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Ann Potts has been a Bell customer since moving to Fargo with her husband, Mike, in 1989.
She said she has always admired how active the company is in the community, especially in regards to Trollwood Performing Arts School in Moorhead, Minn. As a fan of music and theater, she was thrilled when her sons were part of the main stage musicals at Trollwood. Her son, Tony, was the “Music Man” and her youngest son, Nathan, was Finch in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” – his first role other than a chorus member that he had ever had in a show. The following summer, Nathan played Bert in “Mary Poppins.” Ann, along with her husband Mike and daughter Ellen, have spent many hours volunteering at Trollwood. If you need to find your seat, Ann can help you. If you need medical assistance, Ann recommends daughter, Ellen, a cardiac ICU nurse.
She also had the opportunity to work with a number of Bell employees as part of a partnership with Fargo Public Schools when she was a paraprofessional at Ben Franklin Middle School. “I had the privilege of working with a few individuals from Bell who were mentoring the students in the classroom. In addition to the mentoring, I got to see first hand the impact of the Pay It Forward program on the students as Bell adapted the program for them,” she said. “I was even more impressed with Bell at this point and thought, ‘I would like to try working there some day.’”
Ann got her chance in 2013 when she was hired as a teller at the Bell Bank headquarters building on 13th Avenue South in Fargo.
“It has been an amazing experience,” she said of working at Bell. “I think the culture of the bank and the positive professional atmosphere has helped me focus more on good things no matter where I am. The generosity of those in charge amazes me almost daily.”
Ann was promoted to assistant teller supervisor last year. She is now teller supervisor of Bell’s downtown Fargo branch at 15 Broadway where she leads the team of tellers. As a former teacher she feels this position is an excellent fit for her.
“I miss my Center coworkers, but find my downtown team to be great as well, often referring to them as the ‘Downtown Dream Team,’” she said. “There is such a unique mix of people here and they are so genuine and kind. I attribute that to the culture put in place by management. I’m grateful to work for a company like this and proud to say I work at Bell.”
Along with music and theater, Ann enjoys reading, cooking, and summers at West Battle Lake with family and friends.
Jessica Kanuch loves her job and working at Bell Bank. Jessica has been working at Bell for nearly 15 years.
“It’s like a second family,” she said of her coworkers. “You spend so much time with them each day, you build friendships that will last a lifetime.”
Jessica says Bell’s bottom line statement of “Happy Employees! Happy Customers!” is more than just a slogan. She says employees live the company culture and appreciates that the company supports the positive work environment.
“My favorite thing about working here is the atmosphere and people,” Jessica said. “I love the mentality of that family atmosphere and working together. You don’t see that everywhere you go. I think it makes it a more fun environment to work in.”
Jessica is a vice president and loan servicing manager who works out of Bell’s corporate headquarters building on 13th Avenue South in Fargo. Jessica manages the post close and servicing for consumer and commercial loans. Jessica evaluates potential system enhancements and helps to implement large bank projects, while keeping an eye on growth, staffing needs and potential process improvements.
Bell has grown a lot over the years but Jessica says she enjoys the small town feel of customer service the bank provides. “It’s always fast paced,” she said. “There are lots of opportunities to learn and grow, we just jump from one project to the next.”
As an employee, Jessica is thankful for the opportunity to participate in Bell’s Pay It Forward program. She heard about children at her kids’ school who were not allowed to go outside for recess because they didn’t have warm enough winter clothing. Two years ago she used Pay It Forward funds to donate new winter clothes (jackets, hats, gloves and boots) for 12 children in need at the school. “I wanted to provide opportunities to kids who maybe don’t have as much,” Jessica said. “I love that the Bell Pay It Forward program allows us to help others.”
Jessica, a Fargo native, lives in Moorhead, Minn., with husband, David, daughters Katelyn and Ashlyn and her son, Jack. She is also on the parent teacher advisory council at Robert Asp Elementary in Moorhead. Her children are active in basketball, football and gymnastics and her husband also coaches youth sports. “We’re always busy running around to some activity,” she said.
It might have been meant to be. Two days before graduated from Minnesota State University – Moorhead with a degree in finance, Jeff Restad got his first job in banking. It was just the start of a long banking career, with Jeff working through various roles on the lending side in several bank systems until becoming a senior commercial lender at Bell Bank and, today, president of Bell’s full-service bank in Alexandria, Minnesota.
A native of Langdon, N.D., the son of a farmer who eventually went into the insurance business, Jeff attended the University of North Dakota before graduating from MSUM. Over the years, he worked at several banks in collections, residential real estate lending and commercial lending and helped set up lending operations in several locations. From 1997 to 2003, Jeff was a commercial lender at Community First in Fargo, then became one of several lenders recruited by Dick Solberg, who headed what is now Bell Bank.
Contrary to what you might think, Jeff said no several times to the offer to join Bell. Loyalty to his company and the friends he worked with, he remembered, made it “the hardest career decision I’ve made, but also the best I’ve ever made.”
“Dick made it clear that there were no individuals here,” Jeff said. “It was all about growing as a team. Their goal was to grow and take good care of people.” He added that majority owners Dick Solberg and Mickey Snortland said the bank “needs to make money, but it’s not first, second, third or even fifth on our list.” Financial success, they felt, would come as a result of “doing the right thing every day.”
Jeff stayed in Fargo for the next three years, establishing a network and client base as part of Bell’s commercial lending and sales team. In 2006, when Bell was ready to open a full-service bank in Alexandria, where the company had operated a loan production office for several years, Jeff was tabbed to start it. Once again, though, it wasn’t an easy decision.
“Fargo was where my parents and my brother lived, and most of our friends,” he explained. “I’d also be uprooting my wife, and our son Jaxon had been born prematurely and had plenty of medical issues at the time.”
For Jeff and his wife, Amy, one trip to Alexandria did the trick.
“We were in town about half an hour,” Jeff said. “Amy said, ‘We’re moving here.’ It felt inviting – small enough to raise our kids, yet big enough.” It was also a couple hours closer to the University of Minnesota, where Jaxon often went for care. Within a year, Jeff’s parents moved to Alexandria as well.
In addition to family advantages, the thriving community has offered Jeff the opportunities and challenges that have come with building and growing a bank.
Michael Solberg, Bell Bank president and CEO, told Jeff that Alexandria would be a “test market” for the company. Outside the bank’s original “footprint” in and around Fargo, the community had little if any awareness of what Bell Bank was and what it stood for.
“It was an intriguing challenge,” said Jeff, who speaks proudly of how Bell’s Alexandria location has grown. When it opened in 2007, there were zero deposits; today, there are more than $106 million in deposits and more than $175 million in loans on the books. That success, Jeff noted, is partly due to the economy and growth of the Alexandria area, and partly to the bank’s growth philosophy.
“A big part of it is our desire to grow and diversify,” he said. “Our larger lending limits mean we can do larger projects.” Bell has financed many local commercial projects, including in the education and healthcare sectors, and has been able to expand into some regional projects as well.
More than local and regional growth, Bell Bank’s success is also tied to the team. When he first came to Alexandria, Tim Bush was the only person Jeff knew.
“So we hired him,” Jeff joked of Tim, who has remained with the bank as an investments manager. Since that first hire, Jeff has built an experienced team of local bankers, most of whom have now been with Bell in Alexandria almost since it opened. Bankers from all different backgrounds and experiences, they’ve come together with a common vision.
“All of us really have a bottom line of taking care of people, and that’s why we’ve sustained a high rate of growth,” Jeff said. “We’re blessed that so many on our team are kind of ‘lifers’ now. It’s great to have that continuity, so people see those same familiar faces when they come in the door. When we can take pride and ownership in what we do for most of our waking hours, that really shines through. People know this is a great place to be.”
If Bell’s reputation and success are rewarding, so are the customer relationships that, in many cases, become friendships.
“At this point 10 years ago, I knew almost no one in town,” Jeff mused. “Today, I have many friends here – and a lot of them I met because of the bank. It’s been so rewarding to develop professionally here, but there is just as much pleasure in establishing and growing relationships.”
Jeff and his wife, Amy, keep busy with their two sons, Jaxon (age 12) and Maddox (age 9). Both also enjoy golfing, which was a great way to meet people when they first got to town and remains a fun hobby.
Jon Aarsvold was working at Community First Bank in Fargo when the company was acquired by Bank of the West. Things began to change at work after the bank became part of San Francisco-based Bank of the West, which was owned by an international company.
Jon decided to look for a better fit. He knew many Bell employees, including some former coworkers, and they all raved about the company. “When the opportunity came this was No. 1 of the possible places for me to work,” he said.
Almost eight years later, Jon doesn’t have any regrets about coming to work at Bell.
“It’s great here,” he said. “The culture and people are fantastic. It’s easy for companies to give lip service to culture and say it’s important, but it’s another thing to really live that. Bell lives that culture every day. They treat employees great. Another thing I have been impressed with is how they have been able to keep building the culture as the company has grown. That is tough to do.”
Jon said Bell’s company culture is contagious and it starts at the top with the company’s ownership and leadership being willing to make employees a priority, and to promote a family-friendly environment where employees feel encouraged to take time away from work to attend their children’s activities. Employees are willing to help each other and customers both at and outside of work, Jon said.
Three years ago when Jon — an avid Green Bay Packers fan — turned 50 years old, he was surprised that employees in his division brought in different varieties of cheese as birthday gifts. “By the end of the day, I had about three coolers full of about every kind of cheese variety you can imagine,” Jon said. He ate as much as he could, but admitted “you can only eat so much cheese (before it goes bad).”
The University of North Dakota graduate is also a big UND sports fan. His Fargo office is adorned with Packers and UND sports memorabilia.
Jon, a Blanchard, N.D., native, lives in Fargo with his wife, Michelle, daughters Alyssa and Emily and son Jacob. He also has two adult daughters, Megan, who lives in the Seattle area, and Amy, who lives in Fargo.
As executive vice president and corporate finance risk manager, Jon is charged with maintaining Bell’s strong credit quality and oversees commercial lending risk management activities, including commercial loan underwriting, loan documentation, loan servicing, correspondent banking, collections and special assets. While his area doesn’t routinely interact directly with banking customers, Jon said they try to provide excellent customer service to lenders and other internal customers, and to help Bell serve the needs of its business banking partners.
“When it comes to commercial lending, a lot of companies only do certain things that fit in a box,” he said. “Bell’s philosophy is unique in that we allow more flexibility to meet the needs of the customer while still proactively managing credit risk.”
Bell Bank customers have become accustomed to stopping by their local bank branch for coffee, cookies and a chat with bank employees.
Steph Melgaard, Bell Bank’s vice president and Virtual Bank Services manager, is working to help deliver that same level of personal service to customers when they call Bell’s customer service phone line.
“We’re trying to make sure the unequaled customer service that customers get in a branch is addressed in the Virtual Bank,” Steph said. “We function different than a typical call center. We focus on the customer more than hitting typical call center metrics. Most call centers operate under a tight scope of support. They have a list of what they will, or can do for customers. Once they reach the end of that, they are done. We go beyond that. We go the extra mile to make sure we get each customer’s unique issue resolved.”
Bell Bank employees in the Virtual Bank customer service area near 13th Avenue South and Interstate 29 in Fargo get to know longtime customers over time. “If you walk around our department, you can hear discussions with customers about their recent vacation, their families or the home they just bought,” Steph said. “That personal touch is a key feature of what we try do for our customers whenever possible. Knowing our customers also helps us protect them and their information. We work as a team to identify concerning trends or take additional steps if something feels ‘off’ so we ensure their security.”
That personal service doesn’t always end on the phone. On a few occasions, customer service employees have even stopped by a customer’s home to help resolve a computer issue, and brought some cookies with them.
The Virtual Bank staff also brings plenty of expertise to the table.
“We have a lot of very long-term employees who have extensive experience in banking and who have a vast amount of knowledge across all our offerings,” Steph said. “Our team becomes subject matter experts in a wide variety of things. They are very talented and knowledgeable folks. I am always impressed with all the skills they have and how they help customers.”
Steph, who has also worked in banking and other customer service environments, was drawn to Bell’s positive culture and reputation for treating employees well. After starting work at Bell in 2014, she hasn’t been disappointed.
“You hear all about Bell’s fantastic reputation in the local community, but you wonder, ‘what is it really like?’ Since becoming a member of the Bell family, I have not been disappointed,” Steph said. “The investment in culture and the commitment to ‘Happy Employees! Happy Customers!’ has been everything I have heard and more.”
In her 26-year banking career, Julie Ahmann has done it all – from being a teller and a personal banker, to becoming an analyst for software support and business systems. As a business systems analyst for Bell’s information technology department, Julie draws on her previous “front line” work for insight. Her past experiences, she says, help her help the front-line staff that are her internal customers.
Julie was a stay-at-home mom when she started working in her hometown of Barnesville, Minn., first as a cook, and then running charitable gaming for the Clay-Wilken Opportunity Council. At a job fair, she found an opportunity at Viking Bank and started there as a teller in 1990.
“Everyone did a little of everything” at the small bank, Julie said, recalling that she used a typewriter to complete account documentation, served as a receptionist, ran proof and eventually did loans at the bank’s new location in Moorhead.
Ten years later, Julie was hired at what is now Bell Bank in Moorhead. It was the only place she interviewed, she said, where she saw there would be more opportunities to establish a career.
“I knew they had the same philosophy of taking care of their customers,” she said, “and I knew Bob Buth (now the location president) and that group of bankers. I took a position as a teller just to get a foot in the door.”
She moved up fast. Within four months she became a customer service representative, and a month later was named a personal banker. She was pleased that many of her former customers followed her to Bell.
“We were really busy,” she said. “We broke some account-opening records those first months.”
Soon after Julie started, she had her first encounter with bank president Richard Solberg, now chairman of Bell.
“I told him how nice it was to have the products we did that really fit our customers,” she recalled. “Mr. Solberg said, ‘Julie, they’re not coming here for products and accounts. They’re coming for the people.’”
Julie has always loved the way Bell embrace that personal touch.
“You work a long time with your customers,” she said. “You start with them as parents. You get to know their dogs, their kids. Eventually they’re grandparents, and you open accounts for their grandkids. You built strong relationships, and it’s not about the numbers.”
Julie’s role at the bank changed dramatically when she served on a committee to help evaluate a potential new core computer system for the entire bank. It piqued her interest, and she jokes that she came to “the dark side” 11 years ago, joining IT as a business software support analyst. Today, she is one of six business systems analysts, serving as a liaison between IT and various departments in the bank to support business needs. For the past decade, she also has been a member of the national user group for the bank’s core system; she was product management chair for fours before being elected to vice chair. That involves hosting conference calls and meetings, helping users not only from Bell, but from other banks, give input into improving the core system.
Julie said her role in IT has given her opportunities to expand her career, especially since the technology continues to evolve and Bell continues to grow. What’s remained constant has been the family atmosphere and service, both aspects of Bell that she loves. She has never forgotten a conversation she had with late owner Mickey Snortland when she was going to transition into IT.
“Is this a good fit for you?” Mickey asked Julie. “You’re such a people person.”
“The bankers are my customers now,” Julie told him, “and that gives me as much reward as when I’m out in the field or on the front line with bank customers.”
That has proved to be true, as Julie has been able to use her past experiences to help Bell’s bankers use systems efficiently so they can help our customers.
“I love the people I work with,” Julie commented. “Both my team and the bankers I serve. We really try to give them the best service, what we would expect to receive from them.”
And indeed, it has been rewarding, especially when bankers thank her for helping them.
Outside of Bell, Julie is a cook who has even catered for state and national political figures (including Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio). She and her sister cater an annual Italian dinner as a Barnesville fundraiser. It’s become a family affair, and Julie is clearly passionate about spending time with family. She has four grown children and an 11-year-old grandson. Every Sunday, most of the family gathers for “Funday,” spent with Julie’s mom in Barnesville.
“Family comes first,” Julie said. “We all look forward to it.”
Polly Thorsness recently discovered her high school class prophecy. To her surprise, it said she would be vice president of a bank someday.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Polly, who today is Bell Bank’s senior vice president for deposit operations, a position she moved into not long after joining the bank in 2008.
Polly’s banking career has been a long and diverse one. Starting at First Bank in Valley City when she was 20, Polly helped safe deposit box customers, manually processed nonsufficient fund (NSF) transactions, and operated a 13-pocket proof machine.
“You keyed the checks in so they literally went into the right pocket for the right bank,” Polly remembered.
In that job and subsequent positions – including in Fargo-Moorhead at Steiger Tractor, American Crystal Sugar and First Trust Company – Polly learned not only that she loved helping customers and learning new things, but also that she enjoyed coaching and helping others succeed.
It’s a philosophy that has carried over into Polly’s management and mentoring. People often need to be coached by setting expectations, then making them accountable for deciding what action to take, she said. At the same time, they need to be recognized for their opinions, efforts and successes.
“At work, I think I tolerate people and respect their opinions,” Polly said. “I see everybody as having their own journey that is different from mine. They’re a person – not an employee or a manager. I really think we need to elevate the human side of what we do.”
That’s made Bell, with its values of family atmosphere and customer service, a great fit for Polly. And she’s brought her own philosophies to her work, in a career built through learning. Joining what was then Community First Bank in 1989, Polly worked her way through half a dozen roles . At different points, she started a call center, managed three different help desks; oversaw facilities; and managed the company phone system and wide area network.
“When they wanted someone to manage something nobody wanted to take on, I took it,” she said. “The things I learned were incredible.”
She learned outside the bank, too, going back to school for her four-year degree in business administration, then completing the Graduate School of Banking in Dallas, Texas.
After Community First became Bank of the West, Polly moved into a regional customer service manager role, working with branches in their operations, service and training. She enjoyed the work, but found that once she’d helped get things running smoothly, the challenge was gone. That was when she ran into a former co-worker who was working at what is now Bell Bank. Polly had to ask herself if she really wanted to start over. Her account of how she decided is vintage Polly, known for her love of the animals she raises on her farm near Barnesville: “I was putting up a chicken-wire fence, and it just came to me: I’m going.” She says the answer came to her “because my mind was open. I never looked back.”
Starting at Bell was “like coming home” for Polly, as she got to revisit some challenges from her previous career – including working with the bank’s new customer service call center and having the opportunity to coach again, especially as she helped guide teams through the many operational changes that were coming with new technology and systems. Polly was able to apply her past experiences to asking what people needed to know, how difficult any change might be and how stressed people might become because of it.
“I found I had really missed coaching,” she said. “I love to see people come up with good ideas and succeed, get promoted in their career, or realize a dream they’ve had.”
One of her proudest moments was the day check image exchange was implemented, replacing the outdated, mechanical proof machines. Her team, who had worked in proof and knew all its idiosyncracies (such as the fact that a local bakery usually had jelly or flour on the checks they brought in for deposit), helped build the system that replaced it. Unfortunately, the launch date coincided with flooding and a snowstorm.
“We had $18 million in checks that would have sat for five days, but instead went electronic and cleared,” Polly said. “I wanted to run around and tell everyone – but they were all out sandbagging.”
Sometimes, she added with a chuckle, you “celebrate the quiet,” because it means things are going right.
Today, Polly’s role as SVP of deposit operations encompasses payment processing (checks, ACH, debits and wires), deposit services (input, verification, levies and garnishments, subpoenas, IRAs and returned mail), and Day2 check processing (exception items, statement processing, document imaging and mailing). She also serves on the Federal Reserve’s faster payments task force, which is working on systems for immediate funds availability and confirmation. She loves building connections with professionals at the Federal Reserve and at the vendor companies that provide the bank’s core system and other operating platforms.
Just as at the bank, Polly’s time outside of work encompasses many interests. She spends time with her grown son and daughter and helps her mother, who lives in Fargo. She is a fill-in lay minister at Baker (Minn.) Presbyterian Church, where she says her sermons deliver “my perspective as a fellow sinner.” And she’s a familiar face at many local parades, where she often brings mule teams and a miniature donkey from her farm. There, her menagerie includes seven mules, the miniature donkey, two dogs, two cats, 28 laying hens and two sheep. Tending them is stress relief.
“I enjoy doing chores, even after a day of work,” Polly said. “I love the feeling of being a caretaker.”
It’s the little things that makes Lisa Ewertz appreciate her job and coworkers, and helps to brighten her day. She loves the little touches, like having a nice note or a treat left for her on her desk at work by her coworkers.
“I enjoy working here,” Lisa said. “My coworkers are fun and caring. They kind of become family because you see each other every day at work. Everybody cares about everyone else and helps out when needed.”
Lisa is a deposit services representative in Deposit Services at the Center West location in Fargo. She helps to process requested changes to customers’ accounts, and verifies the accuracy of information when customers open new accounts with Bell.
“We keep very busy,” said Lisa, of her team of four employees at Center West who input changes to customer accounts submitted by employees at all of Bell Bank’s branch locations. “Time goes by fast because you’re so busy.”
Lisa originally joined Bell in 1998 and spent about five years as a vault teller at Bell before leaving for another job at Swanson Health Products in Fargo.
“I remember when I first started at the bank our paychecks were delivery by hand from someone in the payroll department,” Lisa said. “It is amazing to see how processes have changed along with technology.”
She said she missed working at Bell after she left, and decided to try to come back to the company. “I really like their culture and how they treat their employees,” she said.
Lisa said another thing she likes about Bell is the Pay It Forward program. One year she went in with other employees and donated Pay It Forward funds to purchase an iPad to help her daughter’s classmate be able to do her homework after she had surgery on her leg and was unable to be in school. She also pooled Pay It Forward funds with coworkers another year to help purchase a used handicap-accessible van for a family with a father and daughter who both have wheelchairs.
“It’s really great,” Lisa said of the Pay It Forward program. “When you think about other people and all of the things they are dealing with, it really puts my own life into perspective. It’s such a great feeling to be able to help other people and make their day.”
Lisa lives in Kindred with her husband, Matt, daughter, Rebecca, and son, Zachary. She enjoys spending time with her family, outdoor activities, baking and completing puzzles.
After two years in banking, Joe Ackerland nearly left the industry. He had been working for a large bank and was unhappy with the work environment.
“I didn’t like all the pressure to reach sales goals,” he said. “I wondered if banking wasn’t for me.”
But following a six-month stint at Discovery Benefits (a sister company to Bell Bank), Joe accepted a customer service representative position at Bell’s Southpointe branch in 2007, and he’s been with the company ever since.
Dina Volk, the longtime vice president/branch manager at Southpointe, was a positive influence.
“She’s a great manager, and she showed me that it isn’t all about the numbers,” Joe said. “It’s about people and customer service. We had lots of fun and enjoyed pulling pranks on each other.”
In addition to Bell’s half-century of service in the Fargo-Moorhead region, the bank has a growing presence in the Twin Cities. Joe has been fortunate to work for Bell in both markets.
Following his time at Southpointe, Joe worked at Bell’s downtown and Times Square locations. He then became vice president/branch manager for the Hawley and Dilworth (Minn.) locations before relocating to the Woodbury branch in 2014 to become their vice president/branch manager.
“It’s a dream come true to work in Woodbury,” Joe said. “I wouldn’t have moved to the Twin Cities if it had meant switching companies. But since Bell had an opening at the Woodbury branch, my wife and I decided it would be a fun journey. We love it.”
When Joe was 14 years old, his family moved from Horace, N.D., to Fargo. Although he enjoyed living in the area, the Twin Cities area had always been appealing.
“We visited there a lot and there’s so much to do,” he said. “Woodbury really reminds me of Fargo.”
Joe was also excited about serving customers at the Woodbury location.
“We have a beautiful branch with personal banking, commercial banking, private banking and mortgage all in one location,” he said. “It’s truly relationship-driven, full-service banking.”
Woodbury customers are drawn to Bell’s size and culture.
“One customer commented that we aren’t a small bank any more, but we still have a small-bank atmosphere,” Joe said.
Joe strives to build long-term customer relationships.
“I hope to help customers through all of their life changes, whether it’s buying a house, starting a family, saving for college or planning for retirement,” he said. “I want to be there for them at every step.”
Elroy, a customer who lived near the Southpointe location, will remain one of Joe’s favorites. The older gentleman followed Joe to every Fargo-Moorhead location he worked at, even when it meant finding a ride.
“He’d take me out for lunch a lot,” Joe said. “Just a great guy.”
Bell’s focus on employees and customers means so much to Joe.
“The company has invested in my continuing education, and their values and standards are the template for how we treat people,” Joe said. “You want to do your part and not let your team down. With the way they take care of employees, you want to work hard. I couldn’t ask for more.”
A fellow Bell employee was in a bind and needed to move out of his apartment immediately. Jason Crummy and other coworkers sprang into action, helping their coworker move the same day, including helping to move all his furniture.
For his efforts, Jason and coworkers Lisa Hammer, Alexis Holte and Greg Moan were nominated for a Bell Value Award from the company for going above and beyond.
Jason said Bell’s company culture encourages employees to help each other and customers.
“It’s just a great culture,” he said. “There is a family atmosphere. There is a genuine kindness at Bell. It’s not just an act, it really is like that.”
As a building and grounds technician in Facilities at the Bell Bank headquarters building on 13th Avenue South in Fargo, Jason said there are not typical days.
“I’m basically a problem solver.” he said. “I might be sucking leaves, then I’m dealing with an air handler unit; I might be fixing someone’s keyboard tray, then hauling something. It all depends. Whenever people need help, we get called.”
Jason has worked at Bell since 2010. He was running his own irrigation company and working long hours as a single dad, and was looking for a better work-life balance.
“I wanted to have a job where I could go home at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s been great. I feel like I fit in here. I work with everyone. I consider it my Bell family.”
Coworkers are often surprised to learn that the mild-mannered Jason plays in a heavy metal band.
“They will ask, ‘What is it, Country?” Jason said. “I say, not quite.”
Jason said he grew up listening to bands like Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. His five-member band is called “9 Eyes,” a reference to their drummer only having one eye.
“I love it,” Jason said. “I love music. I love to perform.”
Linda Knutson has worked in the banking industry for the past 30 years, but she said there is something different about working for Bell Bank.
Linda is vice president/branch manager of the Bell Bank in Fergus Falls, Minn. She previously worked at First National Bank, Community First, Bank of the West and Security State Bank before helping to open the Bell Bank location in Fergus Falls in 2007.
“It is so fun,” Linda said. “We have the best staff you could ever get. Every person here is so dedicated to the bank, to the customers, to each other. It’s like being at home. We are like family. Everyone cares about each other.”
She is one of 11 employees at the Fergus Falls branch who have worked at other banks in Fergus Falls together. Linda has worked with Gary Kamrowski , a vice president and private banking officer in Fergus Falls, for the last 30 years.
The Fergus Falls location opened in a rented space in a strip mall in 2007. The bank is now in a new building on Washington Avenue downtown in the financial district. Despite only being open since 2007, Linda said Bell is already the fourth largest of the nine banks in Fergus Falls.
Linda, who lives with and cares for her 92-year-old mother, has had a few health scares over the years. Every time her coworkers were there to help. A few years ago when she had surgery and was out of the office recovering for a few weeks, her coworkers in the Fergus Falls branch took turns bringing her a hot dinner every night. One time she needed to go see a specialist in St. Cloud, so a coworker took a vacation day and drove her there and back. “That’s pretty amazing,” she said. “Who does that?”
She said the family atmosphere extends from the staff to the customers at the Fergus Falls branch.
“We have people who come in every day just to say hello and get a cookie. Every day,” Linda said. “This is like the gathering point.”
Roxy Burnside was a customer long before she started working at Bell Bank in 2011. It was that experience that made her want to work for the company.
“I always thought it would be neat to work at the front desk,” she said.
Then one day an employee told her the receptionist at Bell’s headquarters location on 13th Avenue was retiring and suggested Roxy apply for the job. Roxy hadn’t even told the employee she wanted to work for Bell, she said, but the employee thought she’d be a good fit.
Roxy was interested, but nervous. She had never gone on a job interview. She sold Tupperware for 45 years and worked in an oral surgeon’s office for 23 years – a job she got because the surgeon knew her daughter and needed some temporary help. He asked Roxy if she could fill in scheduling appointments until he found someone for the position. She has also worked for the Holiday Inn for 20 years, helping set up and work parties, but she said she didn’t have to interview for that job, either.
Another part of what worried her was that she was 61 years old, and she didn’t think Bell would want to hire her at her age. During the interview, Roxy said she felt so nervous, she thought she was going to pass out.
“I never thought I would get the job,” she said.
But she did, and she has quickly become the face of Bell’s headquarters location. Many of the customers greet her like old friends, offering a hug or taking their kids over to say hi.
“I love greeting the customers,” Roxy said. “The customers love coming here. That just impresses me.”
For Roxy, customers feel like guests in her home, so she does what she can to make them feel welcome. She knows a lot of Bell’s customers from Tupperware parties or when her kids used to play hockey. She’s also good at remembering people’s names. And Roxy keeps the lobby clean by straightening up and wiping away fingerprints. She’s also responsible for baking and stocking the bank’s famous cookies – something that surprises her sisters.
“My sisters laugh because I don’t bake at home,” Roxy said, adding that at work, she bakes 20-30 dozen cookies every day.
“People love the cookies and the coffee,” she said.
Something else Roxy loves about her job is the way Bell’s employees treat each other – especially during difficult times.
“I love the way everybody pitches in here,” she said. “Everybody bands together to help. Everybody is genuinely concerned about each other.”
That concern is something Roxy experienced first-hand her first year with Bell. She was volunteering in the Holiday Lights Parade, helping fill candy baskets and “just having a ball,” when she collapsed.
Her heart had stopped. Luckily, there were two nurses watching the parade who started CPR, and they continued while a police officer ran to get a defibrillator. Roxy said she was clinically dead for 12 minutes. She remembers regaining consciousness in the ambulance and trying to go back to sleep, because she felt like she’d woken from a really good dream. She thought she had just passed out. When she found out her heart had stopped, she joked about it with her medical team.
One of Roxy’s granddaughters later told her she didn’t die because God wasn’t ready for her yet. Roxy says the experience changed her life. She now lives every day with no complaints, and she lets go of a lot of things she could stress over, she said.
When Roxy returned to work, she received numerous cards, emails, phone calls and visits from her concerned co-workers.
“The whole team banded together like I was their mom,” she said. “I love it here. I could retire, but I don’t want to.”
Roxy grew up on a cattle ranch north of Medora, N.D. Her family moved to Hawley, Minn., when she was in high school. She now lives in Fargo.
When she’s not working, Roxy likes to spend time with her friends and family. She has a son and daughter and four grandchildren. She goes to all of her grandkids’ sporting events and school functions. She also likes to go to the lakes in the summer, go bike riding and travel.
When he was a senior in high school, Rock Messerschmidt wrote about banking for a career paper. Now, 41 years later, he works as Bell Bank’s senior vice president and commercial lending manager.
Rock’s mother had worked in banking, so he had some exposure to the industry.
When he was looking for a job after college, Rock dropped off a résumé at Bell, which was then State Bank of Fargo. But there was nothing available, so he got a job as an internal examiner with Bremer Service Corp. in the Twin Cities.
He was on the road constantly for his job, traveling within three states to every Bremer Bank location. After two years he decided to take a job at a small bank in Ada, Minn. He did everything from working the teller line to running the proof machine to handling small agricultural, commercial and consumer loans, including the student loan portfolio. While there, he was also the Ada-Borup High School assistant football coach for four years.
When the bank changed hands a few years later, Rock started looking for something else. A recruiter found him a commercial lending position with Fargo National Bank, which later became First Interstate Bank of Fargo and then Community First Bank. He worked there for 15 years.
“Things had changed, and I started looking around,” Rock said. “The only bank I wanted to go to was State Bank. They had a great community image, people talked highly of them, and they were taking all the commercial business from all the other banks in town. When people talked about good, solid banks, the first one off their lips was State Bank. If I was going to leave, I wanted to go somewhere in town where I knew I could be successful, and I knew I could be successful at State Bank.”
He was hired at Bell in commercial lending in 2000 and has been with the company ever since.
“I love this place,” he said. “I knew it was a place where I could have fun again and get my clients to move.”
Bell is also where Rock met his wife, Brenda Messerschmidt, who is the retail manager at Bell’s Moorhead branch.
“It’s a great organization,” he said. “It’s family owned with a family atmosphere. There are no profit pressures. They’ve always kept relationships at the forefront, which I feel is extremely important in commercial lending.”
Rock has seen a lot of changes in commercial lending over the years. The biggest have been in underwriting.
“We’re just a lot more thorough,” he said. “We gather a lot more information than we used to.”
When he started in commercial lending the mid-1980s, Rock said loan files often contained a few sentences in the file comments without much financial information. Now, it’s a lot more detailed.
Another big change is approximately 48 percent of new businesses are owned by women, Rock said.
“That wasn’t the case 35 years ago,” he said. “Then it was probably 15 percent at best.”
There are also more female commercial lenders today.
“When I started in Fargo in 1985, I’m not sure if there was a female commercial lender in town,” he said.
Rock said he likes the variety in his job.
“Every day is different,” he said. “There are so many more businesses, and technology has changed the way many operate. There are so many technology-based businesses we didn’t see before. We can look at anything from financing a railroad to a radio station to a tech company.”
But what he likes most is seeing companies grow.
“That’s why I got into commercial lending,” he said. “I take personal pride when a company is successful. I have always said I have done my job when a company doesn’t need to borrow money anymore. In the beginning, most companies have numerous lending needs and obstacles to overcome. The successful companies work through those obstacles and appreciate that you worked hard for them.
Rock grew up in Dilworth, Minn., and graduated from Concordia College with a degree in business administration/accounting.
He has spent many years refereeing college and high-school basketball and high-school football. Last winter was the first year in 38 years he didn’t officiate.
“I loved being able to stay close to the game and the athletes,” he said. “It was a great way to stay active and meet some awesome people.”
Outside of work, Rock likes to spend time with family and golfing. He has three adult sons, and his wife, Brenda, has two adult daughters. They have six grandchildren.
DeNae Swalstad didn’t want to work when she applied for a job with Bell Bank – then State Bank of Fargo – in 1975.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, and I was happy at home,” she said. “But my friend Holly Holte kept after me to apply for an open teller position. Finally, just to get her off my back, I agreed to come in for an interview.”
Holly and DeNae had been friends for a long time. In fact, Holly introduced DeNae to her husband. Holly started working for Bell in 1973 and stayed with the bank for 26 years.
After DeNae interviewed and was hired the next day, she told herself she’d give it a year and then she’d quit. She ended up giving it 22 years before she retired. Even then, she said she wished she would have worked a few more years.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I made many, many good friends.”
DeNae’s time with Bell was filled with laughter and fond memories. She developed close relationships, not only with her co-workers, but also with her customers.
“For some of these elderly people, the highlight of their day was going to the bank,” she said. “I heard so many stories about kids, their lives, marital problems. I told some of the gals I was tempted to make a sign to hang over my desk that said, ‘The counselor is in.’ They just needed somebody to talk to.”
Even after she retired, DeNae said she would have customers call her at home because their checkbooks wouldn’t balance or asking her to get together for coffee or lunch.
“You become part of their social life, and we kept that contact,” she said.
Though she initially didn’t want to work, DeNae said it didn’t take long to realize she made the right decision.
“I loved it,” she said. “I can honestly say there wasn’t one morning I dreaded going to work. I looked forward to it.”
Some of her fondest memories are of tricks she and her co-workers used to play on each other. A few of them involved a fake, plastic arm. She put it in bank president Richard Solberg’s waste basket, under his desk.
“When he pulled his chair out and went to sit down, here was this arm hanging out of his waste basket,” she said. “He did this kind of dance. His feet were going like crazy. I pulled that on quite a few people.”
DeNae started as a teller and moved into teller supervisor and assistant cashier, where she would interview and hire people.
“A lot of the people I hired are still at Bell or retired there,” she said.
She was also working in customer service, until efficiency consultants said she was wearing too many hats. She was allowed to choose whether to continue working in customer service or personnel. She chose customer service and worked her way up to vice president.
Her husband retired two years before she did. DeNae was 62 and said she felt she should retire, but she said after she did, she thought she could have worked a couple more years, because she really missed her job.
“I missed it after I retired, the customer contact, and I missed the staff I worked with,” DeNae said. “We had a good relationship, and we had fun. It was a lot of work, but it was fun, too.”
She often saw some of her customers at the grocery store.
“It got so my grandkids didn’t even want to go, because to get a loaf of bread, it took me two hours,” she said. “To this day, there’s a customer I’ll run into occasionally, and she always has to give me a big hug.”
After retiring, DeNae and her husband, Bob, did some traveling, which included a cruise to the Panama Canal, until 2003 when Bob was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Bob died in 2011.
When she retired, she started quilting, and talked Holly into quilting with her.
“It was like we were possessed,” she said. “That’s all we did.”
DeNae lives in Fargo and has four daughters, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Collette Vetsch always liked numbers and math, so it made sense that after high school, she began applying for jobs at local banks. Collette was first hired at what was then First National Bank of West Fargo.
This all happened 43 years ago and in all of those years since, Collette has seen a lot of changes in the bank and experienced a lot of variety in her roles. She’s been a proof operator, computer operator, pay roll processor, teller, accounts payable specialist, cashier, teller supervisor and assistant vice president.
“I’ve pretty much done everything except make loans and clean the toilet!” says Collette. “I’ve never had a boring day – each day brings something different.”
She’s loved every minute of it. Why? Because she loves people. She loves helping them, visiting with them, and truly getting to know them.
“I’ve worked with Collette for 17 years, and she makes coming to work fun!” says Shelley Goroski, teller in West Fargo. “You know when Collette is around because she is always laughing with coworkers and customers. You can’t help but join in! She is always willing to help anyone with anything and always has your back. She is just very kind, caring and thoughtful.”
Collette’s developed many special relationships throughout the years and made impressions on many people, even one of Bell’s team members when he was young.
“My first memory of Bell State Bank & Trust was in 1995 when I was 4 years old,” says Mike Brown, private banker. “My grandpa brought me to the West Fargo branch, and Collette gave me an orange Tootsiepop sucker! I will never forget that. That memory of awesome customer service always stuck with me through the years!”
Collette has spent her adult life with Bell, and it’s been a fulfilling career, one that she continues to enjoy every day.
“I can honestly say, I’ve always liked coming to work each day! Bell is a great place, you can’t beat it!” says Collette.
Cheryl Stock got her start in banking by going on her roommate’s job interview.
They had been working in retail after college and realized they needed to find jobs with good health insurance and retirement benefits, she said.
“We decided working at a bank was where we needed to be,” she said.
Cheryl’s roommate found a job, but she had dropped off multiple applications at local banks. When one of the banks called and assumed Cheryl was her roommate, Cheryl agreed to the interview. She confessed she was not her roommate when she arrived, but after looking at her resume, the bank interviewed her and offered her the job.
That was in 1979. She worked for Fargo National, which became First Interstate Bank, for 14 years before State Bank of Fargo, now Bell Bank, hired her as a personal banker in 1994. She was employee number 132.
“When I started, your employee number was a big deal,” Cheryl said.
Four years into her career at Bell, another bank recruited her. Before accepting the position, she talked to Richard Solberg, the bank’s president and CEO at the time, who is now Bell’s board chairman. He told her to go and gain the experience. After three years, he gave her a call when Dolly Strand, who managed Bell’s north Fargo branch, retired.
“He said, ‘It’s time to come home now,’ ” Cheryl said. “I was honored and knew my heart belonged at Bell.”
Cheryl has been with the company ever since, managing the north branch, Bell’s main location on 13th avenue, and the downtown branch at 15 Broadway, where she currently works.
“Each Bell location is like its own unique community,” she said. “I have loved the relationships I have established, not only with the customers and staff, but also with the nearby businesses and schools. It is very rewarding to be out in the community and run into a customer I have established a relationship with, especially when their kids and grandkids are now customers. These are life’s little treasures.”
Cheryl said Bell feels like her second family.
“I have been so blessed to have been a part of this company,” she said. “I have such gratitude for Richard Solberg, Mickey Snortland (a former Bell shareholder and longtime director) and Dean Weganast (one of the men who chartered the bank.) They began the successful journey of Bell Bank, building a foundation of values and true heart-made decisions. Bell’s values and compassion motivate each of us to do our best every day with great respect for each other. I am so grateful and proud to say I work for Bell Bank.”
Cheryl has spent the majority of her 37 years in banking supervising employees. Some of her proudest moments are seeing the employees she has worked with succeed.
“What makes me love my job is seeing the employees move up,” she said.
Cheryl grew up in Grafton, N.D., and attended the University of Minnesota Crookston for a degree in business management. Cheryl and her husband, Curt, have two grown children. When she’s not working, Cheryl cherishes her time with her family and friends. She also enjoys sports, shopping, and fishing and boating at Big Toad Lake.
One of Dolly Strand’s earliest experiences working in the banking industry involved a gun and a bag of cash.
It was 1951. Dolly was 19 years old and hadn’t been working at American National Bank in Valley City, N.D., for very long when the bank vice president asked her to go with him to bring some cash to another bank two blocks away. She grabbed the gun the bank kept in the back and put it in her purse.
When the vice president saw it, Dolly said he swore at her and told her not to do that again.
“It was there in case we ever got held up, but I was never supposed to touch it,” she said.
Dolly retired from Bell Bank March 1, 2001 – 50 years to the day after she started in banking, after a long and adventurous career in the industry.
She had been working at a Fargo department store in the 1950s when Milt Strand asked her to marry him. She agreed, quit her job and moved back to her hometown of Enderlin, N.D. While there, Dolly heard American National in Valley City was looking to hire, so she called the bank president to apply and then took the train to Valley City from Enderlin for an interview.
After a week went by and she didn’t hear anything, Dolly called to follow up. Most people found the bank president intimidating, Dolly said, but she didn’t let that deter her.
“Nothing scared me,” she said. “I was raised with six brothers.”
The president was very abrupt with her, and he told her he hadn’t hired anybody yet. Two-to-three days later, Dolly decided to call him back.
“I had to get a job, because I didn’t have any money,” she said.
He decided to hire her and told her, “You’d better be good,” Dolly said.
She started working in bookkeeping March 1. By that summer, she was already working as a teller, Dolly said. She filled in for a variety of positions, including head teller.
“That was really a doozy,” Dolly said. “An auditor came in from the state. I almost died.”
As head teller, she was responsible for making sure everything balanced, but she was having trouble. Back then, banks had to keep gold in the vault, and she had forgotten about the gold. The auditor was growing increasingly frustrated, when Dolly said she finally remembered the gold.
When it was time for Dolly to get married, she said the bank president would only give her a few days off. She was married July 1 and was back on the job July 5. Still, she said she loved her job.
“I loved waiting on people,” she said. “It was something different every day.”
Later that same year, Dolly’s husband was drafted into service for the U.S. Army.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Milt went to California for basic training and ended up contracting pneumonia. Though Dolly didn’t drive, she said she was determined to get her driver’s license and go see her husband. She quit her job in April of 1952, got her license and drove to California with a cousin who was heading the same way.
Dolly lived in California for a while, and when they were home on leave, Milt was sent overseas, so Dolly moved back to the Valley City area and got her job back at the bank.
In 1956, they moved to Fargo and Dolly stayed home with their three children until 1966, when she worked for the city of Fargo for a year before going back into banking.
Then, in 1987 Richard Solberg, then president of State Bank of Fargo (now Bell Bank), recruited her and offered to make her a vice president. Dolly said she was 55 years old, and she worried the bank wouldn’t want her in another seven years.
“Richard said that would never be,” Dolly said.
She accepted the job and said she loved every day she came to work.
“I enjoyed working with everybody,” she said. “We always had a lot of fun, a lot of jokes.”
She also enjoyed working with the customers, many of whom became friends.
“The one-on-one attention means a lot to people,” she said. “That’s what banking was. It was personal.”
Since retiring, Dolly has stayed busy spending time with her family and doing things like participating in Bible study and Quota International, an international non-profit service organization that works to empower women, children and people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired. Dolly’s daughter, granddaughters and great-granddaughter are also involved in the organization. They spend a lot of time planning and putting on fundraisers and other events.
“Bell Bank has been marvelous to support us all the way through,” Dolly said.
After five years of continuous travel as a bank examiner, Callie Schlieman was ready for a lifestyle change.
She worked for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury that charters, regulates and supervises financial institutions. It had given her valuable banking experience, but she was road weary.
“It wasn’t always very glamorous travel,” she said.
A new destination each week meant lots of travel time and small-town hotels.
Callie had connections at Bell, and she was hired in 2006. She joined the correspondent banking team and now serves as a senior vice president.
“I got off the road and even got married a week before I came here,” she added.
Bell’s correspondent banking division purchases loans from other banks – a service many people don’t realize some banks offer.
“Banks have lending limits, so we buy loans from them so they can serve their customers and share those risks,” Callie said.
More than 200 institutions partner with Bell for correspondent banking, and many of them are community banks. While most of the banks are in the Midwest, Bell works with some as far away as Seattle and Arizona. Bell essentially becomes a behind-the-scenes partner, which allows the smaller banks to maintain relationships with their customers they might not otherwise be able to continue.
The division offers loans to bank holding companies to help them acquire other banks, refinance debt, raise capital and buy out shareholders. They also assist bank executives who want to purchase stock.
Callie enjoys the relationships she develops with executives at other banks.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of my work,” she said. “We talk about our families, grandkids, farming or politics. Anything that forms a connection.”
One of the biggest challenges for Callie and the division was that many banks were affected by the recession of the late 2000s.
“We learned a lot going through that time,” she said. “I made many difficult calls to bank leaders. It was such a learning lesson for everyone.”
Much has changed during Callie’s decade at Bell. The correspondent banking loan portfolio has grown significantly, and the team has more than doubled in size.
At the same time, Callie feels the company’s values and outlook have remained.
“We still tease, care about each other, have fun and bicker,” she said. “We’re a family.”
Though Bell is the largest independently owned bank in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, Callie said in many ways it still operates like a small bank.
“As long as I’m in banking, I’m going to be at Bell,” Callie said. “This is the place to be, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. I respect the ownership and management. It’s huge to be able to have a discussion with Richard or Michael Solberg, and Mickey Snortland always used to stop by and visit.”
(Richard Solberg is Bell’s board chairman. Michael Solberg is the bank’s president and CEO. Mickey Snortland was Bell shareholder and longtime director, who died in 2013.)
Callie and her husband, Jim, have two children. Outside of work, she enjoys summer weekends at the lake, hanging out with family and friends, and playing games with her kids.
Heidi Ihry has been with Bell Bank for more than a decade. In that time, she has made an incredible impact on many of her customers, and those experiences have also had a profound effect on her.
During her past year as a mortgage loan officer, she worked with a customer who is a single mother and a past recipient of Pay It Forward funds. (Bell’s Pay It Forward program gives employees money to donate to people and organizations in need.) The customer worked diligently to improve her finances and prepare for home ownership.
“We coached her through the steps and she did everything. She worked so hard,” Heidi said. “When she was preapproved, she cried because she was so excited. I cried with her. I’ll never forget that customer and that closing. It’s why we’re here.”
Heidi’s experiences over the years at Bell reflect the many career opportunities in banking.
After she joined the bank in 2005, Heidi progressed through various roles including teller, customer service representative, personal banker and mortgage processor, mostly in the Moorhead branch. A year ago, she was promoted to vice president/mortgage loan officer at Bell’s main office on 13th Avenue in Fargo.
“I thought I wanted to go into trust when I was hired, but I took a totally different career path,” Heidi said. “This company has many avenues available, which is so cool.”
Heidi is especially grateful for her years at the Moorhead location.
“My Bell career started there, and they took me under their wings,” she said. “A couple co-workers are truly like second moms to me. They helped me and wanted to see me succeed.”
Bell’s family atmosphere makes each day rewarding for Heidi.
“I have a million questions because I’m still new to my role, and the other loan officers are so awesome and patient,” she said. “Employees are valued and it’s a ridiculously fun place to work. I’m always proud to tell people I work at Bell because of the stellar reputation. It’s fun to see people light up when they say, ‘That’s my bank!’ ”
Heidi still cherishes the support of her Bell colleagues when she and her husband, Lon, lost a baby daughter in 2014. Kambry Grace Ihry, who was diagnosed with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, received specialized care at the Colorado Children’s Hospital. She died less than two months after she was born.
“The bank was so awesome and supportive,” Heidi said. “So many people checked up on me and followed my blog. Our nurses couldn’t believe the support from the bank and community. As Midwesterners, we don’t like to accept help, but we needed it.”
The Pay It Forward program has allowed Heidi to support other families in similar situations.
“I think God was working a long time ago to put me in this organization and keep me here,” she said.
Heidi grew up in Hatton, N.D., and graduated from the University of North Dakota. She and Lon also have a 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
Joel Finn never thought he would work for a bank. He graduated from North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., in 1999, and worked in shingling while he looked for an IT job.
In October of that year, Joel said his dad found a posting for a computer operator position at Bell Bank. Joel applied, was hired and has been with the company ever since. The ownership is the reason he has stayed, he said.
“I know I could walk up to any of their offices anytime,” he said. “They’d say, ‘Take a seat, and what’s on your mind.’ That’s a big deal. You don’t see that anymore.”
Joel now works as a communications analyst, primarily focusing on keeping the bank’s 1,200 phones working.
“We take care of all of the phones at every location, even in Minneapolis,” he said.
His co-workers are the best part of his job, he said.
“I got to travel to a lot of the sites, which makes it fun seeing all of the people,” he said. “That’s how I met most of the people. There was a time when I knew every employee, first and last name, no problem.”
One of Joel’s first challenges at Bell was helping the company prepare for Y2K, a worldwide computer coding issue, expected to create widespread problems as 1999 became 2000.
“I remember walking in and seeing these signs in the lobby that said, ‘We’re Y2K OK,’ ” he said.
He helped install computer updates to fix any potential problems. He was on-call New Year’s Eve, but said Bell was prepared, and there were no issues.
In between computer operator and communications analyst, Joel also worked as a network specialist, setting up computers.
“I like that it’s always something new,” he said of his job. “My days don’t have a lot of repetition. It’s always something different.”
Joel also values the way the company treats its employees, he said.
“From the turkeys at Thanksgiving, to employee appreciation day, to the Christmas parties, it’s a great way to spend time with your co-workers off hours,” he said.
The Pay It Forward program, where Bell gives employees money to donate to people or organizations in need, is also important to Joel, he said.
About six months before Michael Solberg, Bell’s president and CEO, announced the Pay It Forward program’s launch in the beginning of 2008, Joel and his friends decided to throw a New Year’s Eve party with the proceeds benefitting a local charity. They raised $3,200.
The group, known as the West Fargo Shakers, kept the tradition going and is gearing up for its 10th party this year. They raised more than $65,000 total for different charities over the years. Joel gives his Pay It Forward check to the West Fargo Shakers event every year.
“It keeps growing. It’s fun to do,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”
They choose a different charity every year. Most of them are kid-focused and local. The fun part, Joel said, is letting the charity know they’ve been chosen. In addition to raising money, the West Fargo Shakers also ask a representative from the charity to set out a table with literature at the event so they can raise awareness, too.
“It’s a great feeling,” Joel said. “We’re just nine guys who are putting forth an effort. None of us know what we’re doing, but it’s worked out.”
Joel was born in Rugby, N.D., and grew up in Jamestown and West Fargo, N.D. He and his wife, Christina, have three kids and a little dog.
When he’s not working, he likes to spend time hunting, fishing, going to the lake and hanging out with friends. He also likes watching and playing sports.
Michael Solberg has learned a lot from the employees at Bell Bank. And he gained some of that knowledge – like how to properly balance and lock a till – when he was in high school.
“They used to tease me that I could never balance my till, so that’s why they had to move me into other departments of the bank, and that’s how I ended up where I am today,” he joked.
As Bell’s president and CEO, Michael is at the helm of the largest independently owned bank in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, with 20 full-service banking locations and nearly $4 billion in assets. But he started as a part-time teller, just like many who work their way up through the ranks in the banking industry.
It was the early 1990s, and Michael was sporting a “Saved by the Bell” Zack Morris-style haircut when he started working as a teller at Bell’s North Broadway branch in Fargo. He trained under people like Donna Villiard and DeNae Swalstad, women who had spent decades at the bank and were as synonymous with the North Broadway branch as Mickey Snortland and Richard Solberg were with the bank itself.
They worked hard, and they had fun, often at the same time. Once after DeNae had warned Michael to lock his till before going on break, and he forgot to do it, she took a stack of cash out of the drawer while he was gone. That night, he couldn’t get his drawer to balance.
“She let me sweat it out for about 15 minutes before she gave me back the money,” he said. “That taught me to lock my till.”
Banking, it seems, is in Michael’s blood. His dad, Richard Solberg, is Bell’s board chairman and the company’s former president and CEO. And Michael’s grandfather used to run Citizens State Bank of Finley.
“I was interested in the industry and proud of the bank because of my dad,” Michael said, adding that he never even contemplated another career. “The positive energy that he derived from it really drew me to the business.”
Road to the Top
While there are a lot of learning opportunities being the son of a company’s president and CEO, Michael said there is also a stigma attached and complications that come with it.
“For family members to take over from successful parents, expectations are high,” he said. “I definitely felt that as a young guy following my dad’s footsteps. Also, I think we all want to make a name for ourselves on our own, and whenever you’re in a family business, there are questions about whether you’ve earned your position.”
Richard has said it was a blessing Michael was interested in banking, but it wasn’t his last name that qualified him to run the company. The board of directors unanimously voted to name Michael president in 2009 and CEO in 2014, after a career spent learning everything he could about the industry and finding ways to make it better.
After graduating from Concordia College, Michael went on to law school at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. He started working immediately after finishing law school, even forgoing a trip to Europe his parents wanted to give him as a graduation gift. (They ended up getting him a couch instead.)
“That’s how excited I was to get to work,” he said. “I wanted to take what I had learned and put it into practice, and I wanted to start making my own way.”
Michael went back to work for what was then State Bank of Fargo in 1998 for a short time after finishing law school.
“I think that was important, because it taught me I needed to go out and do other things outside of the family business,” he said.
He was there about a year and a half before leaving the bank to work for Northern Capital Trust, where he became chief operating officer and bought stock in the company.
“Northern Capital was the perfect opportunity for me,” he said. “I always wanted to come back to the family business at some point, but I needed to go out and make it on my own with an independent company. That was really healthy for me.”
A few years later, in 2003, the company merged with what was then State Bank of Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo to become State Bank & Trust. The bank was at a size where it was unusual not to have brokerage, wealth management and trust divisions, and following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the stresses of the market led Northern Capital Trust to join a larger institution, Michael said.
The merger also led to the creation of Discovery Benefits. Northern Capital had a small claim adjudication business with seven employees. Michael and Laine Brantner, now Bell’s executive vice president and director of operations, spun that part of the business off into Discovery Benefits, which became a fast-growing part of the company, Michael said.
Shortly after, the Bush administration came out with a consumer-driven health-care initiative, and a law passed allowing for high-deductible health-care plans with health savings accounts.
“We thought our Discovery Benefits unit would be perfect to be early to the market to gather these accounts, which are similar to the flex-spending account claim adjudications we were doing at the time,” he said.
Discovery Benefits, which now has almost 600 employees, is one of the largest third-party administrators in the country.
That also led to the creation of HealthcareBank, which manages deposits and investments for consumer-driven health-care accounts. Discovery Benefits is a client of Healthcare Bank, which now has more than a million accounts.
After the merger, Michael ran the wealth management department for a short time before becoming the bank’s chief operating officer. When he became president and later CEO, his father continued to help guide the ship while Michael captained it.
“The beauty of the transition was I could assume more responsibility as I was able, but I always had my dad’s steady influence, and I think that was great for a growing company,” Michael said. “It was great for our employees to have that stability.”
There were a few bumps along the way, he said, but grace and trust helped them get through it. It helped, Michael said, to know his dad has his and the company’s best interests at heart.
“Early on, we both had to figure out how to work together,” Michael said. “We’re alike in a lot of ways, but we’re also different in a lot of ways. We would always get to the same spot, but sometimes we’d take different paths to get there.”
While there have been a lot of advantages to working with his dad, Michael said having family at work means it can be harder to keep from talking shop during family functions.
“We’ve gotten better over the years,” he said. “My mom wouldn’t let us sit by each other for many, many Christmases.”
Michael said he has been fortunate to be part of a team of experienced employees with great track-records and a lot of up-and-coming, energetic leaders who really helped kick the bank’s growth into high gear over the last 15 years.
“With any successful venture, the biggest blessing I’ve had in my life is being able to partner with such amazing folks,” he said. “I’ve had great mentors and a great board of directors, who poured a lot of energy into me and had a lot of trust and confidence in me.”
A major part of that growth was the bank’s expansion into the Twin Cities over the last five years, including the acquisition of Minneapolis-based Bell Mortgage in 2011 and The Business Bank with its Prime Mortgage division in 2013.
“We had been fortunate to build a market share in the Red River Valley,” Michael said. “But having a new market like the Twin Cities was key to fulfilling our vision for growing our company.”
The company has come a long way since its early beginnings as a single location in the Northport shopping center, and Bell’s culture of making employees happy is a major part of that, Michael said.
“That’s what attracts and retains our best, high-performance people,” he said. “As we grow in so many locations and have so many team members, we have to make sure that we are really diligent about rewarding and measuring the culture that we want to have in the company and not taking it for granted, because it’s truly the key to our success.”
Michael and Richard Solberg, Julie Snortland and Laura Snortland Fairfield are Bell Bank’s major stockholders. It’s been a huge blessing that the company is privately owned and does not have to manage for quarterly earnings, Michael said. That allows Bell to invest heavily in its people, leading to a long-term, successful company. And the bank sets clear expectations, not only of how employees should treat customers, but also in how they should treat each other. The result, he said, is a bank where people are proud to work.
“We are unique in a lot of ways,” Michael said.
One of those ways is the Pay It Forward program, which Michael launched in 2008. The program gives employees money to give to people and organizations in need. Employees also get to choose a customer, vendor or community member to give to others through the bank’s Pay It Forward: Community Connect program.
Pay It Forward has given out more than $8 million so far, and Michael said the program is culturally one of the most important things the company has done.
“Our industry is very generous and community-focused,” he said. “But this is not me or the board or ownership deciding where our donations should go. Pay It Forward is truly at the grass-roots level. The key is the program takes the work we do in the bank and draws a tangible link to making a difference in people’s lives. It gives true meaning to what we’re doing.”
Michael said he loves hearing stories about what people do with their Pay It Forward funds and how it affects the employees. Many find additional ways to give back and pay it forward outside of the money they receive from Bell.
“This is bigger than me and the bank,” he said.
Despite being behind major projects like Pay It Forward, Discovery Benefits and HealthcareBank, the acquisition of Bell Mortgage and Bell’s expansion into Minneapolis, Michael said he hopes his legacy will be his role in recruiting great leaders.
“If there is a long-term reflection on my time at the company, hopefully it’s that I have been part of bringing a lot of positive, energetic, talented leadership and employees to the bank,” he said.
As the company grows, it’s getting harder for Michael to get to know everyone, so he said one of the great ways to perpetuate the culture is to give employees highly motivated, energetic and effective managers.
“We don’t just say Bell is a great place to work, we make sure it is,” he said.
Outside of work, Michael said he loves hanging out at the lake with his family or cheering on the Vikings.
While he can stand up in front of hundreds of people looking calm and collected, Michael said he’s actually an introverted person, and his ideal day is hanging out at home reading a book.
He and his wife, Char, were also early members of Prairie Heights Community Church, and he said it’s been fun to watch it grow. They have three kids, 13-year-old Grace, 10-year-old Charlie and 8-year-old Rose.
Diane Blotsky was one of the first employees to join the private banking team when Bell Bank created it in 2005, shortly after merging with Northern Capital Trust in 2003.
“I was excited. I was ready for a change,” she said. “When you’re a personal banker, the next step up would be branch manager, but I was looking for something different.”
Private banking ended up being a good fit for her – it’s a position she still holds. Customer service and follow-through are extremely important in private banking, Diane said.
“I get to know my customers more closely, and they come to rely on me,” she said. “If I do my job well, they’re very appreciative. It’s a good feeling to know that somebody really needs you or wants you to help them.”
There is a smaller customer-base in private banking, and team members often help each other’s clients.
“We have a fantastic team,” Diane said. “We really click well.”
Diane has always been good with numbers. In school she took advanced math classes. Even in middle-school, she used to help the other students. She also has a creative side, and she said the combination works well in her current position as a private banking officer.
“We do more tailored financing that’s outside-the-box than the straight retail lending,” she said. “We have to be a little bit more creative for our customers. In private banking, we wear a lot of hats. We do everything from your basic retail, like opening accounts and helping people with debit cards and check orders to handling our private clients’ business banking and financing needs.”
Private banking clients are high-net-worth clients, often business professionals, like doctors, dentists, attorneys and stockholders. Diane also works closely with the real estate and trust departments when her clients are buying a home or need estate planning.
“It’s kind of like a really specialized higher level of personal banking,” she said.
Diane started with Bell in 1998 in indirect lending. She had been working in the finance department of a car dealership, but when her son was four or five months old, she was working a lot of nights and Saturdays, and her husband often worked out of town. Diane had been looking for a new job when she heard that two lenders were leaving Bell.
She decided to apply since the job would be very similar to what she was already doing, and she had worked with Bell indirectly at the dealership.
“The bank thought it’d be an advantage to have somebody who had worked on the car side, to kind of give them insight, so they hired me, and it worked out great,” she said.
At Bell, her schedule was much more flexible, she had more time off, and she had better benefits.
“When I came here, I’d tell my co-workers, ‘You have no idea how good you have it here,’ ” she said. “Where I was before, I had none of this.”
Diane has developed a lot of friendships over the years at Bell, and she’s had no desire to look for another job.
“Why go to another bank, you’re going to be doing the same thing?” she said. “It’s more important to like the people you work with, the company and the owners. It all trickles down from the top.”
After about a year working in indirect lending, Diane moved into retail banking.
She knew early on she had made the right decision to work for Bell, she said.
“The feel of the company, the flexibility with my schedule, it was great,” she said. “I’m proud to say I work at Bell Bank. It’s the best bank in Fargo.”
Diane’s office used to be near longtime director and stockholder Mickey Snortland’s office, before he died in 2013.
“I really miss him,” she said. “He was a special guy. A lot of the values that we have at the bank really stem from Mickey. He always used to say, ‘Whenever you have a sporting event for your kid, you go. I don’t care what’s going on at work. Don’t you miss it,’ ” she said. “Sometimes when I’d be working late, he’d tell me it was time for me to go home to my family. He said, ‘Come back and work tomorrow, Diane.’ That always made me smile.”
Diane graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she studied hotel/motel management and marketing.
“My dream was to go work at a resort and be an event planner,” she said.
But her husband did not want to leave Fargo, so Diane decided to leave the hotel industry.
Diane was born and raised in Moorhead. She and her husband, Brad, live in Fargo with their son, Jack. Outside of work, Diane and Brad like to spend time golfing and attending Jack’s sporting events. Diane also enjoys flower gardening.
Mavis Larson retired about three months before she started working for Bell Bank.
She’d been at another bank for 40 years, starting in bookkeeping and working her way up to a manager position. She decided to retire in June of 1999 because her husband had been very sick and suggested she quit working. But Mavis was only 59 and found she wasn’t quite ready to retire.
“I came home and thought, ‘What did I do?’ ” she said.
A month later, she received a phone call from Bill Russell, Bell’s executive vice president of business services and retail banking, asking if she’d consider working for Bell. She eagerly accepted.
“Bell was the envy of everybody,” she said.
Mavis started that September and had told Bill she thought she could give him five years. He gave her the option of working part time, but she said she figured it’d be easier to start full time and switch to part time later. She has been with bell 17 years now, and she’s worked full time as a personal banker the entire time.
“I have just enjoyed it,” she said. “People have been good to me.”
Mavis likes the family atmosphere she’s found at Bell. Her husband died six months after she started working at Bell, and she said several of her co-workers went to his funeral.
“They were so kind and wonderful to me,” she said.
It’s a culture Mavis easily fits into. When she works Saturdays, she often brings an egg bake or monkey bread to work to share with her co-workers.
“It gains their respect and makes me feel good,” she said.
With more than 55 years in the banking industry, Mavis has a lot of valuable expertise to share with the newer employees at Bell’s Veterans Boulevard branch, where she works. Passing along her knowledge is something she is eager to do.
For her 75th birthday, some of the people she’s worked with at Bell made her a book, in which they wrote memories of working with Mavis.
“That’s what keeps me here,” she said.
Mavis has also developed close relationships with her customers. One customer she helped through an extremely difficult time was a woman who was going through a divorce and the death of her son.
“I’ve always been one to gain customers’ trust,” she said.
Many customers followed her from her former bank to Bell, and many follow her when she moves from one Bell branch to another. She’s also received candy and bouquets of flowers from her customers.
“It keeps me from retiring,” she said. “Whenever I think about it, somebody says something to me that’s so lovely. That’s why I’m here.”
Over the years, Mavis has seen how much has changed in the industry, especially for women. In the 1960s, she said there was no paid maternity leave, if women worked while pregnant, they couldn’t work in positions where customers would see them, and there were no childcare centers, so finding care for children was much more of a struggle.
“We women have come so far,” she said.
Mavis grew up on a farm near Barnesville, Minn., where she said she “did everything” to help out. She spent eight years attending a country school (with no indoor bathroom.) She was also a cheerleader and Miss Barnesville.
“I’ve done some fun things,” she said.
Outside of work, Mavis is part of two bridge groups, she’s involved in her church, and she has been a Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce member for more than 10 years.
She also enjoys spending time with her family. Mavis has three children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Before starting at Bell Bank, Mary Jo Jacobson worked for a retail store for nine years. It was a local, employee-owned, family-oriented business where customer-service was the main focus.
Once a national company bought out the store, Mary Jo said the atmosphere changed immediately.
“The family feel went away,” she said.
And with layoffs and staffing cuts, she said it was hard to provide the same level of service.
Mary Jo had two young children and the late nights and weekends she often worked were getting to be too much. Then one of her co-workers, who also worked for a local employment company, suggested Mary Jo apply at what was then State Bank of Fargo.
Leaving the store would mean leaving an industry she had dedicated nearly a decade of her life to for an industry she knew nothing about. But her co-worker told her she’d be a great fit for the bank, and Mary Jo decided to give it a shot.
“I was nervous,” she said. “I hadn’t interviewed for a job in almost 10 years.”
She interviewed with Bill Russell, Bell’s executive vice president of business services and retail banking, and said Bell’s family atmosphere was apparent and she felt comfortable with Bill right away.
In 1997, Mary Jo started at Bell’s South University branch, where she worked as a receptionist and customer service representative. It didn’t take long before she knew she had made the right decision to leave her former employer to work for Bell.
“I had a lot to learn, but I knew I could do it,” she said. “It was a community there. It was home.”
Mary Jo spent a lot of time balancing customers’ checkbooks each week, and in doing so, she really got to know them well.
“There were a lot of special customers,” she said. “The bank was family-oriented, and the customers there were like family. It was so unique to anything I had experienced.”
One customer, who was going through chemotherapy, stopped by the bank when she lost her hair to show it to Mary Jo.
“It was pretty special,” she said. “There was a real bond with the customers.”
It’s also incredible, Mary Jo said, to be part of such a large company and still know the owners on a personal level.
“Where else does that happen?” she said.
Mary Jo now works as retail administration coordinator, working closely with Bill and Ron Jordan, Bell’s senior vice president of mortgage lending.
In her role, she does the month-end financial and production reports for both Bill and Ron. She also supports Bell’s branch managers, runs some of the company’s sales programs, and she has some involvement with each of the company’s 21 branches.
“I love what I do,” she said. “There’s never a dull moment. I love the atmosphere, the family values, the local ownership. It’s just such a good fit for me. It was from day one. I have fun or laugh every day. Some days are really stressful, but I never leave with that being my last thought of the day.”
Mary Jo was born and raised in Dickinson, N.D. Her junior year of college, she moved to Fargo, where she graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in business administration.
She and her husband, Jeff, have two adult sons, Tyler and Spencer. Outside of work, Mary Jo has spent a lot of time at soccer fields and basketball gyms watching her boys’ games. Now, she and her husband enjoy spending time with friends, traveling and going to the lakes or out to dinner and a movie.
Patty Bohnenstingl became banker support manager in June after a more than 20-year career at Bell Bank, where she spent time in six of the bank’s locations.
“Each branch was unique and special in its own way,” she said. “I found a lot of joy in working in the different branches. Even with challenges, it has always been a lot of fun.”
Patty went to college at North Dakota State College of Science for business management. After graduating, she worked at Fargo National Bank (now Bank of The West) for 13 years before she was recruited to work for Great Plains Software. She was there for three years, but realized she missed her passion for banking.
“I love numbers,” she said. “And I love building relationships with people, customers and employees. It is very rewarding taking care of customers. Many customers and employees are lifelong friends.”
In 1995, she started at Bell as a teller supervisor. A year later she became a personal banking officer, helping customers with opening deposit accounts and taking out loans. After about six years as a personal banking officer at Bell’s headquarters and Sheyenne Street locations, Patty became the branch manager for Bell’s Southpointe branch.
“We always called Southpointe the ‘Cheers’ branch because there was no drive-up, so customers had to come inside,” she said. “It was a very fun place to work. The customers and team members alike knew each other so well.”
A few years later, she left Southpointe to manage Bell’s downtown branch, following which she became deposit services manager for about five years. But she said she missed the customer contact, so in 2013 Patty became a branch manager for the Time Square branch.
Patty has hired a lot of people over the years and says she loves watching them grow within the company.
“It’s so great to see that,” she said.
In her new role, Patty manages the banker support team, which serves the front-line staff as their go-to department whenever they need help with anything from policy procedures to opening business accounts.
“It’s like a 9-1-1 number for the bankers,” Patty said. “We have 20 branches our team is supporting.”
Patty says her passion for people, the customers and bank’s values bring her to work every day.
“I love the people, our company and our values,” she said. “Our values mirror my personal values. When you can come to work and do what you believe in, it’s just natural.
“If you haven’t worked somewhere else before, sometimes you don’t realize how fortunate we are to work for such a great company and have owners who treat us like family. If you want to work at a bank in Fargo-Moorhead, Bell is the place to work. And if you’re a customer, it’s the place to bank. I don’t just say that. I passionately believe it.”
Outside of work, Patty enjoys spending time with her family and friends. She and her husband, Bob, have two grown daughters, five grandchildren, who range in age from 3 to 8 and all live in the area, and a chocolate lab named Tucker.
They also enjoy being outdoors as much as possible, going to their lake place on Lake Lida (Minn.) in the summer, and spending time at their farmstead by Lidgerwood, N.D., which is Patty and Bob’s hometown, in the fall and winter. Patty accompanies Bob when he hunts and fishes.
When Carol Radermacher interviewed for a job with State Bank of West Fargo (now Bell Bank) 23 years ago, she was nervous because she hadn’t been in the workforce for a while.
Carol was a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. After both of her sons graduated high school, she decided to go back to work. Carol, who lives in Casselton, N.D., knew someone else from Casselton who worked for Bell Bank and encouraged her to apply for an open receptionist position.
“I interviewed, and then that afternoon they called me and said, ‘Come to work,’ ” she said. “I was ecstatic, but nervous, because I hadn’t been in the workforce for some time and when I was, I was teaching school, but it was a good move.”
Carol loves her job, the people she works with and the customers, she said.
“We employees are treated like family, and this starts at the top,” she said. “They appreciate you. They thank you for what you do for the company. It’s a joy and an honor to come to work every day.”
Prior to starting at Bell, Carol had worked as a library para for the Central Cass School District, part time as a receptionist for a Casselton insurance company and part time as an office manager for an appraisal company. She had also worked for a bank years ago.
“I had just completed my junior year of high school when the manager of our local branch bank in Leonard, N.D., approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking a summer job at the main bank in Casselton – at that time Casselton State Bank,” she said. “I was ecstatic, as my summer jobs had been babysitting or working in the local café, which I wasn’t especially fond of.”
Carol said she loved working at the bank and was fortunate to be hired back every summer while she attended college and once she started teaching school. It was while working at the bank that she met her husband, Ron, a farmer in the Casselton area.
After they married, she taught school and did substitute teaching until their two sons were born.
She started at State Bank of West Fargo in 1993. After a couple of years as a receptionist, she said she was encouraged to apply for a customer service position.
“I knew absolutely nothing about opening accounts, CDs, or IRAs, but I learned so much in that department from my co-workers, and I loved working with the customers,” she said. “I made many lifelong friends. We had fun. I heard their stories, and we laughed a lot together. I just enjoyed every minute.”
After more than 10 years in customer service, her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The receptionist position opened up again, and Carol decided to transfer back to that job, where the demands were a bit less and she wouldn’t have to work nights or Saturdays.
“We didn’t know what was ahead for my husband,” she said. “Fortunately he was in remission for seven years.”
Her husband died in January 2013, the same month and year as shareholder and longtime director Mickey Snortland. In addition to frequently asking her if she still liked her job, Mickey always asked Carol how her husband was doing, she remembers.
“He was always concerned about Ron’s health,” she said. “I feel truly blessed and proud to be a part of the Bell family. When my family and I struggled with the loss of my husband, Bell was there beside us, surrounding us with love and comfort.”
The Pay It Forward program, which gives employees money to donate to people or organizations in need, has been amazing, she said. Carol has donated a lot to the American Cancer Society and to people and organizations in the Casselton area.
“I have seen many tears of joy and thankfulness come from the recipients, which brings tears to my eyes,” she said.
Outside of work, Carol likes to spend time with friends and family, “especially those dear grandkids,” she said. In addition to her two sons, Carol has seven grandchildren, who range in age from 14 to 22. She has been involved in music throughout her life and is currently a member of her church’s contemporary band.
When June Kramer began working for Bell Bank almost 20 years ago, she started with a group of co-workers she’d had at another bank.
June, who is a senior personal banker, had been with the other bank for about 13 years when another company bought it out.
“We were all told we would find a position with the new company, but there was a lot of uncertainty,” she said.
It was around that time, in 1996, that Bell (then State Bank of Fargo) decided to open a Moorhead location, and June and a group of her co-workers left their jobs to work for Bell’s newest branch.
“It felt like home,” June said. “Everybody was so happy and encouraging. The way they embraced us as a group, I knew I had made the right decision to come to Bell.”
At first, June said they were in a “little cracker box” of a building with a shared parking lot and no drive-up.
“Mr. Solberg has always said, ‘It’s not the building, it’s the people,’ ” she said. “It really is true. It’s the people.”
The first few weeks were a whirlwind of activity. Many customers followed June and her co-workers to Bell, and numerous customers from other banks said they had been waiting for Bell to come to Moorhead, June said.
Then, four years later, what was then State Bank of Moorhead relocated to 1333 8th St. S., in a branch that customers affectionately call “the lodge” because of its stone décor and warm ambiance.
“I think it’s beautiful,” June said of the building. “A lot of our customers say there’s a special feel about this place. And there is. The receptionists are amazing, so customers are greeted with this welcome, and it just flows from the coffee and the cookies to everybody stopping and smiling and saying hello.”
June has been intrigued by banking ever since her first bank job after graduating from high school. She has stayed with Bell over the years because of her amazing customers and co-workers and because of the company’s values and the way Bell treats its employees, she said.
June said it’s really important that people are not afraid to talk about their faith. She also appreciates the company’s expectations.
One Saturday when Mickey Snortland, a former Bell shareholder and longtime director, stopped by the branch, he talked to her and told her he wanted her to work hard for the 40 hours she was at work, but then she should go home, enjoy her family and leave work at work.
“It showed how much he cared about his employees,” she said.
With big-bank sales tactics under scrutiny nationwide, a customer recently asked June what Bell expects of her.
“I said, ‘Oh, it’s so simple what they expect of us. They just want to make sure that when you leave today, you’re happy, and I’ve answered all of your questions,’ ” June said. “She just said, ‘And that’s why I love this bank.’ ”
Every day, several times a day, June said customers tell her they love banking at Bell. And June said helping her customers is what really energizes her.
One customer, a tough, Norwegian farmer, always wants a hug before he leaves. And June kept a voicemail message from another who called June her “dear, sweet friend.”
“I like helping customers,” she said. “I especially like the loan side, helping people get their lives back on track. Lending isn’t always about buying something.”
Something that really changed her outlook in life was helping with a fundraiser for Dakota Aberle, one of her co-workers. Dakota has alopecia, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the hair follicles, leading to sudden, patchy hair loss.
June was heavily involved in the branch’s efforts to raise enough money to buy Dakota a human-hair wig.
“It was our opportunity to help one of our own,” June said. “Here was this dear, sweet woman, who had just graduated from college. Her whole life is ahead of her, and then this happens.”
The branch was able to raise the exact amount needed, June said.
“What June and the rest of the Moorhead branch did for me was absolutely life-changing,” Dakota said. “I have never experienced that amount of support and love before, and the fact it came from my work family made it more incredible. They all helped me during one of the hardest times in my life, and I will forever be grateful of that.”
June grew up on a dairy farm between Hendrum and Halstad, Minn.
“I have an older brother and two older sisters, and we worked,” she said. “I think that has impacted my life. I like to work hard.”
She lives in Fargo with her husband, Bryan, his son Trevor, and their dogs, a 15-year-old black lab named Dixie and a 12-year-old golden retriever named Shadow.
When she’s not working, June likes to spend time outside, gardening, biking, hiking and walking. She and Bryan also go to the lakes, where they enjoy fishing and water-skiing.
Sandi Kraft has loved working with numbers since she was a kid. She even remembers playing banker when she was younger.
“Of course I always got to be the banker,” she said.
She took her first accounting class in high school and said she loved it from the minute she started.
“My teacher said I definitely found my niche,” she said.
Sandi worked as a teller for a bank in Devils Lake, N.D., while in college. She started working for Bell Bank right out of college in 1994, and she’s never left.
“I found the right place the first time around,” she said.
Sandi was newly married when she started in bookkeeping 22 years ago. In many ways, she says she grew up at Bell. She has been with the company through the births and childhoods of all three of her daughters.
“It always felt very family-oriented, and that’s what I’m all about,” Sandi said. “The morals of this bank match the morals of my family life, so it was a really good fit.”
As an accounting operations analyst, her main responsibilities are to watch the bank’s internal accounts, such as general ledgers.
“We used to have to balance cashier’s checks and all the bank checks by hand,” she said. “My pile was about two-feet high. We’d have to match each credit and debit to each other to see what was still outstanding. And if you were off by a penny, you better believe I went looking for it. I have always loved finding offages. It’s like a challenge to me. It’s such a rewarding feeling when I find it and figure it out.”
Sandi has had opportunities to pursue career options outside of Bell, but her co-workers and the family atmosphere have kept her here.
“I always felt like this is my home away from home,” she said. “There are so many things I have here that I’m not going to get anywhere else.”
When her oldest daughter graduated from high school, her co-workers helped bake treats for the graduation party.
“They know my daughters almost as well as I do,” Sandi said.
Sandi said she has never missed any of her daughters’ events, because Bell has allowed her to work her schedule around theirs.
“Once we started having children, being with my family and being able to be there for all the things that they did was super-important to me,” Sandi said. “Bell promotes that family atmosphere.”
Sandi remembers how shareholder and longtime director Mickey Snortland would sit at her desk with his coffee and ask her about her daughters, before he died in 2013.
“It was truly a privilege and honor to know him,” she said with tears in her eyes. “He set an amazing example of how to live your life. He promoted family and strong faith. That’s another thing I love about this bank. We’re not shy to pray.”
Bell’s Pay It Forward program, which gives employees money to donate to people or organizations in need, is something else Sandi knows she’s unlikely to get anywhere else. Every year her friends and family will ask her where she will donate her money.
“They cannot believe that we do that,” Sandi said. “That has been one of the greatest blessings, being able to help people.”
She typically likes to use her donation to help children in some way.
“It’s really heart-breaking to see the need and have to pick,” she said. “It’s also really eye-opening to the needs in the community. The biggest thing for me is I appreciate my life so much. The greatest gift is when we help people.”
Giving back and paying it forward have long been part of Sandi’s life philosophy. Growing up, her dad volunteered at the youth center in Devils Lake, so she helped out with things like taking money and running music. Her parents were also active in their church. Sandi and her husband, Chad, were extremely involved in the West Fargo Parent Teacher Association for eight years, helping with things like book fairs and family fun night.
“It’s really hard now to instill those values, because the world has changed so much,” Sandi said. “It’s good that my life has the same values no matter where I am – at work or at home. I have two families, and they’ve merged as one.”
There have been a lot of changes at the bank in 22 years, Sandi said. Her title has changed, the department name has changed, the bank name has changed, technology has changed how she does her job, and the company has grown. She was employee number 143. Now Bell has more than 1,000 employees. But Sandi said the bottom line of happy employees, happy customers has never changed.
“Any time I’ve ever thought I should move on, I just can’t,” Sandi said. “I feel a loyalty to seeing this company succeed, and I believe in their values. I’m just really proud to say I work here.”
Many of her co-workers have also been her life mentors, she said.
“It’s a really good feeling to come in to work, and basically it’s like hanging out with my friends,” Sandi said. “We do work, but you can also hear us laughing down the hallway.”
Deb Hjelmstad didn’t have to think very hard about leaving her former employer more than two decades ago to work for Bell Bank.
She had worked with Ron Jordan, Bell’s senior vice president of mortgage lending and processing, and Susie Barta, vice president and Fargo real estate production manager for Bell, before they both started with the company in June of 1992. A few months later, they asked Deb to join them.
“It was an easy decision,” she said. “I knew of Bell’s reputation, and I knew of the reputations of Ron and Susie, who I have a lot of respect for.”
She started as a mortgage loan originator and is now a vice president and mortgage loan officer.
After nearly 24 years, Deb said, “It was the best decision I ever made.
“I love the bank. I love the people. I love their philosophy. I like their belief that family is first, work is second. I like their religious undertones. I love the owners. They have always been good to me. They always seem to have my back, and I have theirs.”
Deb said many of her friends and family don’t understand why she enjoys coming to work.
“There are of course rough days and changes that challenge me, but the challenges have made me smarter and brighter,” she said.
Bell’s culture is a big reason why she likes her job, but she also likes the work she does every day.
“I get people into homes, and I enjoy doing it,” Deb said. “It’s the biggest purchase people make.”
A big part of Deb’s job is her role as educator. She tries to calm her clients’ worries and help them understand each step of the mortgage process. She also works with clients to help them figure out whether they can afford the home.
“When they get into their home, they know exactly what their expenses are going to be,” she said.
She works with a lot of first-time homebuyers and said it’s very rewarding.
“The first-time homebuyers are just a scream, because they’re so excited, and we can find ways to get them in with the least amount of cash because of the programs that we have. It’s fun to be able to use those programs to help them,” Deb said.
Sometimes, she said she can’t approve a loan, but then she can suggest some changes the applicants can make to improve their chances of approval.
“That’s rewarding, too, because then they come back,” she said.
She enjoys meeting people face-to-face and learning their stories. A lot of her business is through referrals, and she’s gotten to the point where she’s working on the mortgages of her friends’ children.
Some of her favorite memories of working for Bell include the time she first met Mickey Snortland, a shareholder who served as a director for more than 40 years before his death.
Shortly after Deb started with the bank, Mickey stopped by her desk to ask about buying a home and why he should work with Bell.
“I had no idea who he was,” she said. “I was clueless. I just thought he was a customer off the street.”
Deb started talking about the company’s good reputation. Before he left, she asked Mickey how he had been referred to Bell. He confessed that he was a major stockholder.
“I bet I turned seven shades of red,” Deb said, adding that Mickey told her she did great.
When she had breast cancer and lost her hair, she never wore a wig, but would wear hats and scarves. When it was about a quarter of an inch long and growing back in grey and curly, she decided to forgo the headwear.
“Mickey walked up to me and said, ‘Wow, Deb, I like your hair cut, but you know, I really do like it longer,” Deb said, laughing.
“The people I work with, they have my back,” she said. “If you need something, they’re there for you. That’s just the way it is.”
Deb was born and raised in Fargo. She and her husband, Lynn, have been married 42 years. They have two adult sons, John and Tim, and one 4-year-old grandson named Brayden, who Deb said is the “joy of our life.”
“You don’t think your heart can grow any more until that little one comes into your life,” she said.
When they eventually retire, they plan to move to Arizona to be closer to family.
Shannon Dye has been with the same company – Bell Bank – for nearly a quarter of a century. And it’s the only company she’s worked for since graduating college.
In October, Shannon Dye, vice president and a business banking officer in Bell’s West Fargo branch on Sheyenne Street, will have been with Bell Bank for 25 years. She started in college as a part-time teller. After graduating, she moved into different roles from full-time teller to running proof and inputting loans and checking accounts into the computer. She also worked as an administrative assistant in commercial lending before moving into her current position as a business lender.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “It’s fun meeting with all the businesses, and I do a lot of small-business lending. If there’s a new company or a start-up, I’m usually the one who gets those. It’s fun to see. Those are the companies that are most rewarding to work with because they’re so appreciative. It’s tough to get started, and they’re the tough ones to get done because they don’t have any history.”
In her years working with businesses, Shannon has seen a lot of changes, both in regulations and the process of loaning money.
“When I started, we were hand-typing loan documents on a typewriter, and it was a big deal when we had a computer with a mouse,” she said. “It’s definitely gotten easier that way, but harder regulation-wise.”
When working on loans, Shannon said she often has to go with her gut-instincts.
“The start-ups, they don’t have any history,” she said. “They have projections, but projections don’t necessarily mean as much, so it’s more about gauging the person and their ability to be successful.”
Shannon has stayed with Bell over the years because it’s a great company that’s good to its employees, she said. She works with a fabulous group of people, and she likes that the owners get to know the employees and the company understands that sometimes employees have to leave work to take care of family responsibilities.
She also likes that the company empowers its employees to help the community through the Pay It Forward program, which gives employees money to donate to people or organizations in need. She gave her first Pay It Forward donation to a family who had lost a child to an epileptic disorder and had another child battling the same disorder.
“It’s a nice way to be able to help people out,” Shannon said.
Shannon and her husband, Shawn, have two kids and spend a lot of their free time running around to their kids’ sporting events. They also spend summer weekends at the lake, and they like to travel, typically taking a warm-weather vacation in the winter.
People are usually happy to see Steven Breiland when he walks into one of the Bell Bank branches. It doesn’t hurt that he often arrives bearing cookies.
Steven has been the bank’s messenger since 1990. At first, he had only two branches to courier paperwork between. Now, he delivers supplies to all of the Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead and Dilworth branches.
In addition to delivering supplies and cookies to the local branches, he also delivers abstracts of title to abstract companies and law offices, and he maintains the bank’s vehicles.
Steven said he likes that while he has a desk, he doesn’t spend a lot of time there.
“I like to get out and move around,” he said. “I get to meet other employees and get to know them better.”
When he started, Steven would spend three or more hours a day picking up business deposits and delivering the mail between the north and south branches. He also used to transport files between branches. Now a lot of that’s done through computer imaging.
Prior to working for Bell, Steven used to work for his dad’s carpet- and furniture-cleaning business and the bank was one of their clients. Then one day DeNae Swalstad, who retired in 1996 after 22 years with the bank, called him and told him to come in dressed in a suit. After talking for a bit, she offered him the job on the spot.
“After I was hired, she had me fill out a job application,” Steven joked.
He has stayed with the company for 26 years because he respects the owners, and employees are treated well, he said.
“I’m really impressed with that,” he said. “I enjoy working here.”
Steven mentioned the Christmas parties and Pay It Forward program, which gives employees money to donate to people or organizations in need, as ways the company goes above and beyond for employees.
As a college student, Billy Nustad thought about becoming a farmer. He graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in agricultural economics.
But his first job out of college was as a bank examiner, and he never left the industry. After five years as an examiner, Billy worked for a bank, but he didn’t like the atmosphere or the culture. He knew Richard Solberg, then president of State Bank of Fargo, and Dean Wegenast, the bank’s accountant and one of the men who chartered the bank, from some work they had done together on participation loans. He decided to apply for a job at State Bank of Fargo (now Bell Bank) in 1985. He was hired to work in commercial lending, making him the company’s 16th employee.
The culture and work environment at State Bank were much different from his previous job, Billy said.
“That makes all the difference,” he said.
In the beginning, Billy and the other employees would do everything including shoveling snow in the winter. He also remembers building computer keyboard trays when the company upgraded to computers.
“Looking back, it was an interesting ride,” Billy said.
As a commercial lender, Billy was involved in helping many local businesses get off the ground, and he’s watched them grow into thriving companies.
“It was always satisfying to be part of these businesses that were successful,” he said. “Watching them grow and employ more people, that was the biggest thing for me, seeing the employment and the success of the businesses, many of which are still Bell Bank customers.”
Billy had the opportunity to get to know one of the bank’s founders, Thomas “Buck” Snortland.
“Knowing Buck gave me a better understanding of how the bank started operating with the culture we know today,” he said. “Buck was a unique individual. He had his way of motivating you and engaging you without you knowing his objective.”
He would talk in length to employees about their successes, frustrations and concerns, Billy said.
“He was genuinely interested,” he said.
Billy also spent many years helping Mickey Snortland, Buck’s son, with his fall harvest. Mickey, a Bell shareholder and longtime director, owned and operated a family farm near Sharon, N.D.
“That was a special time for me. I’m a farm boy myself,” said Billy, who grew up on a grain and cattle farm south of Jamestown, N.D. “It gave me an opportunity to stay connected to the farm and spend a lot of time with Mickey. To be out on the farm and watching him in operation showed me a unique side of him. He loved being a farmer, and he was a good steward of the land.”
Billy said Mickey was extremely conservative in many ways, but also very generous with his time and possessions.
Before Mickey died in early 2013, he used to personally deliver rocks from his farm to the bank branches for fireplaces and other décor. He did it as a way to connect the bank with his agricultural roots. The rocks are now affectionately referred to as ‘legacy stones.’ This year and last year employees picked rocks from Mickey’s farm as a way to carry on his legacy. Billy was involved both times.
“That’s a really special tribute and a good legacy for Mickey,” he said.
Eventually Billy became involved in organizing Bell’s involvement in community parades – a responsibility he still carries, though he’s semi-retired. Billy works part time for the company, organizing parade involvement and serving as Bell’s ambassador for the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce. Ambassadors hold ribbon-cutting and ground-breaking ceremonies, help attract and retain chamber members, help with event presentations, and promote the chamber’s programs, products and services.
Both responsibilities keep him involved and connected to the business community.
“Last year, there were 156 events the ambassadors attended,” he said.
For the parades, Billy does things like maintain the equipment and purchase the candy. He needed one ton of candy for this year’s parades.
Some of the vehicles used in the parades, like the tractor and 1972 Chevy pickup, are vehicles he has restored. In 1991, when the bank was 25 years old, Billy found a 1966 Chevy convertible in Detroit. He thought it would be great for the parades, and Richard and Mickey agreed, so he flew out to Detroit, bought the car and drove it back.
“It’s pretty important that we have that presence in the communities where we have branches to show that we’re supporting the communities,” Billy said.
When not at work, Billy spends a lot of time with his grandkids. He has two adult children and three grandchildren.
Holly Holte wasn’t looking for a job when she first walked into what was then State Bank of Fargo in 1973.
She and her family had just moved to north Fargo from Devils Lake, N.D. As she was walking through the Northport shopping center, she noticed the “cute, little bank” and decided to see if it had a service charge for checking accounts.
“I walked in, and Dean Wegenast was sitting at his desk, smoking a cigarette,” she said.
In visiting with Dean, the bank’s accountant and one of the men who chartered the bank, Holly told him she had worked as a bookkeeper. About an hour after she got home, Dean called to tell her the bank was looking for someone to work in bookkeeping.
Holly had three boys at home and didn’t know if she wanted the job, but her husband suggested she work part time. She interviewed with Dean, got the job, and worked in bookkeeping for eight years before switching to customer service.
In 1987, Holly was involved in opening the bank’s second location, at 2501 S. University Dr. in Fargo.
“That was a wonderful experience,” she said. “Every account we opened, we were just thrilled to death. It was so much fun, like watching a baby grow.”
Holly said she feels proud to have been part of the bank’s growth.
“Lots of changes have happened at State Bank,” Holly said. “I always thought they were going to grow, but never dreamt they would grow to what they are today.”
One customer she remembers needed a $500 loan because his wife just had a baby, but he had horrible credit. The bank took a chance on him anyway.
“He is still a customer of Bell Bank, and he’s a wonderful customer, and he does nothing but bring people in,” Holly said. “We really did make personal connections that made that bank just grow.”
Holly retired in 1999, after 26 years with Bell Bank. But even now, she asks people where they’re banking and if they don’t bank with Bell, she asks them why.
“We have moved to Michigan, and I see these humongous banks out here. They just don’t get it,” Holly said. “Bell has done a really good job of showing that they do care about people and the community. That alone will keep the business going.”
Holly has customers whose children eventually became Bell customers, and she’s had customers become lifelong friends.
“I’m so blessed,” she said. “Not only did I have a wonderful working experience, I also now am enjoying retirement.”
When she first retired, Holly spent a lot of time quilting. A few months ago, she and her husband, Orion, moved to a condo in the woods in Michigan to be near one of their sons. They also have five grandchildren.
Jim Martin has only ever worked for two businesses – Regency Inn and Bell Bank.
He started working for Bell (then State Bank of Fargo) as a college student. He was hired in 1989 as a part-time proof operator, a position that no longer exists.
“I basically sat at a big machine that was kind of like a 10-key adding machine and encoded the dollar amount of checks in the special magnetic ink that’s at the bottom of a check,” he said. “If there was anything that was missing, like an account number, I would put the account number and the dollar amount on there so the machines could process them and sort them.”
Now, checks are all scanned by computers.
Jim had been working as a waiter and was attending Minnesota State University Moorhead (then Moorhead State University) for accounting. He thought it would be good to get a job in a business-related field.
“I didn’t really want to work in a public accounting firm,” he said. “I wanted to work in the accounting department of a business, so I thought working in a bank would help me.”
Jim was good with numbers and said math always came easily to him. After working as a proof operator for about a year and a half, he became a part-time teller, switching to full time after graduating from college in 1992.
“There are still customers who recognize me from when I was a teller at the north branch,” he said. “And I haven’t been on the front-line for a long time.”
He eventually became a level II teller, which meant he could do customer-service work, like opening accounts. And in January of 1995, he became the second person to work in the audit department.
“Now we have so many different wings and separate areas of audit and compliance,” said Jim, who now works as vice president and internal audit manager.
In 1997, he added physical security to his responsibilities. In addition to auditing, he was also in charge of the bank’s alarms and cameras.
“In auditing, you’re expected to know every area of the bank and review everything and be able to advise everybody on what they’re doing right or wrong,” he said. “If there was any fraud or anything like that, audit would research it.”
Still, Jim said he was surprised when he heard he would be in charge of security, because he didn’t know he was being considered for the role.
“There was no training or budget,” he said. “I just learned over time. That was something I became proud of, because eventually I was viewed as an expert in the area.”
Jim was interviewed by news media about security issues many times. He spoke about topics like identity theft and counterfeit money to different organizations. And he helped start a group called the Red River Valley Security Professionals, which still meets quarterly.
Jim also became the Bank Secrecy Act officer. The federal law, passed by Congress in 1970 to fight money laundering, requires businesses to keep records and file reports that could have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, and regulatory matters, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Jim was in charge of making sure the bank complied with that regulation.
Eventually Bell’s growth meant the bank had to devote more resources to bank secrecy, so Jim gave up his auditing duties to focus on bank secrecy and physical security. But as the audit department grew, he was pulled back into it as internal audit manager. He has an analytical, problem-solving mind, so all of his positions have fit his personality, he said.
“I like being aware of what’s happening in all the areas of the bank,” he said. “I like to analyze. I like to look through and see if there are areas where they could do better.”
Other banks have tried to lure him away, but Jim said his coworkers and the way Bell treats its employees have kept him here. Bell’s Christmas parties have always been among his favorite events, he said. He’s also participated in every golf tournament and has been on the winning team once.
“That’s not because of me,” he said. “I’m very bad at golf, but I still do it, and I have fun.”
Jim also remembers Mickey Snortland, a Bell shareholder and longtime director, stopping to talk to him when he was a teller.
“That attitude from a bank owner went a long way, knowing how much he cared,” Jim said. “Plus if you work in banking for a little bit, you realize this is the bank in town that everybody wants to work for, so why would I leave?”
Jim lives in Moorhead with his wife and two kids. When he’s not working, he spends time at the lakes or helping his wife’s family on their farm.
When Loree Gauffin started working for Northern Capital Trust in 1987, she did everything from the financials to cleaning toilets and washing windows.
She was looking for a job and had no idea what a trust was, but she was hired as the company’s executive assistant – a position she has held throughout her career.
“I was kind of thrown into the fire and learned quickly about the financial institution,” she said. “I was learning something new all the time.”
She was the first employee, and it was a scary experience, Loree said.
“I felt like I learned about everything from A to Z very quickly,” she said.
When Michael Solberg, the president and CEO of Bell Bank, joined Northern Capital Trust in 1998 and was subsequently named the company’s chief operating officer, Loree became his assistant. She started working for Richard Solberg, Bell’s board chairman, at what was then State Bank of Fargo right before the companies merged in 2003.
Loree no longer has to scrub toilets or wash windows. She spends her days managing Richard and Michael’s schedules, trying to stay a step ahead of them, and helping them as much as possible.
“Things can change so quickly because their schedules are so busy,” she said.
While it can sometimes be hectic, Loree said it’s also very rewarding.
“I think I have the best job in the whole world working for those two gentlemen,” she said. “They’re wonderful people. “They encourage me. They listen. They make me laugh.”
And sometimes, Loree said, they make her laugh without even trying.
“Dick has the hardiest laugh in the world,” she said. “He was in his office one time talking with somebody on the phone, and he started laughing. I could hear him from my office, and I started laughing. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about – I just started laughing because he was laughing.”
The people she works with feel like her extended family, Loree said.
“I feel blessed to be able to work for them and to have been in this company for this long,” she said. “They live our culture. It starts at the top. And when it starts at the top, it drips all the way down.”
Loree said she was amazed when Michael introduced the Pay It Forward program.
“It’s unbelievable that they are so giving and willing to give,” she said.
She typically waits until she hears about someone who needs help to decide where to donate her Pay It Forward dollars. She has given to a backpack program in her hometown of Kindred, N.D., a Kindred bus driver who lost her legs and later died following a crash involving her school bus and semis, and a friend whose son was born with medical complications.
“It’s so heartwarming, tears just absolutely flow to be able to help people who need it,” Loree said as tears filled her eyes. “It’s just so unbelievable that we can do this.”
Loree grew up in Kindred, N.D., and graduated from Interstate Business College.
In her spare time, she likes golfing, going to the lakes, and spending time with her nieces and nephews. She also loves following the North Dakota State University Bison and has a football in her office signed by Bison players.
“I almost feel like their culture is very similar to Bells,” Loree said. “You feel it. Listening to the coaches and some of the players, they all refer back to their teammates and their teamwork together.”
After 30 years, Donna Villiard has a lot of stories to tell about her time with Bell Bank.
She remembers when Thomas "Buck" Snortland, an original founder of what was then State Bank of Fargo would visit the bank in his farm clothes. If kids were there, he would ask them if they wanted to see the vault. Parents would look at Donna questioningly because of how Buck was dressed, but she assured them that he owned the bank.
Mickey Snortland, Buck’s son and a longtime director and stockholder, would stop in every morning to have his coffee. He was fond of rummage sales and would sometimes be wearing a jacket with someone else’s name on it.
“We had a lot of fun,” she said at her retirement party as she reminisced about her time with the bank.
Donna started as a teller with the company in 1986. It’s a position she never relinquished. She was a teller III when she retired May 9. Over the years, she’s passed her knowledge along to many Bell employees, including the company’s president and CEO.
“Donna helped train me in when I was a teller in high school,” Michael Solberg said. “We had a lot of fun. I think the thing that stands out for me is there are so many people at Bell in full-time positions who came through and trained in the north side under Donna and some of these long-term leaders in our company.”
Donna applied for a job at the bank because she was a young mom with kids in school, and she was looking for full-time work.
“It was time to get out of the house,” Donna said.
“It sounds just like me, so maybe that’s why I hired you,” said DeNae Swalstad, who retired in 1996 after 22 years with the bank. “We’ve always gotten along good. Never any ruffled feathers.”
Donna said co-workers and the company’s values kept her at the bank all that time.
“I’ve always had good people to work with,” she said. “From when I started, the values are still the same – they want people to do well; they want their customers to be happy; they want their employees to be happy; and they want to look good in their community. The bank has changed so much, and yet those are still the same. The bank is the same but different.”
The technological changes have been the biggest changes, she said.
“When I started here, we were filing checks,” she said. “Now we don’t even encourage people to have checks.”
Over the years, Donna built personal relationships with customers and her co-workers.
“I’m going to miss all my friends,” Donna said. “I’m going to miss my coworkers the most and all the fun jokes and knowing what everybody’s family is doing. When you work together for eight hours a day for 30 years with people, there’s a bond. You’ve seen them through the bad things in their lives and the good things.”
They also spent time together outside of work, doing things like bowling or playing Bingo.
In retirement, Donna plans to help her husband, John, with his knee replacement. She will also work with him on their auction business and spend time with her three grandchildren.
As Richard Solberg sits in his office at Bell Bank in Fargo, reminiscing over his career and the bank’s growth, a sign over his shoulder reads, “Your worth isn’t found in a bank. Your worth is found in people’s hearts.”
It’s a sentiment that seems to hold true for the board chairman and retired CEO.
“There’s nothing that makes me feel better than hearing that our employees love working for our company,” Richard said. “There’s nothing more satisfying for me than that.”
Growing up in Finley, N.D., he watched his dad run a bank in town. Richard went to school for business and didn’t plan to pursue a career in banking. But his first full-time job after graduating from Concordia College was working for a bank in Grand Forks, N.D., and he did not veer from that career path.
Richard started working as a small-loan officer, and after a short time became manager of the bank’s Grand Forks Air Force Base branch.
“Unlike many bankers, my interest ended up being advertising, sales and marketing,” he said. “That’s how you get new customers.”
After two years, Richard went to work for Citizens State Bank of Finley, where his dad worked. He was there 12 years, and when his dad retired, Richard, who was in his early 30s, became bank president.
In 1982, Thomas "Buck" Snortland, an original founder of what was then State Bank of Fargo, and his son Mickey recruited Richard to become president and a stockholder of their bank.
“Coming from a small town to Fargo, I was nervous,” Richard said. “There was no plan or vision that the company would have the growth and success that it’s had over the years.”
Looking back over the last 30-plus years, Richard said he’s proud of how much the bank has grown. Bell is now the largest independently owned bank in the upper Midwest, and one of the largest in the nation, with business in 50 states. It grew from one location to 20 full-service bank locations in in North Dakota and Minnesota. And Richard said a lot of that growth is because of the company’s philosophy.
“The philosophy the Snortlands had and certainly I shared is that people matter more than profits,” he said. “The stockholders have always had the philosophy that we don’t have to be the highest-earning bank in the nation. We have to make a reasonable profit, but they never wanted that to be the focus.”
Employees are more loyal to a company if they’re included in the profit-sharing and benefits, and they know the company sincerely cares about them, Richard said.
“I think that reflects in how they perform their jobs and how they treat customers and each other,” he said.
In 2009, Richard’s son, Michael, took over as president, and in 2014 he was named CEO. It was a blessing that Michael was interested in the banking industry, Richard said, but his last name didn’t necessarily qualify him for the job. The board of directors unanimously voted to give it to him but said it wasn’t because he was a Solberg, Richard said.
“I’m trying to guide the ship, but as he’s taking over, I’m trying to let him run the ship,” Richard said. “It’s working very well, and I’m very proud of how he’s doing and how the bank is doing.”
When Michael brought up his idea for the Pay It Forward program, which gives employees money to donate to a person or organization in need, Richard said he had to digest it a little bit, but he considers it “very special that we can give back to the people in our communities in that way.”
The company didn’t plan to publicize the program, but local media caught wind of it and soon half a dozen national news shows reported on it, there was a two-page spread in People magazine, and it was a major story in USA Today, Richard said.
One of Richard’s donations that really made an impact on him was inspired by a customer. He received a call from a customer whose son owed the bank a few hundred dollars he hadn’t paid because he’d been in jail. The customer wanted his son to meet with Richard to look him in the eye and apologize.
The customer’s son was working and wanted to pay the bank $10 a month until he paid off his debt. Instead, Richard forgave the debt and gave the man his $1,000 in Pay It Forward money to help him as he continued to straighten out his life.
“They were both crying, and they had me half in tears,” Richard said.
A year later, he attended a jail chaplaincy banquet and saw the man there.
“Here he was helping people in jail,” Richard said. He gave his next Pay It Forward donation to the jail chaplaincy program because of that customer.
Working in the banking industry, Richard has had a lot of opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives. One of his favorite memories is of helping a small-town business. He was working at the Finley bank, and the town bakery was barely surviving.
“The people who owned it worked so hard,” he said. “They would get up at 2 o’clock in the morning to bake bread.”
They started making frozen dough they would sell in neighboring towns. It sold out quicker than they could make it, but they didn’t have any capital to expand the business.
“We formed a development corporation to help them,” Richard said. “They built a nice, new building in Finley. They’ve added on several times. The business is still successful.”
In fact, Top Taste, Inc. has grown from a local bakery into a company that sells Fetting’s Frozen Bakery Products nationwide. Bell buys the cookies that are so popular in our branches from Top Taste, Inc.
Though he retired from his position as CEO when Michael took over, Richard still works part time, and he likes to spend a lot of his time on sales and marketing. For years he wrote the copy for every billboard, newspaper ad, direct mailer and bus bench sign, he said.
“We would spend hours and hours and hours on strategy and copy,” he said.
The 70-year-old started playing golf when he was 65, encouraged by his wife, Jo Ellen, to take up the sport as he approached retirement. But his favorite hobby is his job.
“Work is my hobby,” he said. “When I was younger, I used to joke that when all the other bankers were golfing I was calling on their customers. And I got many of them.”
Richard and Jo Ellen live in Fargo and have three grown children and 11 grandchildren.
Though Jody Saum has worked in four branches at Bell Bank, she can’t choose a favorite.
“I get asked a lot what was my favorite location and really I don’t have a favorite,” she said. “It’s not about the building you’re in; it’s about the people you get to work with, and I’ve always had great people to work with.”
In her 35 years with the company, Jody has worked her way up from teller to vice president and Fargo retail banking manager. She also manages Bell’s Fargo center branch.
Her favorite thing to do, she said, is lending.
“I like the interaction with the customers,” she said. “You get to know so much more about them, and typically when you start a lending relationship with people, they tend to be your customers for life.”
Jody started working as a teller at First State Bank of West Fargo in 1981. Within a few weeks she started running proof (checking tellers’ work and making sure everything balances), and eventually she moved into computer work. Bell, then State Bank of Fargo, bought the bank in 1989 and renamed it State Bank of West Fargo.
“Anytime a bank is purchased, you worry, but they kept all of the employees and grandfathered us all in,” Jody said. “That’s typically not the way it is. We knew there were going to be changes, but they’ve been pretty much wonderful changes.”
She was there for 20 years. In about her 10th year, she went into lending. Then in 2001, she became the first branch manager for the Fargo Time Square location. She spent six years there.
“It was exciting, wonderful and fun to watch it grow,” she said.
Next, Jody managed Bell’s Fargo downtown branch for six years. At the time, Bell rented the space at 51 Broadway. One day toward the end of the lease, a pipe burst on one of the other floors.
“It was a mess,” Jody said. “It caused quite a bit of damaged and shut us down for a couple weeks. Then we operated out of a small corner of the bank for quite some time.”
Eventually Bell moved its downtown location to 15 Broadway, and in 2013 Jody became manger of the Fargo Center branch, where Bell is headquartered.
“Bell’s a pretty good place to be,” Jody said. “I’ve always been extremely grateful.”
One of the best parts of her job is seeing people who have been on her staff grow and advance in their careers.
“It’s fun to see people become successful,” she said.
Jody is from Canby, Minn. She and her husband, Bruce, live in West Fargo. They have one adult daughter and a number of granddaughters and great-grandchildren.
Outside of work, Jody loves watching college football, and she’s a big Green Bay Packers fan. She also likes spending time at the lake. She and her husband recently bought a lake home.
For a short time when Paula Kolle was a child, she aspired to be a nun. She attending Catholic school and not only idolized the nuns there, but also thought the convent would be a beautiful place to live. After that dream faded, she wanted to be a bank teller. She thought it neat how the tellers would pass the items when her father would take her through the bank drive through when she was little.
“I would use a shoe box to play drive-up bank teller to obtain the customers deposits,” remembers Paula. “I thought those bank girls were really cool!”
By the time Paula got to college at North Dakota State University, her goals had changed. At that point, she had decided to become a home economics teacher. Upon graduation from college Paula worked part-time at a bank while looking for a teaching job. Now, 36 years later, she’s loved every job she’s had at the bank.
In the various positions Paula has held at Bell she describes all of her work with one word – service. Every aspect of what she’s done at Bell has been to serve the customer, whether in the front office or behind the scenes.
“I have worked with Paula for over 22 years - there were several years when we worked side-by-side in retail customer service,” says Carol Radermacher, receptionist at West Fargo. “She is very supportive of her co-workers, always willing to help out when needed. Paula loves her customers, many of whom will wait for her if she is busy. She is professional, friendly, caring and always goes the extra mile for the customer.”
Now as a personal banking officer, she loves that she can offer continued service to her clients. She’s helped many customers open their very first checking accounts and then again with their first car loan.
“After 36 years, following my customers through their lives, from grade school through marriage – and helping them in each phase of their lives has been rewarding,” says Paula. “It has been an honor to help many of our elderly customers. I inherited many of them from Carol Radermacher and still continue to serve many of them.”
Although Paula says she always wondered how her father could work at the same job for 37 years, now she gets it! She is proud to have worked at Bell for so long and hopes to work here for many more years.
“Bell is a company that does its utmost for its employees and customers,” says Paula. “I believe there is absolutely no reason a person wouldn’t enjoy working at Bell!”
When Paula isn’t at work, she loves to walk, especially when the weather is nice and the sun is shining! Paul and her husband also enjoy going to the lake and visiting warmer climates.
Dean Wegenast is credited with putting the first dollar on the books when State Bank of Fargo opened in 1966. Today, he’s still actively involved on the board of State Bankshares, the holding company that owns Bell Bank. Over the span of the past fifty years, Dean has seen the bank go from one location serving north Fargo, to the rapidly growing bank it is today, with nearly 1,000 employees. He says it’s been an exciting ride.
“We were just a little bank in north Fargo, now look at where we are. It’s fantastic,” says Dean. “I am so happy that things have progressed the way they have.”
Dean joined State Bank of Fargo as the bank’s accountant when it opened its doors 50 years ago. He retired from “active duty” at the end of 1999, but continued on as executive secretary of Bell Bank’s board of directors until the end of 2012.
“The banking industry has changed so much. The way things are done is different, but the customer service that Bell is known for has remained,” says Dean. “The culture isn’t something we hashed out in the beginning, it’s just something we did and I’m proud we still do.”
Dean grew up in Edgeley, North Dakota, and graduated from high school in Portland, N.D., before attending Dakota Business College in Fargo. The last thing he wanted to do was be a banker; he envisioned being a bookkeeper at a business.
His first job was at an insurance agency, and Dean was then hired at Bankers State Bank as a cashier. It was while at Bankers State Bank that he decided to join Buck Snortland in chartering State Bank of Fargo. In the early years, Dean remembers that while growth was slow, the bank built a powerful board including many community leaders.
Dean cites another major highlight as when Richard Solberg joined the bank in 1982. Dean and Dick had an informal agreement: Dick would bring the business in, and Dean and the staff would take care of the customers once they got in the door.
“He transformed the little bank,” explained Dean. “Dick took his time, learned what Fargo was all about, and it went from there. Within a couple of years, things started to move.”
The growth of the bank wasn’t something Dean could have predicted when the first location opened 50 years ago.
“We didn’t sit down and plan this. If something came up, we took advantage of it. It was very exciting, even scary at times,” says Dean. “It’s been 50 years of banking that I am quite proud of.”
Dick Solberg credits Dean with the bank operations running so smoothly, especially through all of the changes the bank experienced in the years the two worked together.
“Dean was the glue that held the bank together through growth and expansion,” said Dick. “He wore many hats, and wore them well, always remaining incredibly loyal to the bank.”
Dean and his wife, Gail, (below left) have been married 58 years and divide their time between Fargo, Perham and Florida. He enjoys playing bridge, being at the lake, and spending time with his three grown children and six grandchildren.
While attending Concordia College and considering a future career, Dan Nelson thought it would be great to be a ranger at a national park. A degree in natural resources involved a lot of science classes, and those courses did not appeal to Dan. His talents took him on a different path: he earned a degree in business administration and accounting. Upon graduation, it was expected that Dan would become a CPA – but what happened was a banking career with longevity and a lot of variety. He would never have dreamed he’d enjoy so many different roles while working at the same financial institution his entire career.
When Dan finished college, the economy wasn’t so hot, and jobs were hard to come by. He was just about to accept a job at a shoe store when he heard there was a bank in north Fargo that was hiring. Dan stopped by what was then State Bank of Fargo and inquired about a possible opportunity. That action changed the course of his life.
Dan started at the bank as a management trainee. Being a trainee he experienced book keeping, the teller line, customer service, and many different types of lending including consumer, home equity and refinance, commercial real estate and home construction. And that was just in the front office. Behind the scenes, Dan worked with deposit services and loan servicing.
In all of his training, Dan noticed something special about the bank. “I knew this place had potential because of the way they treated the customers,” explains Dan. “I was given the freedom to work with customers in a way that I felt was best without having to answer to a profit goal. It really was all about the customer.”
As the bank grew, so did the need for more locations and someone to manage all the work that comes with having multiple buildings. Dan welcomed the role of facilities manager and hasn’t looked back. In this role, he uses much of the experience he gained throughout his years at the bank.
“I’ve worked with Dan since I started at the bank in 1982 and I’ve never heard anyone say an unkind word about him,” says Richard Solberg, chairman of the board. “‘Nice guy’ is used often in describing people, but there is no one that term fits better than Dan Nelson. Beyond that, he’s known for working hard and getting things done.”
Dan has spent most of his adult life at the bank, and it has served as a second family. As a single young man, he found there were several motherly people on the staff that took it upon themselves to look out for him. Dan couldn’t believe when some of his coworkers traveled across North Dakota, all the way to Watford City, for his wedding. And when he and his wife celebrated the birth of their children, so did his coworkers – going as far as to post “It’s a boy!” on the marquee outside of the Northport branch in Fargo when his first child was born.
Bell Bank has come a long way since it opened, and so has Dan, who has been here for a good portion of it.
“Who would have ever dreamed that out of that little Northport bank, we’d be where we are today,” says Dan.
At the end of this year, Dan will retire from Bell Bank to enjoy the next phase in his life, where he plans to do his favorite things – spend time with his family, travel, golf and continue the volunteer work he has done for years.
Rick Schultz opened his first bank account when he was 12 years old.
“I was trapping gophers and I had too much money to keep at home, according to my folks,” he said.
Townships pay people to trap gophers because of the problems they cause, he said. Gopher mounds can raise havoc with equipment and affect farming operations.
In 1981 he went to work for the bank where he opened his first account, First National Bank. He started as a consumer loan officer and worked his way up to become president of the bank, which had two locations. In 2012 First National merged with Bell Bank. Rick continues to be president of Bell’s Dilworth and Hawley locations.
“Bell was very good to the employees who came from First National,” he said. “They counted our years of service. That’s really nice as an employee. And the biggest thing I was impressed with was how HR found positions for everybody. I really appreciated that nobody was jobless after the transition.”
Rick has seen a lot of changes in his years in the banking industry. The biggest are the technological enhancements.
“When I first started we used to put loans on ledger cards,” he said. “Now you can log into the computer and get payments for many years back right at your fingertips.”
As much as technology has changed banking, Rick said one thing that hasn’t really changed is customer loyalty.
“Older people remember if you helped them out years ago, they’ll stay with you,” he said.
A lot of his experiences with his customers have made an impression on him, but one that really stands out is when one of his customers, a successful farmer, lost his wife to cancer the same year his crop was hailed out. He had no crop insurance and no crop to sell.
“He came in, and he just thought it was over,” Rick said.
But Rick worked with a committee to restructure his loans and come up with a plan he could adhere to. Last spring the farmer retired at 70 years old and went to see Rick again.
“He came in and said, ‘If you wouldn’t have figured out how to help me after that hail storm, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today,’” Rick said. “He just said, ‘Thank you.’ That’s why I come to work every day.”
A joke that can be heard at Bell from time to time is that Barb Askegaard starting working here as a toddler. While she wasn’t quite that little, she did start as a young adult in 1979. Her career has spanned decades and her role has grown – a testament, she says, to the great training she received while at Bell.
In every position she’s held, she credits a Bell program or mentor for all she learned. In her very first role as receptionist and vault clerk she learned the true importance of LOC BUTN and knowing a customer’s name. She credits the “Golden Girls” – Leona Gregor, DeNae Swalstad and Holly Holte – for showing her the rope as a customer service representative. As a personal banking officer, Barb gives credit to Dan Nelson for teaching her the ins and outs. When she was a branch manager, the training she received from Bell to be a supervisor and on the importance of team work and conflict resolution was invaluable. The importance of working with other departments came into play when she worked as retail systems coordinator as many new training and software were implemented. Now as retail administrative manager, she brings it all together, overseeing retail operations of policy and procedure, retail training, banker support and teller operations.
“Over the past 36 – soon to be 37 – years, there have been numerous great memories at Bell,” says Barb. “Most are centered on coworkers and customers through shared laughter and coming together of employees to support one another in difficult times as well as happy life events.”
Barb credits Bell with a great working environment. Saying its professional atmosphere and her friendships with both employees and customers have made it a great place to work.
“The commitment of our shareholders on their giving back to the employees and our local communities is outstanding!” adds Barb.
What makes Barb the most proud of working at Bell is when she’s not at work and a customer approaches her to praise the bank. She remembers times when she’s shopping in the grocery store and a customer stops her to tell her thank you. It’s those moments that make her feel the best about the place she’s spent her entire career.
Barb loves her job, but when she’s not here, she likes to step away from computer screens. At home, she enjoys being with her husband and two grown daughters, cooking, baking, and especially being out in nature. Barb and her husband live in Fargo, but run an organic farm outside of town by Comstock. She enjoys being at the farm and simply being outside.
Arlene Francis has always liked working with numbers.
“Math was one of my favorite subjects in high school,” she said.
But the accounting operations team lead for Bell Bank graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in child development family relations. After graduation she needed a job in Fargo, so she started working for a wholesale distribution company doing office work. She stayed there nine years, but she wasn’t happy.
Arlene banked at State Bank of Fargo, and one Saturday she was making a deposit when she saw Richard Solberg there doing customer service work. Arlene was born and raised in Finley, N.D., and she knew the Solberg family growing up. Richard, now Bell’s board chairman, was her church youth advisor. She even occasionally babysat Julie and Michael, two of the Solberg children.
On a whim, she decided to talk to her former advisor about a job.
“I just went over to him and said, ‘If you ever think there is something here I might be able to do, I would be very interested,’ ” Arlene said.
Two weeks later she had a new job working in bookkeeping at the Northport location. And she hasn’t looked back. Arlene has been with the company since 1988. Working for a company where employees are truly valued has made a huge difference, Arlene said.
“I saw it from the get-go,” she said.
In the beginning, she worked mostly in deposits with CDs (certificates of deposit) and IRAs (individual retirement accounts). She has since “done probably just about everything in deposit operations.”
When she moved to the center location in 1993, bookkeeping was split into deposit services accounting and deposit services customer service. Arlene became team lead of deposit services accounting.
“That is where my love really was,” she said.
One of her favorite parts of her job is helping people fix mistakes.
“Their feeling of relief makes me feel good,” she said. “Nobody likes to be the person who made that mistake.”
She has a lot of good memories over her years at Bell, but she said one of her favorites is when Michael Solberg, Bell’s president and CEO, went on Good Morning America to talk about the Pay It Forward program.
“Just watching him talk, he was so excited about the program and everything about it and how it had taken off,” she said. “I looked at my husband and I said, ‘You see that smile there? That is real. It’s not a forced smile. That is real.”
She pooled her first Pay It Forward donation with other employees to give to a man whose wife had died during or very shortly after giving birth. The baby survived and for many years after the donation, the child’s grandma sent photos and updates to the Bell team members.
Arlene’s eyes welled with tears when she talked about how grateful she is to Bell for allowing her to impact people’s lives in such a profound way.
“This is a lot of money that they are giving to this program, and it is making a difference,” she said.
Dawana Jensen, VP/ deposit services analyst, will soon be able to say she’s worked at Bell Bank for 42 years. During those four decades, she’s worked in deposit operations, starting in north Fargo when the bank was just a one-branch operation.
Dawana has witnessed many changes in deposit operations, many of which had to do with technological advancement. When she started, Dawana spent much of her time microfilming checks and inputting new accounts. Everything was documented with paper. Once the customer left the bank, their information was moved from the front line to the back office. Dawana and her coworkers took care of the customer behind the scenes. Years ago, deposit operations also served as the customer call center.
“Dawana Jensen has spent the past 41+ years behind the scenes at State Bank of Fargo/State Bank & Trust/Bell Bank,” says Dan Nelson SVP/facilities manager and longtime coworker. “Her focus has always been to make sure that the accounts, especially deposit, of our customers were accurate at all times using whatever tools and software was available for that purpose. The tools have changed dramatically over the years but the driving force has remained the same – accurate accounts and information. She has not been in the spotlight, but has been an integral part of who we are and how we are perceived by our customers.”
Now, all this has given way to digital imaging and new systems. Dawana says the deposit operations team has welcomed the changes and the customer experience has improved because of them.
“Now the customer knows what’s going on in their account instead of finding out after the fact when they receive an overdraft letter in the mail,” says Dawana.
Dawana never envisioned that the small, single location bank she started at four decades ago would evolve to the billion dollar bank it is now.
“Thanks to the Snortlands and the Solbergs for having the vision to take the bank where it is today,” says Dawana. “And for being good to their people and their customers – they have compassion and look out for family.”
Although the size of the bank has changed in the time Dawana has been a part of it, the family atmosphere has not. One of her favorite memories is from 1978. She remembers the particular day well. It was Secretaries’ Week and a group had gone to lunch to celebrate as was their tradition. Later that day, Dawana received a call she had been waiting for. She had been notified that she and her husband would be adopting a baby boy, Matthew. When she got off the phone she squealed and a celebration ensued – her work family celebrating her very own growing family. A few years later, they celebrated the adoption of a second son.
When she’s not at work, Dawana enjoys being with her family who are all in Fargo and playing with her three grandsons. Dawana and her husband also like going to their lake place at Lake of the Woods.
Sandy Severson has worked in the financial industry for 33 years with the last 20 years focusing on mortgage lending.
“It’s something that’s always intrigued me,” she said. “It’s interesting, and I feel gratification when I help a customer achieve their goal or dream of being a homeowner.”
Sandy, vice president and mortgage loan officer in Bell Bank’s Hawley, Minn., branch, began her banking career in 1981 as a teller and proof operator in her hometown of Grove City, Minn. She later moved to Hawley and continued her banking career with First National Bank of Hawley in 1983. Bell purchased the bank in 2012.
“Working for a small bank or company has a lot of advantages,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to experience the many facets of the banking industry.”
She has seen many compliance changes throughout her career, but said her goal is to make it as easy as possible for borrowers.
“The changes have been challenging, however I find my job very rewarding to see my customers begin a new chapter in their lives,” she said.
Sandy remembers working with a woman who wanted to buy a home, but she had some credit issues and didn’t know if homeownership was possible. Sandy made a few suggestions, and about nine months later they were able to move forward with a loan.
“Those kinds of closings and situations are very rewarding,” she said.
Sandy said she feels blessed to work for a company whose values and bottom line are similar to her core values, as evidenced by Bell’s Pay It Forward program.
“It’s such an amazing program where we can give financial assistance to those in our communities who are going through a tough time in their lives,” she said. “When you see the faces of the recipients, they realize someone cares, and it touches your heart.”
Outside of work, Sandy and her husband like to spend time with their two grown children and other family and friends. She also likes to golf, ride bike, go for walks, and play the piano.
Donna Seeman started in the mortgage industry just six months after her high-school graduation.
She worked as a receptionist for a mortgage company and has since done “everything possible that you could do at a mortgage company,” she said.
“It’s a really worthwhile job. You’re helping people with the most important thing that’s going to happen for them – purchasing and financing a home.”
Donna is now a vice president and closing manager in Bell Bank’s Colonnade branch in Minneapolis. She started with Bell Bank Mortgage in 1982 and has stayed with the company for more than 30 years, because its values align with her own.
“This industry has such a bad reputation, and the one thing about this company is that we never got involved in any type of loans that were bad for our customers,” Donna said. “It’s always been very ethical, which has always appealed to me. I take a lot of pride in being a part of a company where you can do things right and still be really successful.”
She’s also proud of the reputation the company has built.
“Being the head of the closing department here, we have such a reputation in the industry of always getting the job done on time,” she said. “That’s one thing that I’m very proud of is that we’ve worked really hard to have the reputation of being the mortgage company that always has the closing package there in plenty of time with things going smoothly.”
That’s something Donna said is crucial for customers.
“You have people who might not even have a place to live at the end of the day if they don’t close on time,” she said. “Making that our top priority has given us great results with the customers we deal with and our vendors, like our title companies. They recommend us. We hear all the time that a real estate agent or a buyer has said that going through Bell Bank Mortgage is the best place because our closings are always run so smoothly.”
When Donna started at Bell Bank Mortgage, which was founded in 1880, she said it was a little company of eight people. When it became a division of State Bank & Trust in 2011, there were more than 200 Bell Bank Mortgage employees.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have been a part of the success of this company,” she said. “The company recognizes their employees and that their employees make them what they are.”
The following year State Bank & Trust was renamed Bell Bank. Donna said the merger was seamless because both companies shared the same values.
“It’s been nothing but positive,” she said.
One of those positives has been participating in Bell’s Pay It Forward program, she said. The first year she used her funds to pay a month’s rent for a friend who was struggling with cancer.
Donna is also very involved with Special Olympics, because she has a daughter with intellectual disabilities who participates in the organization. The Pay It Forward program has allowed Donna to help the organization even more.
“You have the opportunity to use the money for whatever is close to your heart,” she said.
When Jackie Punton joined State Bank of Fargo in 1971, she was grateful to have found a job at a great company. She had just divorced and had three small children to take care of, so the job was vital to her.
Jackie joined the bank as a proof operator, and spent her entire 34-year career at Bell doing what she describes as “taking care of every customer silently.”
Jackie first worked at the Fargo-North branch and then at Fargo-Center. As proof operator, she used one of the large, old proof machines –essentially, a glorified adding machine with a filing system. Jackie would key the amount from the document that came through the teller line and using the machine, would get it into the right pocket, literally sorting the paper checks for return to the banks they were drawn from. With technological advancements, the machines got smaller and eventually gave way to imaging, which is how the bank transfers the information to the computer system today.
“It was a good job, with good people, and I liked what I did,” explains Jackie.
Some of her fondest memories are of Mickey Snortland. Jackie smiled as she recalled when Mickey would bring a young Blake Snortland into the bank to visit her in the proof operator room. She also appreciated the Fridays when Mickey would arrange a casual, after-work staff meeting at Red River Lanes, a nearby bowling alley.
“During her tenure with the bank, Jackie was a dedicated and caring worker,” says Dawana Jensen, VP/ deposit operations analyst. “She wanted to make sure the customer’s transactions posted correctly to their accounts. Jackie was a part of the bank growth from the small bank with one location to a larger bank with many locations.”
Jackie grew up in the nearby town of Hunter, N.D., and moved to Fargo after high school to attend Interstate Business College. She retired from Bell in 2004. In her spare time, Jackie keeps in touch with other retired Bell employees when they meet for coffee once a month. She also keeps busy volunteering at Essentia’s birthing center. Jackie’s three children live nearby, and she also has six grandchildren. Most importantly, Jackie says she spends her time enjoying each and every day.
In 1969, what started out as a summer job for Linda Ekre, turned into a 45-year career. She started working at what was then First National Bank of Hawley when she was in high school, and she never looked back.
“I enjoyed customer service and teller work,” says Linda. “Especially meeting people and taking care of their business, such as helping them with checking books and other challenges.”
Linda is a self-described people person and explains that working with bank customers was “my kind of working” – saying her intention was to create a family atmosphere. She always put a smile on every day when she walked into work.
“Linda knew our clients very well and made them comfortable with discussions about their families and their lives,” says Rick Schultz, president of Hawley and Dilworth branches. “She is a genuine person who was always very reliable pleasant to work with.”
Linda worked in Hawley branch for 35 years, and then went to the Dilworth branch for eight years before returning to Hawley for the final two years of her career at the bank.
Throughout her many years of service, Linda helped customers with everything from checking accounts to IRAs, always making sure she directed people to the right person who could help them with their business. She would even go to the customer when the customer could not make it to the bank, whether visiting the customer’s home or meeting them somewhere.
Being the people person she is, she enjoyed her coworkers, too.
“The best part was the people – it was such a great place to work!” said Linda. “If someone asked me if Bell is a great place to work, I would recommend it, of course!”
Linda retired at the end of 2014. She and her husband of 45 years are both retired and live near Hawley. They have three grown daughters and four grandchildren. Linda enjoys subbing at the Hawley school as a para-professional and quilting with her friends from church.
The desire to work is in Mary Ann Christensen’s blood. As a teenager she couldn’t wait to get a job so she could start earning money. As soon as she could she got a job at the drive-in restaurant in her hometown of Hawley, Minn.
Mary Ann loved work so much that when she graduated from high school, she didn’t want to go to college, she just wanted to keep working! After job searching for a bit, she decided to go to Moorhead Tech for accounting and business. The college found her a job before she even graduated at American Life and Casualty. She went on to work at Pioneer Mutual and then started at Northern Capital Trust on the very same day as Greg Sweeney.
“I have worked with Mary Ann for 23 years,” Greg says. “Her motivation, initiative, expertise and depth of knowledge in her field are second to none. As head of the operations, she is involved in every department in the asset management division and she makes all of us look good!”
Bell Bank acquired Northern Capital Trust in 2003 and Mary Ann has enjoyed being a part of the Bell family and using her talents in the trust operations. The work her team does affects many parts of the bank, including wealth management, retirement, trust, accounting and more, but no matter which department they work with, Mary Ann says their work always touches Bell’s customers at some point.
Mary Ann is trust operations manager, which suits her well because she thrives on change. She’s embraced changes throughout the years. Integration of software, working with her team to set up processes have given her the opportunity to do what she loves – problem solve.
“I love getting in there, working with others to define how it works and solving the problem,” says Mary Ann.
The changes over the years have not only presented welcome challenges, but have taught her a lot about working with people and being a manager.
“We all get used to doing things the way we have been doing them but sometimes a simple question can make you think differently,” says Mary Ann of embracing change. “Being open to change and listening are so important. It makes all the difference.”
When it comes to the culture at Bell Bank, Mary Ann believes the people make this place.
“Last year, when my husband died, I didn’t have to worry once about anything at work, the Trust Ops team had everything covered,” remembers Mary Ann. “And the outpouring of well-wishes from across the bank was amazing.”
When Mary Ann is not at work, she likes to keep busy problem-solving with puzzles and games that challenge her mind. She also spends her spare time at home playing with and entertaining her two dogs, Rily and Indy.