Location: Fargo, N.D.
Assets: $3.5 billion
Employees: 1,000
President and CEO: Michael Solberg
www.bellbanks.com

Bell State Bank & Trust turns 50 next year, and in that time it's built a culture that knows its values and does a good job of promoting them. The Fargo, N.D., bank hosts family baseball nights, picnics and nighttime Christmas parties — complete with Santa and sleigh rides — all to let employees know their importance.

Each employee also gets $2,000 of "Pay It Forward" money from the company to give away — half to a cause, charity or person that needs it, the other half to a deserving customer or vendor. "The only rule is that you can't give it to a family member," says Michael Solberg, Bell's president and chief executive. "Banks are very generous at supporting their communities, but a lot of times those decisions are made at the 'C' level. The magic of this is that it's grassroots. Employees are empowered to support causes they think are important."

A highly anticipated, Oscars-style awards ceremony reinforces the attitude of treating employees and customers well. The bank's "How Bell of You!" program encourages employees to nominate co-workers they've witnessed doing something nice for another person — either on or off the job — for a "Bell Value Award." Nominees get a gift card and a note, and five finalists in each of three categories are honored at the annual red-carpet gala at the historic Fargo Theater. "Everyone wears tuxedos and fancy dresses, and we rent every limo in Fargo to pick up all of our team members," says Julie Peterson Klein, chief culture officer. "It's a very big deal."

The awards that define the culture come in three areas: family atmosphere, personal service and "Pay It Forward." The nominees this year include the team at the bank's Moorhead, Minn., branch, which is led by Bob Buth. They quickly went to the aid of a young girl who dropped a bag of coins in the parking lot on a frigid January morning.

Employees receive an annual clothing allowance of $500 to pay for required business attire like blazers and ties. And every year each one also gets a day off and a $200 gift card. The only string is they must spend the money on a friend or family member and tell the human resources department what they did. "It's not overkill," says Cheryl Stock, a branch manager in Fargo. "All these little things make people happy to go to work."

Solberg describes the formula as "counterintuitive," but effective. "The more we share with employees, the more profitable we get."

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