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In this file photo, Gabriel Salander from Larimore, N.D., walks across the Mayville State University campus in Mayville, N.D., in early 2018. IMAGE: Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

CEOs on college: Area chief executives talk about their college majors and experiences

Editor's note: In this Q&A, chief executive and chief operating officers from around the Prairie Business region talk about their college majors, their college experiences and how they draw on those experiences when they talk with college students today.

Our thanks to the executives for answering our questions and offering such useful and honest observations!

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business 

tdennis@prairiebusinessmagazine.com

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Dave Goodin

President and CEO

MDU Resources Group

Bismarck, N.D.

PB: You went to North Dakota State University, is that right?

A: Yes. I got my undergrad at NDSU.

PB: How did you wind up there, and how did you choose electrical engineering as a major?

A: Really, a high-school guidance counselor pointed me in that direction. I still remember; Jim Bjorklund was his name. I’d been thinking, well, maybe I’ll be an electrician; in fact, I probably would have been a finish carpenter. I liked working with wood.

But he said, you know, given your grades and scores, why don't you give college a try? If it doesn’t work out, you can always fall back on a two-year associate degree or something.

I thought, Yeah, well, I'll give it a shot. And who knows?

It stuck, I guess.

PB: You used your major after graduation?

A: So I started as a field engineer for Montana Dakota Utilities out in Dickinson, N.D. I worked my way up to supervising, then moved to Bismarck and ultimately worked on our electric system control center, which is where we coordinate with all of our power plants.

And then about 15 years after getting my engineering degree, I thought I should go for the MBA and complement my technical background.

That really added to my financial skills.

And I’ll add one more chapter, which is that at about the 25-year mark in my career, I got the chance to attend the two-month Harvard Advanced Management Program. It’s a very international event – about 150 people, about a third of whom are U.S.-based and two-thirds are international students.

The reason I even bring that up is your question about “Lessons learned.”

First, people sometimes ask me, what did you learn in engineering school? My answer always is, it's a method of problem solving, and not necessarily by getting out a calculator.

As my career advanced, it involved working with people – people of different backgrounds, different stakeholders and constituents, finding a way to solve multi-dimensional problems.

And at Harvard, one of my takeaways from there was, “You’ve got to make sure you have the right people on the bus.” The right folks in the right roles – that’s how effective an organization can be when it's done correctly, or how ineffective if it's not done very well.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: I learned technical skills as an engineer, and financial skills with my MBA. But I also took history, English and writing; and for me, those skills in speaking and presentation and ideas are some of the most important today.

At MDU, we always look for folks who are just very well-rounded. And of course, if you're a team player and you provide value, other teams see that, too. And your ability to get things done is highly important in our business.

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Brad Wehe

COO and CEO-designate

Altru Health System

Grand Forks, N.D.

PB: You were trained initially as a physical therapist. How did that come about?

A: People's pathways are all different. During my undergraduate years, I switched from accounting to pre-law to pre-medicine. I finally figured out that science was my interest. So I got my B.S. in biology from Mayville State University, and then applied to physical therapy school.

I got accepted at the Mayo Clinic’s program and proceeded down that route.

PB: How did you wind up in administration?

A: What I've realized is that as I progressed, I had a broader and broader view of helping people and influencing change. In other words, when you're working with a patient, it's one on one. When you're a supervisor, you're supervising a team of people, which I found very rewarding.

So it's bigger change, and it becomes more so as you work your way through levels of leadership.

But I'm still seeing patients; I've always kept that piece of my career. Typically a few times a month, I'll be in the clinic for a few hours, treating patients. It keeps me grounded.

PB: What lessons have stayed with you from physical therapy school?

A: It was the last day of class at the Mayo Clinic. Our program director was speaking to us, and of course we all felt pretty good about ourselves, now that we were graduating.

And he told us very specifically, “You need to understand that the knowledge you have right now is just the tip of the iceberg.

“There is so much more to learn. And it is outside of the textbooks.”

He was talking about our interaction with patients, with families, with communities. So he really encouraged us to be open and to keep learning. I’ve always remembered that; I completed my MBA a year ago with that in mind.

When I look back, I see that my core knowledge of physical therapy was vital. But I also think of the things I’ve learned outside of textbooks, and I remember the program director saying just that. It has served me well.

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Brian Hayer

President and CEO

Warner & Co. Insurance

Fargo, N.D.

PB: Arizona State, eh?

A: Yes. Arizona State in Tempe. I went there in 1982, graduated in 1986.

My father bought Warner & Co. in 1974. I’d worked at the company when I was in high school, so I had an idea that I wanted to go into the insurance industry. But I also wanted to go away to school.

I had several friends who were going to ASU at the time, and when I found out that the university had an insurance major, it was just a logical choice.

PB: I gather that while you benefited from the classes, your most vivid memories are of the people.

A: Absolutely. That was my real takeaway from college. I was around people from all over the United States who had different backgrounds, and the chance to get to know them was fantastic.

Even here in North Dakota, there are a lot of ASU graduates, from policy directors to industrial builders. Kurt Kollman, president of Construction Supply in Fargo, he and I were friends and went to school together at Arizona State. Jon Wanzek of Wanzek Construction, he’s a friend of mine from grade school, he attended Arizona State.

(Former North Dakota Board of Higher Education member) Grant Shaft and I went to college together. We were both on the Greek steering committee, so I know Grant from college.

The current governor of Arizona and I were friends. He was in the Greek system, and he ended up becoming the CEO of Cold Stone Creamery before he became governor.

Sean Minor, now of Sean Minor Wines in California; he was a fraternity brother. Andy Spade; he was one of my best friends my freshman year. He went to ASU and was a marketing major, he met Kate when they were selling clothes to get through school. They went to New York and were phenomenally successful.

The actor David Spade, Andy’s brother; he was a fraternity brother, too. He was a year younger than I was.

The point is not that all of these people are celebrities. The point is, that’s college. It’s a chance to get to know all kinds of people, and the way to do that is to get involved.

That’s my advice to students: First, graduate with the least amount of debt that you can. Second, if it’s possible to go away to school, do so. If not, then absolutely take advantage of a great education right in your town – but don't live at home. Repeat: Do. Not. Live. At. Home.

And finally, get involved – with sports, with clubs, with a fraternity or sorority. That’s where you’ll build your leadership and relationship skills, and those are the skills you’ll be using for the rest of your life.

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Steve Stenehjem

CEO and chairman

First International Bank & Trust

Watford City, N.D.

PB: Tell us about your background.

A: I grew up in Watford City, went to Watford City High and then the University of North Dakota, where I was a banking and finance major.

PB: How did that come about?

A: My family were bankers. So when I went to college, I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I figured majoring in banking and finance couldn’t hurt, given my family's background.

PB: What do you remember from your classes?

A: One of the first classes I took was Accounting 101. And I hadn't had any bookkeeping or accounting in high school, so it was very difficult for me. I had to read every chapter three or four times and figure out debits and credits and all of that sort of thing.

But once I got it, I took basically as much accounting as I could stand. I almost was an accounting major.

And, I think that of all of the classes that I took, accounting classes and business law probably were the best, in terms of my future business career.

Speech classes were very good, too. Gaining confidence in speaking in front of people is a very good thing. It’s a skill that goes a long way in life, because invariably, you’re going to have to speak in front of people when you're in business, whether your audience is employees or customers or a civic group.

PB: Is that what you tell students today?

A: Absolutely. I love to talk to kids who are going off to college, and the advice I give them is what I just said:

First, take as much accounting as you can stand. Even if you’re going to be a lawyer or doctor or dentist, having some business and accounting background is a very good idea.

Second, take speech and English classes, because being a good communicator is a good idea as well.

And one other thing: Try not to look like a college freshman! Dress nicely when you go to class; don't wear sweats and an old T-shirt. Look a little more professional.

You’ll have a professor who looks professional, and the students who show up and look like they mean business, I think, do better.

After all, when you to to a job interview, you’ll want to look like the job you want. Dress for the part, in other words. That habit begins early, and college is a great time to start.

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Randy Newman

President, CEO and chairman of the board

Alerus

Grand Forks, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: University of North Dakota

PB: What did you major in?  

A: My undergraduate degree was in business, and I have a graduate MBA with emphasis in finance.

PB: How has your major influenced your career?  

A: Simply put, my education was the foundation for my professional development and incredibly instrumental in the opportunities and achievements that I have experienced in my career.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: The most important lesson I learned in college was the role of continuing education and being a lifelong learner. I also learned the importance of discussing ideas and developing my own philosophies while respecting the views and opinions of others – and just being exposed to the different views and backgrounds of so many different people was so beneficial to me.

I value my upbringing, having grown up a small town in North Dakota. But being exposed to learning, new opportunities and different views and backgrounds of so many different people was essential to my personal and professional development.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: No surprise, my interest and strongest subject in college was mathematics, which is why I pursued a career in banking and finance.

That being said, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve wished that I would have had more appreciation for liberal arts and the development of my “life other than numbers.”  At the time, I was focused on getting a job, rather than understanding that life is long, interesting and challenging in so many different ways.

Today, I find myself more interested in learning about life through the eyes of others.

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Tim Huckle

President and CEO

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota

Fargo, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: University of North Dakota (Harvard of the North)

PB: What did you major in?

A: Business administration

PB: How has your major influenced your career?  

A: My degree definitely narrowed the focus of my initial job search, which ultimately led me to a career in business, specifically health insurance.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: Some of the biggest lessons were learned in group projects and assignments. We usually studied a business case as a team, reached a conclusion and then divided the work of writing the paper and presenting the results to the class.

We learned valuable teamwork skills from these projects, including how to make the most of each team member’s strengths (in writing, presenting and so on).

We also learned that our grade was a team grade. I remember being given one of our team’s final papers at 11 p.m. to be delivered to our professor the next day at 9 a.m. because the team member said she could not attend class that day. When I opened the folder, I saw that the report was full of typos, errors, pages upside down and so on. I worked most of the night re-doing the paper.

The lessons learned – both positive and negative – from those projects have been very applicable and beneficial in my career, as almost all of our work requires team efforts.

Being responsible and accountable is vital, and leveraging employee strengths is part of our everyday life.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: Even though I pursued a business degree at UND, I took a significant number of liberal arts classes. Literature, fine arts, humanities, history and film classes were very interesting to me, and they helped me become a more well-rounded individual in important areas outside of my business studies.

At BCBSND, we have people with liberal arts degrees throughout our organization, and they’re working in many areas ranging from corporate communications to important executive functions. We value diversity in our work force, and that includes diversity in education. Good people from all educational backgrounds add value to an organization.

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Pete Fullerton

President and CEO

Cornerstone Bank

Fargo, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: University of Iowa – the only school in Iowa  ;-)

PB: What did you major in?

A: Accounting and finance

PB: How has your college major influenced your career?

A: Accounting and finance, together, can be a powerful combination. Accounting helps one understand how to put together financial statements, while finance helps one understand how to read those statements and interpret what they’re telling you.

Understanding both of these disciplines gave me a real head start in the banking business.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: As described above, while the understanding of these two disciplines have been very helpful to me, two of the other important lessons learned in college were:

  • Critical thinking skills, which include an appreciation of the need for a variety of perspectives
  • An appreciation for learning and a willingness to always learn new things

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: If I was talking with a student who was majoring in a liberal-arts field, I would say, “Pursue your passion!”

Life is too short not to do so. Specific skills and/or industry knowledge can be learned at any time.

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Seth Arndorfer

CEO

Dakota Carrier Network

Bismarck, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: I earned my first two degrees from Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D., where I competed as a team roper on the rodeo team.

Initially, my career plans were to work on our family farm in Hettinger, N.D., so I got an associate degree in agriculture. Then I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business, and that’s when I realized the farm may not be the best fit for me.

I later earned my executive MBA from the University of Mary in Bismarck while working at DCN.

PB: How has your business major influenced your career?

A: Tremendously. Though it didn’t teach me everything I needed to do my job, it taught me how to work through the process of learning new concepts. The tech industry is constantly changing, and I’m fortunate to get to apply the skills I learned in college every day in my career.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: One of the most valuable lessons I learned was patience. Four years doesn’t seem like a long time at this point in my life, but when I was 18, I remember thinking, “There is no way I’ll have the stick-to-itiveness to see this through.”

Another valuable lesson was learning how to work with people who have personalities very different from my own. The ability to be an effective team player has been useful throughout my career.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: The industry I work in is highly technical, so we’re a bit light on liberal arts majors. But I will say DCN has become a stronger organization as we’ve hired more people with liberal arts backgrounds. Their approach to finding solutions and communicating brings an additional perspective to our organizational discussions, helping us become more well-rounded.

Personally, I always urge kids to pursue their passion and not get too wrapped up in what their major is, because more than likely, life and/or God will change the course they’re on anyway.

I think the important part of college is seeing it through to the end and earning a degree regardless of its type, field or concentration.    

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Tim Sayler

Chief operating officer

Essentia Health-West

Fargo, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college, and what did you major in?

A: I majored in business administration at Minnesota State University Moorhead in Moorhead, Minn., and I completed a master’s in health care administration at the University of Colorado in Denver.

PB: How has your college major influenced your career?

A: I decided to pursue business administration, and in the process, I discovered my interest  in health care through participating in health care administration courses offered at Concordia College in Moorhead.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: It’s very important to learn a variety of skills, but one that I’m glad to have developed in college was the ability to work in teams. People do need technical skills, but they also need people skills. Almost everything that a person accomplishes comes about through working with others and in teams.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: No matter what your major, college prepares you for various careers. Choose something that suits what you want to spend your life doing.

We spend so much time at work that it’s really important to work in an area we enjoy and where we can make a difference.  

I have one adult child who has completed college and two who are enrolled in college. And while I have suggested courses that will help them make a living, I’ve also encouraged them to diversify their learning and pursue other topics that will help them develop and understand other points of view.

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Brenda Foster

President & CEO

First Western Bank & Trust

Minot, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: Minot State University

PB: What did you major in?

A: I initially attended Minot State and completed an associate’s degree in legal and general secretarial studies. I returned to obtain a bachelor’s degree in accounting with a concentration in banking and finance.

PB: How has your major influenced your career?

A: The education I received has provided me with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in my career. I just completed my 37th year in banking and enjoy every day.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: Learning how to work on a team through group projects stands out to me. I have experienced a tremendous amount of satisfaction in working with teams to accomplish common goals.

People can accomplish greater success when they work together. Communication, organization, accuracy, follow-through and hard work have been key elements throughout my career, and I learned to use those skills as I obtained my degrees.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: The liberal arts are important because they help students be well rounded, creative and good at problem solving and oral communication.

If students have the chance to also take business and technology courses, I’d recommend that they do so as those courses will enhance their career options.

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Pat McAdaragh

President & CEO

Midco

Minneapolis

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D.

PB: What did you major in?

A: Accounting

PB: How has your major influenced your career?

A: My first job was as a staff accountant for Midco. My college major prepared me to be a successful accountant for any type of organization.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: The single most useful lesson was this: Do what what you need to do before you do what you want to do. Delaying gratification requires self-discipline, something I improved at each year while in college.

I received a liberal arts education at Augustana, and the liberal arts coursework helped me to become a well-rounded person.  The literature, English, history, math and social sciences broadened my knowledge and helped me become more intellectually curious.

In my organizational behavior class, we studied leadership by doing case studies and forming mock management teams. That helped me better understand how people work together, and how leaders are identified in groups.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: I am a big believer in getting a liberal arts education, with a major caveat: one size does not fit all. With four- and two-year degrees becoming more expensive, I strongly encourage college students to be very aware of their own personal balance sheet (still some accountant in me).  

By personal balance sheet, I mean “what you own minus what you owe.”

Earning a college degree is really an investment in oneself, an investment in which the costs occur before the financial benefit is received.

So, going into debt to earn a degree for which there are no jobs or only low-paying jobs is not a good plan. Students pursuing liberal-arts majors need to develop a career plan in which the major helps with the career choice (teacher, lawyer, writer and so on).

Choosing such a major simply because one likes it, but without a career plan, may make it tougher for the student to find a good job.

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Bruce Vaaler

President & CEO

Vaaler Insurance

Grand Forks, N.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?

A: University of Iowa

PB: What did you major in?

A: Finance

PB: How has your major influenced your career?

A: Being part of a family business, I knew that I was most likely headed down the path of insurance, so I enrolled in the finance/insurance program at the University of Iowa.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?

A: I think the most important lesson I learned was determination. I was never gifted in math, so being a finance major was very hard. I spent a lot of time in the math tutoring department, struggling but determined to understand algebra and calculus.

I can still remember the day that things started to click – and from that point on, I felt like I could actually graduate with a finance degree.

I also learned that you need to finish what you start. Nobody ever graduates from college without finishing things, whether it’s a paper or a test. You can’t pass a class without finishing the process.

I continue to remind myself of that lesson to this day. If we don’t finish what we start, we can never win.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: Any degree shows commitment and accomplishment. We can teach specific insurance knowledge, and in many cases, we like to find candidates who have a general knowledge but a willingness and hunger to learn our industry.

Some of our most valuable employees have varied backgrounds that have nothing to do with insurance. It’s really the passion that we look for.

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Eric Sivertsen

CEO/partner

Epicosity

Sioux Falls, S.D.

PB: Where did you go to college?   

A: University of South Dakota

PB: What did you major in?  

A: Short answer:  business administration.  Long answer: My counselor in college called me a “strange duck.”  I took a bunch of business IT, marketing, finance and other classes to get a well-rounded education.  This was before there was an entrepreneurship major or track.

I haven’t compared my classes with what an entrepreneurial major is now, but I sense they’d be very similar.  

PB: How has your major influenced your career?

A: My major was important because I got a well-rounded education that prepared me to be an entrepreneur.  

I wore a lot of hats when I started Epicosity, and although I don’t “do it all” any more, I advise everyone in the company.  My background has helped me prepare for this.

In addition, I was extremely involved in clubs in college, which was the most valuable part of my college experience. I would apply things I learned in the classroom sometimes the same day.  Last but not least, I worked a lot during college and did two internships. Classes provided the knowledge, and experiences outside the classroom provided the laboratory.

PB: What are some of the most useful lessons you learned in college?  

A: Hard work pays off.  College taught me how to learn at a high level, which I still have to do today to keep Epicosity moving forward.

PB: What are your thoughts about the liberal arts?

A: I tell students, “Know what your destination is, or at least have a sense of what you want to do with your career.”

Talk about your future with family, friends and yourself. I debated constantly about my future before and during college. That is why I had a clear-enough vision of what I wanted to do: I had spent the past four years talking about it and weighing options.

Some people don’t want to talk about this because of uncertainty, but discussion helps to clear up uncertainty and provide next steps.

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