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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 jokes.
As Bell’s president and CEO, Michael is at the helm of 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. But he started as a part-time teller, just like many who work their way up through the ranks in the banking industry.
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 remarks, 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 says 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 notes. “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 then went back to work for what was then State Bank of Fargo in 1998 for 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 comments. “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.
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 EVP/director of operations, spun that part of the business off into Discovery Benefits, which became a fast-growing part of the company.
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,” Michael says.
Discovery Benefits is now 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 2 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 remarks. “It was great for our employees to have that stability.”
There were a few bumps along the way, he notes, but grace and trust helped them get through it. It helped Michael 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 notes. “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 affirms. “My mom wouldn’t let us sit by each other for many, many Christmases.”
Michael feels fortunate to be part of a team of experienced employees with great track-records and a lot of up-and-coming, energetic leaders who helped kick the bank’s growth into high gear over the years.
“With any successful venture, the biggest blessing I’ve had in my life is being able to partner with such amazing folks,” he comments. “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, 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 remarks. “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.
“That’s what attracts and retains our best, high-performance people,” he confirms. “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 shareholders. Bell’s private ownership means the company does not have to manage for quarterly earnings and can invest heavily in its people, leading to long-term success. 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 is a bank where people are proud to work.
“We are unique in a lot of ways,” Michael comments.
One of those ways is the Pay It Forward program, which the bank launched in 2008 to give employees money to give to people and organizations in need. Michael says the program, which has given out more than $12 million so far, is culturally one of the most important things the company has done.
“Our industry is very generous and community-focused,” he notes. “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 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 the bank,” he says.
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 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 remarks.
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,” he affirms. “We make sure it is.”
Michael and his wife, Char, have three kids: Grace, Charlie and Rose.
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