Relationship Builders

By The Bakken Magazine Staff | June 24, 2013

In 2010, Keith Lund, vice president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., joined a chamber-led group of city leaders on a road trip to western North Dakota. The team toured the region, met with community members, government officials, business leaders and, most importantly, listened. Lund says the group quickly learned several key things from those initial discussions, and helping the group bring business to Grand Forks while helping business in the Bakken.“The oil and gas industry, much like others, but maybe more, is really relationship-based,” Lund says. 

Understanding that facet of the play has helped Lund and other regional businesses excel. “A model that works for us is working through partners,” Lund says. “When we first started this initiative, we visited with folks and let them know we weren’t trying to steal any business.” The initiative, originally branded with the term, “Expand east do business west,” was created because of what Lund and the team were told by western North Dakota officials. “One of the things we heard was that anything that we could do to create or manufacture something outside of the region, but have it shipped in and installed by a crew that would soon leave, would be beneficial.”

Since the initiative started, several Bakken-based businesses have moved to Grand Forks to supply the play from miles outside of the region. And, Lund and others in the city are now working to help Grand Forks-based companies with a link to those in need of service. Lund's team and the Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce estimates there are roughly 110 businesses in the region doing some form of business in the Bakken. And for those that aren’t, or even for those that are, Lund has several recommendations. 

“Trying to understand a business’s challenge and its markets is key,” Lund says of companies looking to serve the Bakken. Lund tries to ask companies first about what they need before ever pitching the idea of working with, or moving to, Grand Forks, an approach he says, “is not a great message.” 

For companies looking at Grand Fork as a potential business location, Lund says each potential company must first have the business case and the economics related to the logistics of moving products from one side of the state to the other, before ever asking his team about tax breaks or business potential. Prospective firms also need to understand the labor force of the city. According to Lund, the city, like most now in the state, offer hardworking, efficient laborers who expect a fair salary and attractive benefits. “What we have found is that if you are willing to invest in both (fair salary and attractive benefits), you will have success in recruiting people.” Even outside the Bakken, finding a capable and sizeable labor force is crucial he adds. 

Although Lund and several other organizations have already helped bring several large companies to the region to service the Bakken, he says he fields more calls about eastern North Dakota firms looking to expand west. “If you are providing a service that they need in western N.D., there is a good chance you can do it from here,” Lund says. But, it still requires a great deal of the key component Lund learned about during that initial visit: listening. Companies that have done so are now supplying dry cleaning services, oil changes, concrete mix, electrical services, construction, and many more. And, in some cases, companies in Grand Forks have benefited by not serving the Bakken. Lund has spoken with some companies that are doing well because other competing firms have shifted focus to western North Dakota, and might not be serving the eastern part of the state to the extent they previously had. 

After three years of working to grow the initiative, Lund says the work is still only beginning, pointing back to the necessity of relationship-building. He points to many accomplishments, including helping a major oilfield service provider relocate to Grand Forks and a Texas-based tank provider relocate up the interstate to Grafton, N.D. The Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau has also had success in signing up the North Dakota Petroleum Council to hold its annual meeting across the state from the oil patch, in Grand Forks this fall. But,  another development might also be the effect of firms expanding east and doing business west. Some investors are starting to lease or buy more space in Grand Forks. “When developers start investing in it (the city), you get the sense that people are buying in,” he says, adding that most of them are doing so with their own money.