motors. After finishing his business degree at Minot State in 1973, he was ready on the hunt for more opportunities, but1973 was not the ideal time to be hitting the job market. “We had inflation that was 15 to 16%. Unemployment was 10%. The economy was a disaster. And so, entering the workforce at that point in time would seem to be a difficult proposition. But the fact is, there is so much opportunity in a free-market system that it is not necessarily the case if you know what you want," Clint said.
Clint knew what he wanted. He wanted to get into a company with great potential and help that company achieve its full potential. He even considered starting up his own company if he could find qualified people with the drive and ability to help him achieve success. One area that was central to his focus was healthcare. At that time, healthcare was a quickly-growing field.
Clint purchased a Chevy van from the Auran dealership and, for three months, toured the country looking for just the right employment opportunity. He traveled to Minneapolis, Orlando and San Diego before heading north to San Francisco. Within the first two weeks, Clint was in the Bay area and he had three interesting job offers. The one he accepted was selling diagnostic blood-testing equipment for the Dow Chemical Company. He now had his foot in the door by securing employment in the healthcare division of a large company. To make things even better, he had family near him. In 1974, his parents moved to the Bay area.
Be sure to check back next week, when we will continue the story of Clint Severson.