Part 6 of 7: How Microsoft is positioning for the future

A fountain in the Microsoft Commons doubles as a fire pit in the winter (Dave Samson / The Forum)

Eight weeks ago, when he first set foot in Microsoft here as a new hire, Tony Geraghty got a glimpse of the past.

A Moorhead native and North Dakota State University graduate, he had heard the stories about Great Plains Software – the family atmosphere, the teamwork. By the time he finished college in 2004, the company was no more.

But when he joined Microsoft this spring, he found many of the pillars of its predecessor’s reputation still intact.

“A lot of those same pieces are here,” he said, describing his warm welcome and eminently helpful co-workers. “It’s kind of neat to see that a lot of that culture that was there from Great Plains is still here.”

Geraghty came aboard as the irst member of one of the newest divisions on campus, a support team for the company’s Exchange e-mail server. The team now has a dozen members and still has a few positions open.

It’s one sign that Microsoft Fargo is growing again. After a slowdown during the recession, the campus is expanding. By early next year, it’ll be close to capacity, which is a bit more than the 1,600 people it houses today. Microsoft has plans for two new buildings that would bring the Fargo site’s capacity to 2,700 employees.

At times, the company hasn’t always been so sure it could attract that much talent to Fargo. When Microsoft moved its shared services center from Redmond, Wash. to Fargo in 2005, 50 employees were given the option to relocate here. None of them did.

But local managers have allayed those concerns by growing several teams from the ground up.
Executives at headquarters would say, “Can you really recruit in Fargo?”

Then, five new hires would turn into 30, and a new team would arise.

For Microsoft, putting those jobs in Fargo is a money-saver: Adding employees here costs less than adding them in Seattle or on the East Coast.

“There’s a huge productivity gain and a huge economic gain when you can have teams in the Midwest,” said Don Morton, the site leader here. “Our Fargo campus becomes a great onshore alternative.”
That’s not to say the company is pinching pennies here. The last expansion project cost about $70 million. The local hospitality industry reaps the benefits of hundreds of Microsoft business trips a year, which in 2010 produced more than $550,000 in receipts for hotel stays, car rental, dining and entertainment.

“From our perspective, it’s just a great asset to have in the community,” said Kevin McKinnon, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

He said Microsoft’s presence here is an important recruiting tool for the region, as well as a source of talent that makes a difference outside the company.

“In a sense, Microsoft is a great incubator of its own,” he said.

Area nonprofits and charities took in about $1.5 million between Microsoft employee giving and company matches (Microsoft matches employee contributions up to $12,000 a year, including matching volunteer hours at $17 an hour).

“We have some very rich PTAs around here,” said Katie Hasbargen, the company’s senior communications manager in Fargo.

The focus on regional sourcing for campus amenities serves as an economic booster in its own right – from local art that makes its way to Tokyo after getting noticed by a visiting executive to a cafeteria that serves bison from Glyndon, Minn., and walleye from the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.

“We worked hard at trying to source food locally,” said Matt Torgerson, the campus manager.

Meanwhile, the company’s global scope may soon make it a catalyst for an economic boon of a different kind: direct flights from Fargo to Seattle.

No arrangement has been finalized, but Microsoft, seeking a less circuitous route between the local campus and company headquarters, has been in talks with local airport authorities and an airline to push for a deal.

For Microsoft, it would be a welcome bridge to the anchor of the company’s presence in the region. Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s chief operating officer, said in an email the Fargo campus helps the company recruit and retain talent in the Midwest.

“We realize that we need to be willing to come to the talent and can’t always make the talent come to us,” he said. “We hear great things from our employees and their families about the Fargo community, and we are able to provide them with a world-class working experience.”

He praised Fargo’s history of top-flight customer service, and echoed Morton’s remarks on the cost savings here.

“A big part of the value we recognize from our Fargo campus centers around a low attrition rate and the lower cost of doing business in the Midwest,” Turner said in the email. “In short, we have room to grow the campus and we’re committed to the area and this location.”

Turner will be among the corporate executives on hand for a day of celebration today to mark Microsoft’s 10th anniversary in Fargo. Other community and state leaders – including Doug Burgum – will be on hand for speeches and toasts, and employees will be treated to a gala on campus tonight.

The company held a smaller internal celebration in April to coincide with the date the Great Plains acquisition was finalized. In keeping with Great Plains tradition, it was a wine-and-cheese party – a throwback from the company’s earliest years.

Tomorrow, see how Microsoft celebrated 10 years in Fargo, and what executives and guests had to say about the company.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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4 Responses to Part 6 of 7: How Microsoft is positioning for the future

  1. Kayla says:

    I am just curious as to why more hasn’t been discussed about the nearly 800 people who are contracted with Microsoft and WHY they are contracted. It would be interesting to hear those perspectives of people who don’t have all the amazing benefits Microsoft has to offer, but watches Microsoft spend $70 Million on expanding. I know that it is just the way the cookie crumbles, but that is also an important part in how Microsoft works… should probably write a story about it as well…

    just sayin.

    • Claudia says:

      I agree Kayla. It would be an interesting story. I worked for Microsoft when I lived out east. Later when that office was closed I was asked to relocate to Fargo but turned it down. Two years later I moved here and worked as a contractor at Microsoft. The experiences were night and day for me. A lot of the contractors I worked with stated that being a contractor for Microsoft was like being an outside.
      As for why Microsoft contracts, I’m pretty sure it’s about money and the ability to reduce costs on short notice. It’s easier to cut a contractor than an employeer.
      Microsoft is a good place to work but it’s not for everyone.

  2. As someone who sat across from a Microsoft executive as he questioned Fargo’s ability to continue to attract talent into the future, it’s fantastic to see the teams here rise to the occasion over and over again. Congratulations to the new Exchange Support hires and kudos to all, carrying on the legacy of Great Plains!

  3. Casey says:

    Any more info about the timeframe or progress on possible direct flights from Fargo to Seattle? That would be a great addition to the Fargo airport!

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