Billionaire Gary Tharaldson and former UMary president Sr. Thomas Welder share secrets of leadership at 1M Cups event

The third annual 1 Million Cups Fargo "Living Legends Day" was held at the Stage at Island Park on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. From left are interviewers Monsignor James Shea and Pat Trainor, honorees Gary Tharaldson and Sister Thomas Welder, and emcee Greg Tehven. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
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FARGO - What do North Dakota’s only billionaire and a nun have in common?

Both have proven themselves to be uncommon leaders.

Hospitality industry entrepreneur Gary Tharaldson and Sister Thomas Welder, president emerita of the University of Mary in Bismarck, shared top billing Wednesday, Sept. 25, at The Stage at Island Park for the third annual “Living Legends Day” of 1 Million Cups Fargo.

Tharaldson and Welder said they were most effective when they focused on being servant leaders.

Welder learned early on in her 31 years at the helm of the UMary that she needed to be humble enough to ask questions and listen to the answers.


“I never stopped listening to those I serve and I never stopped learning,” Welder said.

Welder said higher education has a responsibility “to prepare our graduates to feed the world" with a sense of meaning and joy


“We believe every one of our students is called to leadership, and that you grow into leadership through service,” she said.
“The servant leader will always have other people’s highest priority needs met before their own,” she said.

Sister Thomas Welder, one of the honorees at the 1 Million Cups Fargo "Living Legends Day," chats with an audience member after the program at The Stage at Island Park on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

That means also giving time and attention to those you lead.

“Being fully present, not relying on the screen, not relying on social media, actually giving each other a face-to-face encounter is a huge gift, because it is such a powerful symbol of simply saying, ‘I care,’” she said.



Tharaldson focused on surrounding himself with people who want to go out and make a difference.

“We’re only going to be as good as our employees make us,” Tharaldson said. “I was a C student in high school. I always hired people who were smarter than me.”

He focused on developing the vision for where he wanted to grow his company, but that vision can change and mature over time.

The visions looks “different when we’re 25, and different at 30 and different at 40. The thing is, is to capitalize on those visions after you get them,” Tharaldson said.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Gary Tharaldson, center, chats with audience members after the 1 Million Cups Fargo "Living Legends Day" program Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)


He said it was important to give his employees his vision, “then get the heck out of the way.”

Inevitably, they'd exceed his goals.

“I knew if I could take care of the employees, they would take care of me,” Tharaldson said. “So whenever I helped the employees make money, they would help make me richer. That’s why I started the ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program). … We both won, and it got me to the place I am today.”

Tharaldson and Welder were interviewed by Pat Traynor, executive director of Dakota Medical Foundation and Monsignor James Shea, current president of the University of Mary.

Shea called Welder “a towering figure in so many hearts, but she is a very down-to-earth figure in her own heart."

In growing the University of Mary from a small college training teachers and nurses into a full-fledged university, she lived “a life authentically dedicated to the well-being of others,” Shea said.

“Her leadership has been tenacious and forward-thinking. …. Sister was never afraid to innovate,” Shea said.

Traynor called Tharaldson, “The kindest person who has ever graced the door of our lives.”

“The humanity of Gary Tharaldson is extraordinary,” Traynor said of the Dazey, N.D., native.

Tharaldson has financed, built and operated more than 450 hotels and an ethanol plant, Traynor said. All the while, he’s made sure to give to the community, including helping to build a hyperbaric treatment center in Fargo to help those suffering from concussion and brain injuries, thus transforming “the lives of hundreds of people.”

He is also the namesake of the Gary Tharaldson School of Business at the University of Mary.

“Super humble. The sharpest business mind. He thinks in a scale we don’t think in,” Traynor said, adding, “I believe if you were to do a scale of kindness … he’d be a trillionaire in kindness.”

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Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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