A lot of the Best Banks to Work For reward employees with extravagant gifts — flat-screen TVs, swanky trips, even new cars. Bell Bank in Fargo, N.D., does this too, but about 10 years ago it started a program to extend the giving beyond just employees.

Every year it hands $1,000 to each full-time person and $500 to each part-time person, with a catch. They have to use the money to help someone in need, whether individuals, families or organizations.

It has given away more than $10 million like this to date.

"We have all of these other great programs for employees," says Michael Solberg, the president and chief executive at the $4.4 billion-asset bank. "We thought, 'How do we use our Christmas party as a way to maybe focus on people externally that need our help, and less on ourselves?' "

Employees also get cash of their own. Each one receives an extra day off and a $200 gift card every year, the one requirement being they have to devote that time and money to loved ones.

On top of that, Bell takes 5% of its overall annual earnings and divvies it up as a cash bonus for everyone at the end of the year. The bonus typically works out to about 6% of an employee's salary, Solberg says.

Michael Solberg, president and CEO of Bell Bank in Fargo, N.D.
Michael Solberg, president and CEO of Bell Bank in Fargo, N.D.

Last year Bell added still another way for employees to share in the success of the bank. It introduced a stock ownership program as part of the employee retirement plan. Solberg says the stock contribution is based on the bank's return on assets and runs anywhere from 3% to 13% of each person's annual salary.

"We feel the wealth that's created in an equity position is just unparalleled, and so to be able to share the equity piece of the work that each one of our employees is doing felt really in line with what we're trying to do in building culture," he says.

The culture Solberg is going for is one where employees feel valued and supported, so that they, in turn, value and support each other, and by extension, Bell customers. He says the more Bell spends on employees, the more its performance improves.

"Our mission statement's pretty simple. It's 'Happy employees, Happy customers' — kind of going back to the idea that if our employees are happy, our customers are going to be happy, and then the financials take care of themselves," he says.

One time Bell celebrated a particularly good year by giving employees an extra $1,000 for the holidays. The cash had been a surprise, presented in the form of a "party favor" at the Christmas bash. "That was really fun," Solberg says. "But that was actually a year where we kind of paused, because human nature creeps in, and we all start asking ourselves, 'Wow, what's the bank going to do for us next year?'"

Bell got the idea for what to do next from a television show. "It happened to be the year that Oprah Winfrey gave away a thousand dollars to everyone in her studio audience — but they couldn't keep it, they had to go give it away. And so that was where our Pay it Forward program was born."

One of the benefits of Pay It Forward — beyond the goodwill it generates with employees, customers and the community — is that everyone who works at Bell gets to be part of making philanthropy choices on behalf of the bank.

"I think one of the differences between our bank and other banks is how we think about investing in our communities," Solberg says. "We want to empower the people who are working at the bank every day to make the decisions on where they want to invest. Instead of our board of directors or our owners or our executives deciding where to invest those dollars, we invest millions of dollars through our employees."

Bell makes a documentary each year to tell the stories behind 10 of those investments and shows that at its holiday party, Solberg says.

The bank also continues to try to delight employees at this event, the way it did with those party favors. This year the setting will be Sheels Arena in Fargo — a first for Bell — and Alabama will be headlining a show that also includes other musical groups. "We think there will be close to 3,000 people there," Solberg says.

A major reason the bank is able to be so generous is that being privately held gives it the luxury of not to have to fixate on quarterly earnings. Management takes a long view on investing in human capital.

"We don't have a lot of pressure on running those big decisions by our board," Solberg says. "We have a lot of leeway to make decisions on what's best for our employees and what's best for our customers."

Solberg's advice to other banks that might not have such luxury is to show appreciation however you can. "It is not the big-ticket items — it's not the Christmas party or the bonus programs that make us a great place to work," he says.

"It's the million little things that our team does for their co-workers and for our customers and for people in the community. ...

"Those million little things are free and the magic about what makes working here great."

Bonnie McGeer

Bonnie McGeer is the executive editor of American Banker. She oversees its monthly magazine and chairs the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance program.