U alumni contribute mightily to Sioux Falls, a city on the rise
By Rick Moore, Photos by Belinda Shi, Portraits by Aaron Packard
In the summer of 1975, Ron Moquist (B.A. ’70, M.B.A. ’75) was working at Graco Inc., just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River in Northeast Minneapolis. He had just earned his M.B.A. at the University of Minnesota when a recruiter came calling with an intriguing, albeit stealthy, proposition.
He had a job he figured Moquist would like, but the pitch came with a catch: “I’m not going to tell you what city it’s in because I know how much you love the Twin Cities,” he told Moquist. “But let me tell you a little bit about the company.”
Steve Hey, CEO of School Bus, Inc. Moquist took the bait and soon found himself in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to check out Raven Industries—“a small company but with great values and products,” he says. He even commuted each week for three months because his wife, Joanne, “knew I wasn’t going to stay there.”
He made it at Raven Industries, which specializes in precision agricultural technology and high-performance films, for 35 years. In 2000 he became the company’s president and CEO until his retirement in 2010.
Moquist is one of several University of Minnesota alumni who have become corporate leaders in Sioux Falls in recent decades. T. Denny Sanford (B.A. ’58) is decidedly the best known; he’s the owner and founder of First Premier Bank, and the billboards and commercials for his namesake Sanford Health System stretch into much of Minnesota. Sanford is also renowned as an extremely generous benefactor in Sioux Falls and beyond. His $6 million gift put the University over the top in its private fund-raising efforts for TCF Bank Stadium.
Jim Winker (B.S. ’52)—the first-ever salaried employee at Raven Industries, eventually its vice president, and a legendary figure at the vanguard of hot air balloon flight—is a U grad. So is Dan Rykhus (B.I.S. ’88), Moquist’s successor as CEO at Raven.
In fact, some 1,400 U alumni live and work in the greater Sioux Falls area. So while Minnesota is still the primary beneficiary of the U’s output—two-thirds of graduates remain in Minnesota—Sioux Falls has found itself in the midst of a nice talent and brain gain, courtesy of its neighbor to the northeast.
Jim Winker, retired vice president and the first paid employee of Raven Industries
The Big Sioux River meanders through Sioux Falls (population 164,676) much like the Mississippi weaves through Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Falls Park at the north edge of downtown, the city’s namesake falls tumble in waves over the bedrock of Sioux quartzite.
Sioux Falls finds itself the beneficiary of its neighbor to the northeast. Some 1,400 U alumni live and work in the area, including top corporate leaders.
A few blocks away in the art deco City Hall building, Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether kicks back in his stately, sun-drenched office and beams about the town he’s helped guide for almost five years. “We are certainly garnering the attention of not only America but also the world right now,” says Huether. “We are growing up as a city and as a state, and some of the leaders that have come from the University of Minnesota helped us get there.”
Similar to the Twin Cities, Sioux Falls is finding its way on to more and more lists of compelling places to live: second best small metro for successful aging; fourth best in the nation for the 2015 job market; on the New York Times map for its “emerging food culinary scene;” and, surprisingly, a runner-up for the best place to retire.
“We were the only one of the [top] five that actually has snow,” Huether laughs. “We were able to overcome the cold temperatures and all that white stuff and still make the top five list for retirees. . . . And I think it’s reflective of our city right now.”
The city boasts an eye-catching unemployment rate of 2.5 percent and an increasingly diversified business climate strong in financial services and health care. And in case you haven’t heard in the ads meant to further pilfer Minnesota talent, South Dakota has neither a corporate income tax nor a personal income tax.
In the southwest corner of the city, Bobbi Schroeppel’s office at NorthWestern Energy overlooks a suburban neighborhood dotted with newer, sprawling homes. Like Moquist, Schroeppel (B.A. ’93, M.B.A. ’02) took “a leap of faith” by taking a job in Sioux Falls. “I had never been to South Dakota in my life,” she says. But by the time she settled in, she found a new home, personally and professionally. In 2002 she became the vice president of customer care for NorthWestern—a mid-sized utility with 1,600-plus employees—and is now the vice president of customer care, communications, and human resources.
“This is such a progressive, business-friendly city, and it’s starting to get the sophisticated loft apartments and wine bars and boutique stores,” Schroeppel says. “It’s kind of like a mini Minneapolis without some of the problems of a bigger city. And I think that’s because it’s so close to Minnesota and it’s almost hard to differentiate when you cross the border.”
That distinction is even blurrier for Steve Hey (B.A. ’84, J.D. ’87, M.B.A. ’01), who grew up in Jasper, Minnesota, a small town just a few miles from South Dakota. Hey is a Gopher alumnus to the third degree, literally. He received a B.A. in political science and a J.D. from the U three years later. After practicing law for 10 years, he decided to join his father at School Bus, Inc., a motor coach and school bus operation—by far the largest in the state—in Sioux Falls. And that led him to complete the Executive M.B.A. program at the Carlson School of Management.
“I’m the U through and through,” says Hey. “And I’ve been a Gopher fan since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I can remember as a kid tossing a football over the clothesline and hearing Ray Christensen’s voice” while listening to football games.
“Sioux Falls is a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to raise a family,” Hey says. “It has a very solid and strong business community. We’ve got a business-friendly environment from a city and state perspective. It’s a great place to be.”
Alumni have also brought with them to Sioux Falls a strong sense of philanthropy. Per capita it’s the second most giving city in the United States for United Way donations, says Moquist. He credits his own ideas on philanthropy to what he gleaned at Graco from David A. Koch, the company’s longtime CEO who recently passed away. “He showed me what giving is all about, and I brought some of those ideas back to Raven when I moved here.”
Mayor Huether is quick to note the generous spirit of Minnesota imports. “The leaders that we’ve talked about that have come from the U of M—not only are they good business people, but they’re very, very wonderful stewards,” he says. “They’re not only giving their own time, talent, and treasure to important causes in Sioux Falls, but they’re teaching others to do the same thing. To me, that’s just as important as creating good jobs; you’re also giving back to your community in other ways.”
Despite their affection for Sioux Falls, Moquist, Schroeppel, and Hey make regular trips to the Twin Cities and have stayed close to their alma mater.
“There’s no question that the Twin Cities offer advantages that you don’t have in Sioux Falls,” says Hey, who remains a devoted Gopher sports fan. “It’s easy enough to make a weekend trip. But it’s not as easy to get to as many games as I’d like to.”
Bobbi Schroeppel of NorthWestern Energy
Schroeppel can relate. In college she and her husband were diehard, camp-out-for-season-tickets men’s basketball fans during the Clem Haskins era. Now they have season tickets for football. “We don’t make every game; we give some tickets away to family members,” she says. “And we usually just stay at The Commons, right on campus. Then [my husband] Tim usually makes poor Jackson [their 14-year-old son] get out of bed at five o’clock in the morning to go to Al’s Breakfast.” After all, Sioux Falls may be a mini Minneapolis, but it’s no Dinkytown.