The state’s fortunes have less to do with luck and more to do with an agrarian mindset that places a premium on prudent savings, wise investing and good old-fashioned American innovation. Any Dakota farmer can tell you that a bountiful harvest can easily be followed by a crop ruined by flood or drought, sometimes with both occurring in the same year. An economic mindset, one that values careful reinvestment over haphazard expansion, works well in North Dakota. Residents are quick to point out, for example, that banks in North Dakota did not indulge in the predatory lending and mortgage schemes that now haunt states like Florida and California.
North Dakota State University (NDSU) professor of agribusiness and applied economics Cole Gustafson labels the prevailing mindset “the Dakota Spirit.” Part of the term also graces North Dakota license plates in the form of the slogan “Discover the Spirit.”
“The North Dakota economy is highly dependent on agriculture, and that goes back to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. People live conservatively. When times are good, they don’t often spend resources down. They have a high degree of savings to try and carry them through for the down periods that they know are coming at some point,” Gustafson explains. “I think it creates a general sense of thriftiness. Even though you might not be directly involved in [volatile industries such as] oil or in agriculture during these boom periods, people in those other sectors are somewhat hesitant to make large purchases or spend on luxury goods.”
Thirty-six-year-old native North Dakotan Michael Chambers is the president and CEO of Aldevron, the largest biotech company in Fargo, with offices also in Madison, Wis., and Freiburg, Germany. You might think this homegrown product from Carrington — who holds degrees in biotechnology and microbiology from North Dakota State University, and whose company makes DNA, proteins and antibodies that are used in many sectors of the biotech industry — would have long ago forgotten his agricultural lineage.
Because Chambers’ parents were beekeepers, the Aldevron catalog cover features a busy Apis mellifera (western honeybee), along with the statement “Diligence, precision, adaptability and efficiency — trademarks of the honeybee, and trademarks you can count on from Aldevron.”
In his modest Fargo office tucked inside a one-story building that bears more resemblance to a nondescript call center than it does to a state-of-the-art lab, Chambers believes the Dakota Spirit is spot-on when describing his own business philosophy: “Farmers were the original entrepreneurs. I think it’s in our blood to start companies. Our philosophy at Aldevron is one of continuous improvement. No matter how good we are at something, we know we have to get better at it — from the technology we use to how we interact with our clients to the opportunities we make for our employees.
“That continuous-improvement philosophy really goes back to the agricultural background, when the early farmers and our ancestors came here, and every day they got up with the question, ‘How do I do this better?’ When things are good, we are a very conservative state in how we use resources and spend resources. We try to stay away from a lot of debt.”
Eric J. Michel, president and CEO of Ulteig Engineers and another NDSU graduate and North Dakota native, spent time away from the state, but eventually the pull of family was too great to ignore. “Outward migration of talent was pretty common for a long time,” he says. “But now we’ve taken advantage of some of the migration back into the state, or at least encouraged it.”
In the modern glass lobby of Ulteig’s headquarters sits a stack of postcards. But rather than a tourist-geared scenic photo of majestic Theodore Roosevelt National Park or the immense Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, the card’s recipient will see an invitation: “Someone close to you thought you’d like a job in Fargo.” At the time the postcards were produced, Ulteig had 50 openings.
Michel had just completed an orientation session with several employees, all of them from outside North Dakota’s borders. Looking out at the big skies of the Great Plains from his corner office, he says, “There are some agrarian roots that you can’t deny, but it goes beyond that. There’s an innovative spirit that’s part of that too. When you’re in a rural setting, you have to improvise to make stuff work. You can’t just walk down the street to get what you need. As a company, we look at ourselves as solution providers. How can we [make] our clients’ lives easier?”