Bell Bank has remained privately owned since it was chartered in 1966. Over the years, there has been a lot of consolidation in banking, so it is rare to see a privately owned bank of our size. But there are some advantages to private ownership.
“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,” notes 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.”
Our private ownership also allows us to grow, even when others are scaling back. For example, Bell has added 20 percent to our mortgage team at a time when most mortgage companies are cutting jobs.
“We know it’s going to cost us in the next year or two to carry that extra expense, but we’re getting great people in great markets, and we know over the next 3, 5 and 10 years, it’s going to reward our company, teams and shareholders very well,” Michael remarks.
Additionally, private ownership allows us to focus on our unique bottom line of “Happy employees! Happy customers!” over earnings and stock values.
“Our employees have been a huge part of our success, which is one of the reasons we started an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), giving Bell employees ownership in the holding company,” comments Richard Solberg, board chairman.
Because of our unique bottom line, our employees are able to focus on making sure our customers are happy instead of pushing sales, which has gotten some national banks into trouble.
“We’ve never said publicly traded banks provide bad service, but we win a lot of awards for great service, so we are going to continue to really focus on that,” Richard notes. “I think our focus on ‘Happy employees! Happy customers!’ gives us a competitive advantage over the big banks. Publicly traded banks might not intend to be driven by earnings. But at the end of the day, they are.”
In the Beginning
Thomas “Buck” Snortland, an original founder of the bank, was a North Dakota farmer whose family came from Norway in the early 1900s.
Julie Snortland, one of Bell’s major shareholders, remembers her father-in-law saying, “Whatever happens, never sell the home half-section.”
“The farm provided a family home, a good way of life and a sense of security to each generation,” Julie remarks. “Today we see Bell Bank with the same affection as the farm. By maintaining private ownership, we can ensure that our Bell family of customers, employees and shareholders can look to the future, secure in the knowledge that as we grow and evolve, we will continue to provide top-quality banking service as a privately owned bank.”
Laura Snortland Fairfield, another major shareholder and Buck’s daughter, says Bell’s major owners have a vision of sharing their underlying values.
“That mission is more easily accomplished, I believe, with a privately owned company,” Laura comments. “We want people to be treated well, whether customers or employees. We have been given a trust to take care of what God has given us. Being able to make decisions locally is huge. It means that banking decisions can be made within the structure of our Bell family. We are not dictated to by the bottom line and next quarter’s numbers. We are in it for the long haul.”
Carrying on Tradition
Over the years, rumors have frequently surfaced suggesting Bell would be sold.
“As we grow and expand, there are constantly rumors that our bank is for sale, which it isn’t,” Richard notes.
Several years ago, at one of our company Christmas parties, the bank’s major owners held up a “not for sale” sign as Richard made the announcement: “Our bank is not for sale now, nor in the near future, nor in the distant future.”
The sign – and the sentiment behind it – quickly became a Christmas party tradition.
“It’s a huge source of pride for our ownership group to be able to hold that ‘not for sale’ sign up,” Michael affirms. “As someone who believes in the vision of our company and where we’re going, to have the ownership group commit to the long run and staying the course is a huge advantage. It’s one of our biggest advantages in business.”
It’s an advantage – and a tradition – that Bell’s ownership has no intention of giving up.
“One of our main missions is to stay privately owned and Fargo-based for many, many years to come,” Richard says. “That’s critically important to the Snortland and Solberg families.”