Meet Our Board Members: Richard Solberg
As Richard Solberg sits in his office, reminiscing over his career and Bell 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 holds true for our board chairman.
“There’s nothing that makes me feel better than hearing that our employees love working for our company,” Richard remarks. “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 notes. “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 shareholder of their bank.
“Coming from a small town to Fargo, I was nervous,” Richard remembers. “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 35-plus years, Richard is 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 assets of more than $5 billion and business in 50 states. Richard says 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 affirms. “The shareholders 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 points out.
“I think that reflects in how they perform their jobs and how they treat customers and each other,” he confirms.
In 2009, Richard’s son, Michael, took over as president, and in 2014 he was named CEO. Richard considers it a blessing that Michael was interested in the banking industry, but says 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.
“I’m trying to guide the ship, but as he’s taking over, I’m trying to let him run the ship,” Richard notes. “It’s working very well, and I’m very proud of how he’s doing and how the bank is doing.”
Working in banking, 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 comments. “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 recalls. “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.
“We would spend hours on strategy and copy,” he notes.
Richard didn’t start playing golf until later in life when he was 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 insists. “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.
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