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Dave McFarlane: A company man, a community man

For the past 15 years, businessman Dave McFarlane has become one of Grand Forks' most well-connected residents, chairing the Chamber of Commerce, running the mayor's election campaign, even playing a "celebrity" in the city's own version of Danci...

Dave McFarlane
Dave McFarlane, owner and president of McFarlane, formerly known as McFarlane Sheet Metal in Grand Forks.

For the past 15 years, businessman Dave McFarlane has become one of Grand Forks' most well-connected residents, chairing the Chamber of Commerce, running the mayor's election campaign, even playing a "celebrity" in the city's own version of Dancing With the Stars.

Now, he's cutting the connections as he prepares for a move to Fort Myers, Fla., partly to start a new business and partly because, when he gets around to it, he and his wife Kathy will retire there.

"I'm going to miss all the people, all the friendships we've made, miss the camaraderie of all the associations I'm in," McFarlane, 63, said Thursday. It's those friends that have gotten him involved in so many issues, he said, and helped fulfill some satisfying charitable goals.

"People will listen to friends a lot easier than complete strangers," he said. "You don't have to convince people what you're saying is a good idea. You can discuss this over coffee and have immediate credibility."

McFarlane has had a hand in many of the most important issues facing the city, namely economic development and air base retention.


"He has been a key player in our strategy for economic success in Grand Forks," said Mayor Mike Brown of his friend of 10 years. McFarlane, he said, leads with an enthusiasm that's "infectious."

In addition, McFarlane runs an award-winning business -- the U.S. Small Business Administration named McFarlane company the third-best small business in the nation in 2007 -- and he's active in charitable causes.

Not saying 'no'

It started around 1995, the time of the first big Base Realignment and Closure round. In the crosshairs was Grand Forks Air Force Base, a client of the McFarlane company, which makes metal ducts and other products. Dave McFarlane asked the chamber if there was something he could do to help, and he got put on a governmental affairs committee.

That eventually got him put on more committees until he found himself chairing the chamber.

"Gradually, by not saying 'no,' you assume leadership positions," he said. "You end up on a different committee. Then you're in charge of the committee."

It's a bit more complicated than that. He's known for his sense of humor, raising three sons whom, he proudly said, were all named class clowns by their peers; McFarlane also has a daughter.

In 2001, when humor columnist Dave Barry mocked North Dakota and Grand Forks for their attempts to rebrand themselves as places that aren't cold and desolate, McFarlane was part of a group, along with Brown, who cajoled Barry to come to town. They honored the columnist by naming a sewage lift station after him.


The hobby

Brown and McFarlane got to be good friends from sitting next to each other at various functions.

What he's always liked about McFarlane, Brown said, is McFarlane doesn't care who gets credit, just as long as it helps the community.

From his work with the chamber, McFarlane was asked to join the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board, which he chaired last year. From his base retention work, he got to know base commanders, who named him an honorary commander twice. From there he was asked to join the Governor's Military Task Force, a statewide forum for base retention.

People who aren't as engaged in the community ask him how he finds the time to do it all, he said, but they don't understand that he thinks it's fun to be engaged, more a "hobby" than a job.

"When you're active in the community you meet people that are positive. You don't meet people that whine and complain," he said. "You meet the people that get things done. That's what I'm really going to miss."

McFarlane is also a Rotary Club member, starting with fellow Rotarian Jerry Bulisco a program to buy hats, gloves and coats for needy children that gathered enough steam to offer funds to needy families to buy new outfits for children.

He said he was touched by teachers who said they had poor pupils who couldn't afford to dress like the other children and were teased.


New firm

As he makes his move to Florida in October, McFarlane is turning over the keys to his company, which his father started in 1959 and he bought in 1982.

Besides expanding the company, he'd taken it in a new direction, developing an expertise in fine tuning building heating and cooling systems to save money and improve comfort. One of the company's biggest projects was the retrofit of the Grand Forks County Office Building, which he said has saved taxpayers $1.2 million since 2002.

With energy costs continuing to rise, McFarlane said he's been doing work all over the country, which is why he figured opening an office in Florida was as good as having one in Grand Forks.

He's two years from retirement age, and he's now starting a new firm called Technical Commissioning in Fort Myers, selling the McFarlane company to Mitch Price, a senior manager.

"This has really energized me," he said of the new firm. "I'm more excited now than I was 10 to 15 years ago."

Despite the move, he said he and his wife will keep a foot in Grand Forks; his son Richard teaches at Red River High School and there's a granddaughter to visit. "This isn't like the final goodbye," he said. "We won't just pull the plug."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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