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North Dakota calls many natives back again

Jon Hoverson's phone rang twice on the same day with offers from firms wooing him for computer programming jobs. One was from Great Plains Software, the other from a division of GTE in Phoenix. The dueling offers didn't pose a dilemma, ho...

Jon Hoverson's phone rang twice on the same day with offers from firms wooing him for computer programming jobs.

One was from Great Plains Software, the other from a division of GTE in Phoenix.

The dueling offers didn't pose a dilemma, however, for the freshly minted 1987 University of North Dakota graduate. The GTE job paid a lot more -- $6,500 above the industry average -- and came with Sun Belt appeal.

"I called my fiancée and said, 'We're moving to Phoenix,'" Hoverson said. "We felt like millionaires. Mentally, we had two houses, two nice cars."

At GTE, now Verizon, he wrote software to operate phone switches and worked on a team that designed the flight control system for the Boeing 777.


Then, after five years, John and Shelane Hoverson decided to start a family -- and thus began their long migration back to North Dakota, with stops in Des Moines, Iowa, and Minneapolis along the way.

Two years ago, the Hoversons and their three daughters moved to Fargo. Although Jon is a partner in a business consulting firm in Minneapolis, a job that requires lots of travel, he decided he could fly out of Fargo instead of Minneapolis.

"The Fargo airport became my office," Hoverson quipped. Actually, he's based out of an office in his home in south Fargo.

The Hoversons are part of the in-migration of people moving to North Dakota -- and part of an important demographic: young, well-educated, and with professional or business experience to contribute.

"I'm part of a herd of people who've left and part of a smaller herd that came back," Jon Hoverson said.

More go than return

Indeed, North Dakota's net migration exchange for the 1990s was a loss of almost 30,000 people.

To encourage more to return, various partners, including the Fargo-Cass County Economic Development Corp. and major employers, for years have combined to invite state alumni back home to live and work.


CareerLinkNorth, a job-listings Web site, welcomes "nostalgic natives" to return. It also hosts annual receptions to match former residents with employers during the Christmas holidays.

Figures on the number of "nostalgic North Dakota natives" placed in jobs back home aren't available, but CareerLinkNorth's Web site average 178,684 hits weekly -- but jumped to 237,070 the week the Wall Street Journal featured Fargo as a "hot" business location.

Those efforts help, but are not enough, in Hoverson's view. He argues the state should do more to lure back significant numbers, specifically relatively young native sons and daughters -- those seasoned by perhaps three to 10 years of experience.

"Those to me are the ones that are going to be the key ingredient in creating some kind of economic turnaround," he said. "That's the breeding ground for people who start to think about starting their own business. They're getting entrepreneurial in their own thinking."

After all, North Dakota's most celebrated business leader, Doug Burgum, left the state after graduating from North Dakota State University.

Burgum got a master's in business administration degree from Stanford University, spent three years with the prestigious consulting giant McKinsey & Co., and in 1983 joined Great Plains Software -- then a cash-starved startup with just 15 employees. To raise money, Burgum famously borrowed heavily against farmland homesteaded by his great-grandfather -- literally betting the farm he'd inherited.

Target the young

By targeting young professional expatriates, Hoverson said, North Dakota would be bringing back native sons and daughters who have acquired important experiences, contacts and battle scars from the corporate world.


"Get a business started," he said. "That's how you're going to get the youth back."

Those in their late 20s or 30s are more valuable, in a way, than college graduates who are just starting their careers -- many who understandably yearn to live elsewhere and experience the world beyond the state's borders, he said.

"There's a lot of people who leave because they want to," he said. "That's not unique to North Dakota."

For instance, while at Stanford, Burgum became friends with Steve Ballmer -- who dropped out of business school to join Bill Gates at Microsoft, where he is now chief executive officer. More than 20 years later, Microsoft acquired Great Plains for $1.1 billion.

Brent Hitterdahl, a former employee of Microsoft Business Solutions, as Great Plains now is called, returned to Fargo-Moorhead after living in Canada and Australia.

And when he came back, Hitterdahl brought jobs with him.

Hitterdahl, a UND graduate and native of Hitterdahl, Minn., manages a Fargo office for Professional Advantage, a software company that employs 12 locally, and could grow to 16 or 20 by the end of next year.

"I didn't come back looking for opportunity," he said. "I came back to create an opportunity."

Hitterdahl, who lived in Toronto and Sydney, Australia, before returning, said the congestion and stresses of major metropolitan centers wear with time.

"I think a lot of people get frustrated living in a big city," Hitterdahl said. "There are a lot of things that frustrate you on a daily basis."

Microsoft Business Solutions has shown that software firms can thrive in Fargo -- a factor that convinced his bosses that opening an office here made sense.

"Without Great Plains I can tell you I probably wouldn't be back in Fargo," Hitterdahl said.

'Image' needs work

To entice former North Dakotans to come back and invigorate the economy, Hoverson argues, the state should become a place where entrepreneurs receive strong backing in everything from financial support to aggressive state "image" marketing.

"We have no identity," he said. "We're a bland, vanilla state. I don't get the sense that North Dakota's on the map in the Minneapolis area. Maybe Fargo is."

The state should work harder to create a positive "buzz" about North Dakota's business climate and economic opportunities, with a pitch that says, in essence, "It's a business incubator state."

The message: "You bring your ideas. If it makes the cut, we'll supplement it with some money and a management team."

Yes, money. "I'm talking flat-out funding," Hoverson said. He means venture capital for risky startups, even grants -- Hoverson calls the incubator package a rifle aimed at the heart of North Dakota's problem of chronic out-migration and flagging economic performance.

"A lot of the beef is maybe in place," Hoverson said of incentives and economic development programs already in place. "Maybe it just hasn't been packaged properly."

Hitterdahl said he had much-needed start-up help from the Regional Small Business Center's incubator, which provided office space, Internet access and other support. More business incubator capacity would help, he said.

"I guess more business incubator facilities with some assistance around them -- bookkeeping, that sort of thing, would be good," he said.

Instead of grants and low-interest loans, Hitterdahl suggests tax credits targeted at technology companies.

"I think the more important thing is to create a climate to help people succeed," he said.

Think long-term

The state and its businesses should mount a focused campaign, sustained for 20 years, to turn its economic fortunes around, Hoverson said.

"Let's get that 20-year clock going right now," he said.

In fact, Hoverson returned to his native state with entrepreneurial dreams of his own. He is working with others on ventures he hopes will contribute to energizing North Dakota's economy.

"I didn't just move back because I was homesick," he said.

He is driven by what he has seen happen to Nelson County, where he grew up in Dahlen, a tiny farm town on the Soo Line Railroad.

When Hoverson graduated from high school 20 years ago, there were eight school districts in Nelson County; now there are two. "It starts festering in my stomach," he said.

Starting a family, after all, had been what it took to pry the Hoversons from sunny Phoenix. "All of a sudden, North Dakota was on my radar screen."

But it wasn't easy to find a way to return to North Dakota at a comparable position and pay scale.

To do so, Hoverson must travel frequently. In the case of a cousin, she had to take a big cut in salary to give up a corporate job with Starbucks in Seattle to take a management position with a Fargo distribution company. A brother-in-law took a lower-ranking position with an agribusiness company to come home.

"Children force you to be less selfish," Hoverson said.

Family ties also were an important reason for Hitterdahl and his wife, Kari, to return to Fargo-Moorhead. Both sets of grandparents are in the area.

In spite of those connections, the Hitterdahls could at some point move abroad again. "But we would definitely come back to this area," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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