Doug Burgum | Nice Alumni Series

Great Plains Software | Class of 1978

Hometown: Arthur, ND / Currently: Bismarck, ND

In 1906, Doug’s grandparents managed Arthur Farmers Elevator in Arthur, North Dakota, an operation that is run by the Burgum family to this day. Growing up around the family business, Doug’s father reminded him that farmers have long memories for bad service, and so excellent customer care was paramount to their success. Years later, this lesson would guide him when developing his own company, Great Plains Software.

Doug’s early foray into entrepreneurship involved a chimney sweeping business that he started during his senior year at NDSU. The local newspaper ran a story with a photo of him sitting atop an icy chimney in freezing temperatures. Around this same time he had applied to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. The news story made the AP wire service and eventually caught the attention of Stanford’s admissions office. He went on to study there alongside eventual Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

After graduating from Stanford Business School in 1980, Doug worked at McKinsey, a management consulting company. While crunching numbers on spreadsheets, one of Doug’s workmates introduced him to VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet calculator program for personal computers. He knew this technology would change everything.

In 1983, Doug mortgaged the quarter section of farmland his late dad had left him. He used the $250,000 it yielded to plow into Great Plains Software, an accounting software company. He had literally bet the farm.

I felt fear. But fear is actually a good motivator. Because when you think you’re going to lose everything you have, it can be a real driving force.

Great Plains didn’t achieve profitability until the late 1990s. But Doug continually put those profits to work, reinvesting gains into next-generation software, tools, and expanding their sales force. At the same time, he focused on differentiating their accounting software services by offering differentiated service tiers, which included levels of paid support. Their innovative approach to taking great care of their customers set them apart.

By 1997, Goldman Sachs was leading Great PlainsIPO. They were priced at $16 per share and closed at $32, and became North Dakota’s first publicly traded tech company.

During Burgum’s tenure, Great Plains was named to Fortune magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” four times. His leadership eventually guided them through its 2001 acquisition by Microsoft for $1.1 billion. He remained at Microsoft as Senior Vice President through 2007.

In 2016, Doug became the 33rd governor of North Dakota.

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The Nice Center at NDSU created this series to demonstrate that entrepreneurs come from all walks of life. As we pursue our mission of making entrepreneurship for all we invite your support through mentorship. Share more about yourself at thenicecenter.org/mentor

Credits: Story by Scott Meyer & Dane Johnson / Illustration by Izak Moleterno

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Posted on November 18th, 2020 by Dane Johnson in News and Stories