Bell has never been a typical bank – or company. From its humble beginnings, when Bell opened in 1966 as State Bank of Fargo in a corner office of the Northport Shopping Center in Fargo, N.D., the bank did things its own way. (Take, for example, the rabbit cages borrowed from a neighboring business owner to use as a makeshift teller line, because the teller line was still unfinished when the bank opened.)
Launched by a group of problem-solvers and outside-the-box-thinkers (before that was a trendy trait to have), Bell Bank’s most notable “maverick” moves were opening earlier – and staying open later – than any other bank and forgoing fees that most other banks charged.
State Bank of Fargo initially had 85 to 90 stockholders with the principal stockholder being Thomas “Buck” Snortland, a farmer and businessman from Sharon, N.D. He saw building a great place to work and do business as an opportunity to have a positive impact on people and their families.
“He wanted to provide a service he didn’t feel other banks were delivering,” explains Laura Snortland Fairfield, Buck’s daughter and a major Bell Bank shareholder. “My dad was an idea kind of person. He was very entrepreneurial.”
The original board of directors were: Dr. G. Wilson Hunter (the bank’s first board president), Eugene Rich, Charles Tighe, Thomas “Buck” Snortland, Gen. Homer Goebel, William Corwin, Norman Tenneson, H. Rex Olson, Vernus Loberg and Dean Wegenast.
(While some of the founders were also involved with Bankers State Bank and Trust Co., which operated from for a short time in the Northport Shopping Center, the banks had no ties to each other.)
Banishing ‘Bankers’ Hours’
Back when “bankers’ hours” meant most banks didn’t open until 10 a.m. and closed by 3 p.m., Bell was open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Even the bank’s original jingle, “State Bank of Fargo, the service you seek, 64 smiling banking hours a week,” touted the unique operating hours, and an early slogan referred to the company as a “bank and a half,” because of the longer hours.
Most banks kept shorter hours because of the time it took to process and clear checks, deposits and transfers. In the days before automatic deposits, mobile and online banking, typical “bankers’ hours” made it difficult for workers to deposit their paychecks or resolve other financial issues without making a special trip during the workday.
To this day, Bell offers better hours than most banks. Many of Bell’s full-service bank locations are open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the drive-up open until 7:30 p.m. Additionally, the customer service phone line has friendly bankers (not machines!) answering the phone 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT weekdays and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT weekends. At the same time, Bankrate points out that “a substantial number of banks” still operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., mainly because “extending bank hours is expensive.”
Forgoing Common Fees
Convenient hours for customers aren’t the only way Bell has repeatedly bucked banking trends. A 1980 Forum of Fargo-Moorhead newspaper article reported, “Free checking is tough to come by,” adding, “The exception is the State Bank of Fargo.” At a time when most local banks required a minimum balance of anywhere from $100 to $300 to qualify for a fee-free account, Bell (then called State Bank of Fargo), offered free checking with no minimum balance. Most banks, according to the article, wanted to get away from small accounts where the bank’s profits didn’t cover the cost of service. (Bell would also later be the first Fargo-area bank and one of the first in the nation to start offering refunds on ATM fees.)
“Buck saw banking as a service industry, and his attitude was always do the right thing, and if you make money along the way, great, but that was never the point,” Laura explains. “As the bank continued to grow and hire more people, he used to say, ‘That’s a lot of families being fed.’”
In 1985, The Forum reported that State Bank of Fargo scored the largest percentage of deposit growth – and that number continued to climb. In 2020, Bell led the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo market, where the bank is headquartered, with a deposit market share of 43% out of 22 banks, according to annual FDIC figures.
That phenomenal growth doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because Bell continues to embrace a rather unconventional bottom line mission statement of happy employees, happy customers. That’s a big reason why a 1994 Forum article reported, “Year in and year out, through good times and bad, State Bank of Fargo has grown.” The article discussed what Bell was doing right – and put how the bank treated employees and customers high on that list. It went on to say how Bell maintained its “personal touch between employees and customers – something that’s seemingly much harder to do for a bank with assets of $200 million than one with assets of $20 million.” Harder, but not impossible. Even as Bell has grown to be one of the largest independently owned banks in the nation with assets of more than $10 billion, the bank continues to focus on happy employees and happy customers and has won numerous customer service and best workplace awards because of it.
In the 1994 article, Richard Solberg, Bell’s current board chairman (then bank president) is quoted as saying, “We don’t try to operate any differently as we grow” – an attitude Bell still works hard to maintain.
Private Ownership Key to Bell Bank Success
One of the decisions that has allowed Bell to do things differently is the bank has remained privately owned since it was chartered – something rather rare for a bank of its size.
“The huge advantage for us of being privately owned is being able to think longer-term than our publicly traded competitors – who have a lot of pressure on them for each quarter’s earnings,” explains Michael Solberg, Bell’s president and CEO. “What we can do is make sure we’re making smart investments, maybe at the expense of this quarter’s or this year’s earnings, knowing it’s the best thing for our employees, customers and our shareholders over a 3-, 5- and 10-year period.”
Bell recognizes its employees have been a huge part of the company’s success, which is one of the reasons the bank started an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) giving Bell employees ownership in the holding company. Because of the bank’s unique bottom line, employees are able to focus on making sure customers are happy instead of pushing sales.
“We’ve always said our goal was to have happy employees and customers, and if we get that part right, we’ll make a little money along the way,” affirms Richard. “That culture and those values continue to this day.”