How Bell Bank is paying it forward

Bell Bank’s innovative Pay It Forward program is bringing huge dividends for the bank, and not just in terms of its finances. CEO Michael Solberg explains why.

By Carol Patton

About a decade ago, Michael Solberg, CEO of Bell Bank in Fargo, N.D., and his wife, Charleen, were tossing around ideas for the bank’s upcoming Christmas party.

“Charleen came up with the idea of giving everyone $1,000 and a video camera,” Solberg says. Employees could keep the video camera, but the money needed to be donated to any charity, family or individual in need.

Solberg, whose $4.5 billion-asset bank supports 1,050 employees at 20 branches in North Dakota and Minnesota, says the idea was based on a 2006 Oprah Winfrey show where 300 audience members each received a $1,000 debit card to donate to a charitable cause.

“Human nature crept into our bank’s [consciousness],” says Solberg, adding that the program was named after the 2000 hit movie Pay It Forward. “When you have the opportunity to tangibly take some of the income that you helped earn as an employee and invest it in causes that you care deeply about, that adds depth and meaning to the work you do for the company.”

In the past, Bell Bank had celebrated its annual accomplishments or successes by giving away expensive items—cars, trips or TVs—to employees at its Christmas parties. But this program, which is aligned with Bell’s mission statement of “Happy employees, happy customers,” triggered a sense of empowerment and compassion among the bank’s workforce. By being entrusted to make donations of the bank’s shareholder money, employees had the power to help anyone in need and positively influence the overall strength and health of their community.

Bell BankFargo, N.D.
Assets: $4.5 billion
Retail locations: 20
Employees: 1,050
Founded: 1966

Since then, the bank has observed its Pay It Forward program every year in varying degrees. Last year, when Bell Bank celebrated its 50th anniversary, every employee received a $5,000 bonus with the understanding that they must donate half of it. Another year, the bank double-dipped by giving employees another $1,000 to give to local vendors or customers so they could donate it to their favorite charity. Also, every year employees receive an extra day off and a $500 gift card to spend on friends and family.

These donations have touched practically every corner of every community that Bell Bank serves. The program has helped local nonprofits meet payroll and churches purchase beds, and it’s provided cars for single moms at the local YWCA shelter to drive to and from work or drop their kids off at school.

“I was shocked to hear how many kids in our community slept on a pile of dirty clothes at night,” says Solberg, adding that recipients don’t pay taxes on any donation. “There were these grandparents who were raising their three grandchildren in a two-bedroom apartment without one bed in the whole place. After the beds were delivered and set up, the grandparents and employees were crying while the kids jumped on the beds.”

Happy employees—Michael Solberg with colleagues Laine Brantner (l) and Julie Peterson Klein (r).

Over the next nine or 10 years, he believes total giving will reach $20 million.

Meanwhile, Bell Bank is planning its next Christmas party at Scheels Arena in Fargo, N.D., and has hired the country-rock band Alabama to celebrate the program in style. Solberg hopes the party will attract at least 3,000 people, including employees who work in its Minnesota branches.

Boomerang effect
The Pay It Forward program may appear counterintuitive to banks driven by earnings, profits and ratios, but Solberg says Bell Bank has experienced record-setting earnings and growth for 10 consecutive years.

“While it’s hard to pencil it out, it pays us back many times over,” he says. “Culturally, this is one of the healthiest decisions we’ve ever made.”

The privately owned bank, which since the 1980s has been owned by the Solberg and Snortland families, also supports a large commercial bank, a $5 billion trust company and wealth management division and a mortgage operation with 25 locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul that originate more than $2 billion in single-family mortgages. It also serves as one of the largest health savings accounts depositories in the country through its health care division.

Solberg believes Pay It Forward has helped the bank build brand awareness and loyalty. He, along with other bank employees, has been interviewed by CNN, Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, People magazine and other media outlets since the program was launched. Yet Bell Bank has never issued a single press release. The local newspaper first published a story about the program, which was then picked up by the Associated Press and ignited national interest.

And while it was never the bank’s intention to promote its good deeds, it uses the program as an employee recruitment and retention magnet.

“By focusing on people first and not on the numbers side of the business, the numbers will always take care of themselves,” Solberg says. “We make sure that we focus on having happy employees, first and foremost, and the Pay It Forward program, although it benefits other people, definitely drives a culture that attracts happy people to our company.”

At a time when there’s a shortage of skilled workers, bank trust is at an all-time low and people are struggling to make ends meet, this program may be the ultimate panacea.

“It’s been a real positive program for us,” Solberg says. “It’s really true that the more we give away, the better we do.”

Carol Patton is a writer in Nevada.