FARGO – In the fat years of the tech boom, the tradition among entrepreneurs who hit the big time was to buy sports cars. In one morbid instance, a Silicon Valley executive died in a high-speed crash of his new Ferrari on the day of a successful initial public offering.
When Great Plains Software went public in 1997, Doug Burgum bought a Bobcat skid steer. It would have been a joke if he weren’t so into the machine (today, he’s on his third Bobcat).
Given Burgum’s history, his choice of rides shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. When he was featured in Fortune magazine in 1990 as “a bachelor who puts his net worth on the low end of $1 million to $5 million,” his confessed splurges had more to do with his thirst for outdoor adventure – he said he’s gone heli-skiing and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro – than for a swanky set of wheels – he said he was still driving his 1983 Honda Prelude.
That car is gone, and the dollar amounts are a little dated. When Microsoft acquired Great Plains a decade ago, Burgum’s stake in the company was worth about $80 million.
But while business success and public prominence have made Burgum into a local celebrity, the native of Arthur, N.D., a town of a few hundred about 15 miles north of Casselton, has never strayed too far from home.
“It’s weird because I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “On Wednesday nights, I’m playing on the same softball team that I’ve played with for years, the guys that I grew up with in high school.”
It’s a fitting pastime for a man who likens his experience doing business with some of the world’s most influential executives to making the big leagues. “It’s like being in the NBA,” he said, “and you find yourself as the point guard on the team that’s in the playoffs.”
It’s also an arena in which Burgum’s competitive nature shines. He jokes that one towering employee was “a good hire for the basketball team.”
That same drive has made Burgum’s “retirement” an abbreviated one. He stepped down as a Microsoft senior vice president in 2007, citing the rigors of commuting to Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters and a desire to spend time closer to home.
Since then, he’s become chairman of the board at California-based software company SuccessFactors, and co-founded Fargo venture capital firm Arthur Ventures with nephew James Burgum. He’s also taken a job as interim chief executive of Fargo’s Intelligent InSites, and became a transformative force in downtown Fargo through the Kilbourne Group, his real estate development company.
All of that has come amid other philanthropic efforts. His Doug Burgum Family Fund gives to youth, education and health programs. In 2001, he donated the old Northern School Supply building at 17 8th St. N. to North Dakota State University, spawning its downtown Fargo campus.
The gift to his alma mater reflects ties that run back to the university’s first days: Burgum’s grandmother was part of the university’s very first class in 1891, and his mother, Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, served as the dean of the college of home economics from 1972 to 1980.
But for Doug Burgum, his business ventures are themselves a part of his push to make a difference in the community, whether through urban renewal via architecture (his first interest in college) or job creation via investment.
“The underlying thing behind all of these things is there’s an economics component,” he said. “It’s trying to shape a positive vision for the community.”
For Burgum, the success of Great Plains and Microsoft in fueling the region’s development – and the chance to keep doing so through his current initiatives – is all the more meaningful given the downtrodden state of North Dakota when he first went into business here. The economy was sputtering, the population was declining, and small towns were disappearing.
Against that backdrop, people would approach Burgum on the street to urge caution: “I saw in the paper that you hired five people,” he remembers hearing.
“‘Be careful, don’t grow too fast.’
“They thought they were providing the sage advice,” he said.
He’s glad he didn’t listen.
“The company became an inspirational example of what the state could do and what the people of the state could do,” he said. “It was, ‘We’re putting our kids up against the best minds in the world – how did we do? ’”
Video: Doug Burgum: Through The Years
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502