JUNE 4, 2018 - VOL. 54 No. 8

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Evan Nolte: King of Collaboration

By Amy Smolik
Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

Any story about retiring Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Evan Nolte could be titled "Hometown boy makes good," though it might make the Sioux Falls native uncomfortable – being in the spotlight has never been his style.

Nolte has had to adapt as the community prepares to properly send him off to retirement at the end of 2016 – starting with recognition at last month´s 110th Annual Meeting and another event slated for Dec. 8.

When Nolte announced his retirement a national search commenced, led by Waverly Partners LLC, a company that specializes in chamber executive searches.

"It has been humbling to hear the respect the candidates have for our Chamber, our businesses, our city and our state," said 2015-16 Chair of the Board Paul Bruflat, CNA Surety. Bruflat has led the search process along with 2016-17 Chair of the Board Dave Kapaska, D.O., Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.

Leading this Chamber would be a career-defining moment the candidates shared, Bruflat said. "One major concern is following the legend of Evan Nolte. Evan spent time with each candidate, which has inspired them to have confidence that they can perform well as our Chamber CEO."

The new President/CEO could be announced in the next month, allowing for an orderly transition by year-end. Nolte has been flexible about his retirement plans, including extending his time past year-end if necessary, to ensure a smooth transition.

"We will continue to live in Sioux Falls – there´s no doubt it will always be our home base," Nolte said of his immediate plans following retirement.

Returning Home

In the late 1970s, the Noltes lived in the Mason City, Iowa area, where he was the chamber executive for Mason City. He and his wife, Lesley, had been married for two years and their sons were not yet school-aged. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce regional office played a significant role in many local chamber organizations, including Sioux Falls, and was called to assist in the search for a new Chamber executive. Nolte thinks his name was thrown in the mix because he was known by the regional office. In the fall of 1978, he received a letter alerting him to the opening in Sioux Falls, later interviewed for the job and started on Feb. 1, 1979 – commuting from Iowa that winter.

Nolte´s ties to Sioux Falls are part of what made him an attractive candidate, said Bernie DeWald, McKinneyOlson Insurance. DeWald was the President of the Chamber at that time and hired Nolte, who attended Iowa State University before graduating from Augustana College (now University) where he majored in political science and minored in business administration. His first job was as the Chamber executive in Nebraska City, Neb. Nolte also served in leadership roles for chambers of commerce in Yankton, S.D., and St. Joseph, Mo., before Mason City, Iowa.

"There was no question that it was a great opportunity to return to Sioux Falls. I never really dreamed I´d be coming back," Nolte said. "Sioux Falls has always been a special place for me."

Having DeWald as the President of the Chamber was a huge benefit, Nolte said. At the time, the Chamber staff member held the title of Executive Vice President and the volunteer leader held the title of President; those roles changed in 1992 and the staff member is now the President and CEO and the volunteer leader is the Chair of the Board of Directors.

"I can´t say how many hundreds of Chamber members and community leaders that Bernie and I met with in the first several months. As I look back on it, it was absolutely the best thing that could have happened for me and for the Chamber. Bernie was just a natural in that he was so well-acquainted, respected and connected in the community," he said.

DeWald noted Nolte´s many accomplishments, including the ability to work with 37 chairs of the board and 37 boards of directors. Nolte was never a person to pat himself on the back, DeWald said, as he was the behind-the-scenes person who did the majority of the work and always gave the credit to the committee member or volunteers.

"I always felt he would be the President of our Chamber at least as long or even longer than I would be involved in Chamber work," DeWald said. It appears that DeWald, who is still a Chamber Ambassador, will outlast Nolte, however.

Nolte was 37 when he took over the helm of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and never imagined he would end his career in Sioux Falls, he said. "The challenge and opportunity for leadership along with the significant economic growth of the Sioux Falls area helped make it possible."

Leading a Membership Organization

"We are a Chamber that sells the value proposition of membership," Nolte said. "As we plan for the future, we talk about relevancy. Our future success depends on the value we provide for our members and the Sioux Falls area. Any other issues will take care of themselves."

He has enjoyed the experience of being a part of the Sioux Falls area´s growth and change over the past three decades, with the economy strengthening and diversifying along the way. The financial services and health care industries have led the way, but Nolte sees other industries as bright spots, too – from small business growth to the culture of entrepreneurship that has emerged in part due to strategic investments by the Chamber and Forward Sioux Falls.

"Sioux Falls is becoming the kind of city that attracts young professionals and others relocating and considering business investments. Our downtown revitalization has been a huge positive factor as well as our new sports and entertainment options – they all make this community attractive," he said.

Under Nolte´s leadership, the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce has doubled its membership. Add in the 1,000-member Chamber Young Professionals Network, which started in 2009, it indicates that there are thousands of highly engaged businesses and individuals investing in the future of the Sioux Falls area.

"It´s a significant challenge and opportunity to serve and support this area and its growing diversity and economy," Nolte said. "I can´t say enough about our Chamber staff team – that´s our core. Working with volunteers and staff on important Chamber and community priorities has been my biggest enjoyment and reward."

Challenges... and Opportunities: 1980s

The arrival of Citi to Sioux Falls was a game-changer for South Dakota and the Sioux Falls area, Nolte said. To him, it was reminiscent of the impact that EROS Data Center had more than a decade before and represents how Sioux Falls community leaders consistently collaborate. In the early part of the decade, Sioux Falls was a good business community, but not really a player on the regional or national scene. Later in the ´80s, the upper Midwest was in an agriculture recession. Bolstered by the success and investment of the financial services industry, community leaders had much greater expectations for the Sioux Falls area, Nolte said.

Many consider Forward Sioux Falls, the successful joint venture program between the Chamber and the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, to be one of the most significant accomplishments during Nolte´s tenure.

FAMILY: Wife, Lesley; sons: Mike (Carmen), Portland, Ore.; James, San Diego; John (Cathy), Roosevelt, Utah; Ryan (Erica), Plymouth, Minn.; eight grandchildren

EDUCATION: Washington High School, bachelor´s degree in political science and business administration from Augustana College (now Augustana University)

CHAMBER EXPERIENCE: Nebraska City, Neb. Chamber of Commerce, Yankton, S.D. Chamber of Commerce, Mason City, Iowa Chamber of Commerce, Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce; Mid-America Chamber Executives (MACE), a six-state regional group; Chair of the MACE Advocacy Alliance

• Business Citizen of the Year, Sioux Falls Sales & Marketing Executives - 1997
• Alumni Achievement Award, Augustana College - 2013
• Sales & Marketing Executive of the Year, Sales & Marketing Executives of Sioux Falls - 2015

"The initial program began in 1987 with a vision to have us be visible and competitive on a national level," said Dave Rozenboom, First PREMIER Bank. Rozenboom served as Chamber Chair of the Board in 2009-10 and also co-chaired the Forward Sioux Falls 2021 campaign. "Fast forward nearly 30 years and seven programs later, the cumulative impact has been amazing."

Rozenboom credits Forward Sioux Falls´ success to the collaborative, public/private partnership of community and business leaders who worked together to identify the top challenges and opportunities for each five-year program period.

"Once we agreed on those, we could then pool our resources of time, talent and treasure together and truly move the needle for our community – and the proof is all around us," Rozenboom said. "What we all enjoy about Sioux Falls didn´t just happen by accident. I believe that Forward Sioux Falls has been the 'secret sauce to our success´ and Evan has provided a steady hand of leadership since Day 1."

Challenges... and Opportunities: 1990s

The success of the first Forward Sioux Falls program in the late 1980s led to more opportunities for collaboration and improving the region´s economic health and quality of life.

"Evan is the consummate collaborator. The Chamber has become the central hub that brings business, government and education together. This allows for constructive dialogue to occur and helps keep our community working toward many of the same goals," Rozenboom said. "Through Evan´s leadership, the Chamber has earned the respect and confidence of everyone and people want to pitch in and be a part of it."

The Chamber ramped up its advocacy efforts in the 1990s, including its support of a convention center and performing arts center. The first public vote on a proposed downtown convention center and performing arts center had been defeated by two percentage points in the 1980s. It was devastating to the business community, Nolte said. TACCO (Taxpayers Against Convention Center Obligation) was an example of a negative group that took shape in the community. The community began to see progress when a community coalition backing a convention center and a performing arts center collaborated to strongly support a "yes" vote for both facilities. It was approved by voters in a referendum held in October 1993.

"The passage of this issue was a major decision on the part of the community and helped set other developments in place," Nolte said. "I think back to what the environment was like in the mid-1980s and wonder where would we be had that vote failed?"

The 1990s were an era of major milestones in the community. Money Magazine named Sioux Falls the "Best Place to Live in America" in 1992. Sioux Falls received national attention and an influx of inquiries about moving here and doing business here. In 1994, the Chamber collaborated with other community partners on a visioning process called Sioux Falls Tomorrow working with the National Civic League. The mid-to-late 1990s was marked by a significant amount of economic growth in the area. The Sioux Falls Convention Center opened in 1998, followed by the Washington Pavilion in 1999.

The early 1990s are also remembered for a tragedy, when in 1993 a small plane carrying Sioux Falls community leaders and South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson crashed while returning from a visit to the corporate headquarters of John Morrell.

"There´s no question the tragic loss of those visionary leaders had a tremendous impact on our state," Nolte said. "Other leaders were left trying to carry on that spirit."

Challenges... and Opportunities:
2000s and beyond

Planning for the future defined the 2000s.

"I don´t know that anyone clearly saw the recession coming, particularly with the strong economy at the turn of the century," Nolte said.

A second Sioux Falls Tomorrow visioning process took place in 2004, prior to the recession. A few years later, a number of community groups again came together as part of the Future Sioux Falls program and research, which led into the Forward Sioux Falls 2011-2016 program, the sixth FSF program. A third Sioux Falls Tomorrow planning process took place in 2014, led by the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation and the City of Sioux Falls.

Candy Hanson, past CEO and now Senior Advisor for the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, knows Nolte both as a colleague and family friend.

"I admire Evan´s leadership, especially in rough times. We were all concerned when the recession hit. Evan pulled a panel of business and nonprofit leaders together to encourage Chamber members to keep moving forward," Hanson said. "Throughout his career, he´s maintained a dogged belief in the strength of our community and its ability to overcome setbacks and adversity. His steady, consistent leadership is priceless."

Nolte´s steady hand touched many areas in the business community – including inside the Chamber. The Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau was formed out of a Chamber committee in the 1970s and remains part of the Chamber organization. CVB Executive Director Teri Schmidt has worked with Nolte since 1984.

"The most significant thing about Evan´s accomplishments is within the style he made things happen. He worked behind the scenes to get things done, talking to the right people at the right time and setting the stage for a goal to be reached," Schmidt said. "This made him the perfect fit for Sioux Falls – always managing other´s working styles without them even realizing it, but always with the goal of getting things done for the betterment of Sioux Falls."

Because the CVB is a major part of the Chamber, facilities have been important from both an economic development and quality of life standpoint. The Chamber was represented on a number of facilities task forces, including several for an events center. The Chamber was always at the forefront and a critical element in terms of planning and issue campaigns, Nolte said, citing the 2011 events center public vote as a tremendous challenge for the community. The Chamber membership was divided on where the new facility should be located. It was clear, however, that Sioux Falls needed a new event center, Nolte said – there was no disagreement on that.

After reviewing the city´s research on events centers and recommendations including location alternatives, the Chamber Board of Directors adopted a policy position supporting the construction of an events center.

"There is a time when the research is done and you need to take a strong advocacy position on a community issue," Nolte said. The Denny Sanford PREMIER Center opened in the fall of 2014.

Studying community issues and communicating to members about them has long been a Chamber membership benefit. "We´re at the best place we´ve ever been in my career as far as the strength of our issues and research process," Nolte said.

He credits volunteer leaders and Chamber staff team with developing and effectively implementing that program. The Chamber utilizes research and issue briefs to inform members and take positions where warranted. That information is then communicated in a number of ways – and issue positions are not always popular in a membership organization, Nolte said.

"Members may not always be totally aligned, but the process and further development of that process in the future is going to serve us well," he said.

Steady servant leadership, working with and through community leaders and bringing them together to turn challenges into opportunities define Nolte´s legacy, said Rich Naser, President of the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship and the USD Discovery District. Both of these entities were developed out of Forward Sioux Falls programs to help grow new businesses and diversify the economy.

"Evan has focused on the long game for Sioux Falls´ success and not let minor setbacks or distractions turn the Chamber´s and Forward Sioux Falls´ focus," Naser said. "Evan has been very humble, not worried about who received the credit for success. Through that approach, he´s has had major impact on our community."

Sioux Falls is unique, Nolte said.

"Those of us who live here sometimes assume others have this same type of culture – and some do – but I believe that we are looked at as a model for best practices," Nolte said.

In the last decade, several communities have traveled to Sioux Falls as part of "aspirational city visits" to learn more about the culture. It´s a great reminder of how important telling the Sioux Falls story is, Nolte said.

"The culture here is one of collaboration that stretches across community organizations. It has made the Chamber and Forward Sioux Falls successful and built our brand name," he said. "That synergy seems to go on."

The challenge for the future as the community continues to grow is to keep that culture and to be open and receptive to change, Nolte said.

"As a result of growing community confidence, we can achieve additional major projects and successfully address issues," he said. "We found out, sometimes through hard lessons, the way to be successful is to come together on important issues facing the community."

What´s Next?

The Noltes´ four sons and their families are located throughout the U.S., along with other friends and family. Nolte anticipates making more visits now that he will have more time. He will also continue to be selectively involved in various community projects as a volunteer. And outdoor recreation will also take up more time, too. Nolte said he intends to support the new Chamber President/CEO however needed.

"I want to be very sensitive to the fact that this is going to be their opportunity, just like I had," he said.

He thinks the Chamber is much stronger today than it was 37 years ago – but Nolte doesn´t take the credit.

"That´s not my doing alone. It has to do with many things: our staff over the years, our community partners. Economically, our Chamber and City are much stronger today. But, the issues that we face as we become larger are more challenging," he said. "Our continued success will depend on the way we handle those challenges with our partners. Whether it´s the staff, our partners or the membership, I always believe it has to do with setting expectations and building relationships with people."

A quote Nolte heard years ago sums up his management philosophy over his 40-plus year career in the Chamber industry: The factor in determining success is the "we," not the "I."

"I hope I´ll be remembered for the we,´" he said.

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