Prairie Business recognizes four Grand Forks executives for 'Leaders and Legacies' award

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Prairie Business magazine recognized 10 business executives from throughout the region with the publication’s “Leaders and Legacies” award, with four Grand Forks residents being named to the inaugural class.

The winners included Choice Financial Group CEO Brian Johnson, JLG Architects founder Lonnie Laffen, Vaaler Insurance Inc. CEO Bruce Vaaler, and Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops President Hal Gershman.

Others named to the magazine’s 2019 “Leaders and Legacies” class were Alan Dempster of Architecture Inc., of Sioux Falls, S.D.; Tammy Miller of Border States Electric, Fargo; Ed Shorma, of WCCO Belting of Wahpeton; Paul Steffes, of Steffes LLC of Dickinson; Steve Stenehjem of First International Bank and Trust, Watford City; and Steve Swiontek, of Gate City Bank, Fargo.

The winners were selected through a nomination and reference process.

“Prairie Business is a business magazine, folks,” Prairie Business Publisher Korrie Wenzel told the crowd of approximately 220 during Thursday evening’s ceremony in Fargo. “I honestly mean this: To be around these people, to hear snippets of their stories, coming from small towns and succeeding and leading big companies that are influential throughout the region, it’s humbling. It really is.”


The winners attributed their success to family, colleagues and community.

Gershman, a former Grand Forks City Council president, called his community a “very accepting” place.

“I’ve always appreciated the city’s understanding and being tolerant of people that are different,” he said.

The first Happy Harry’s was located in Grand Forks on DeMers Avenue where the Howe and Seaworth Law Office is today, Gershman recalled. The company, which now has locations in Grand Forks and Fargo, was owned and operated by Gershman’s father and the store’s namesake, Harry Gershman. Hal Gershman took over in the ’70s. Three years ago, the store became 100 percent employee-owned.

"They were instrumental in building the business over many years," Gershman said. "That's why we were so comfortable creating the (employee stock ownership program)."

Vaaler, president and CEO of Vaaler Insurance, also spoke highly of his employees.

“It’s an honor to get an award that really belongs to all our staff,” he said.

Between its locations in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck and Minneapolis, the company has 88 employees. The company got its start in Grand Forks.


“And we’re still based there, and will be for the foreseeable future,” Vaaler said.

He said his favorite part of commercial insurance is the problem solving.

“It’s a fun challenge to us to figure out the right coverage, the right programs for people,” he said.

When it comes to clients, Laffen said most the ceremony’s attendees Thursday night are his friends and clients of JLG Architects, the business he co-founded in 1989.

Laffen, a former state senator, grew up in Wimbledon, N.D., about 120 miles southwest of Grand Forks. That’s where he met his wife, Pam, one of his classmates dating back to kindergarten.

“I’m always so very proud of him and the things he’s done,” she said.

Being small-town kids, Laffen said they were expected to be involved in everything. He recalled playing basketball games in high school and having to leave halfway through to perform with the band in the halftime show.

“It’s just really instilled in us (a belief in) giving back to your community,” Laffen said.


Johnson also spoke highly of people throughout the state for “their openness and their friendliness.”

“It’s more than just about business in North Dakota,” he said. “Relationships matter here, and that matters to us.”

Johnson moved to Grand Forks in 2007 after working as a market president for the company in Walhalla. The Choice Financial Board of Directors named him CEO in 2011.

Board member Erv Inniger recalled that decision Thursday night.

“I’ve worked for many, many people before,” Inniger said. “He is by far one of the top people I’ve been around. … The reason the bank is so successful is because of his leadership, no question.”

Prairie Business also recognized its annual Top 25 Women in Business and 40 Under 40 award winners.

Top 25 Women in Business winners included the following from Grand Forks: Elizabeth Bjerke, Greta Gerloff, Emily Holth, Melanie Jensen, Erin Johnson (East Grand Forks), Karna Loyland, Ann-Marie Morrow and Erin M. O’Leary.

Grand Forks residents among the 40-under-40 winners were Scott Ayash, Becca Bahnmiller, Annie Berge, Stacey Dahl, Swapnil Fegade, Stephanie Magenau, Mike McLean and Brian Schumacher. Also recognized were Lynn Slaathaug Moen of Mayville and Ashley J. Rivera of Hallock, Minn.


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