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Gary Tharaldson speaks to students at the University of Mary south of Bismarck Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

'I love what I do:' ND businessman Gary Tharaldson still building hotels at 72

BISMARCK—In the opening pages of the new biography of Gary Tharaldson, the North Dakotan whose name was synonymous with business success faces failure.

"I'm going to have to declare bankruptcy," he told the chief operating officer of Tharaldson Hospitality Management in 2012, according to the new book written by Patrick McCloskey and published by University of Mary Press.

Described by Forbes as North Dakota's richest man, Tharaldson is known for building and acquiring hotels across the country. But he was hit by the recession, and lawsuits involving his employee stock ownership plan lingered over his head.

But Tharaldson avoided bankruptcy and those two lawsuits were later settled. Speaking before a book launch event at the University of Mary south of Bismarck Tuesday, Jan. 23, he said he's still building 20 hotels every 15 months and is in the process of setting up another employee stock ownership plan. At 72, he's still having a good time.

"Will I be building them when I'm 85 and 90? Probably," Tharaldson said. "I love what I do."

The book, "Open Secrets of Success," is largely a glowing portrayal of the hospitality mogul. It was given to students attending the business school that bears his name at the University of Mary, where he has been a major benefactor.

The book also notes Tharaldson's run-in with Donald Trump, the celebrity businessman who would later win the presidency. Trump contacted Tharaldson about making his Las Vegas golf course a Trump International course, but it never happened.

"It was close, before the downturn," Tharaldson said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, who penned the book's foreword and traced his relationship with Tharaldson to his days as the state's tourism director, said Tharaldson's vouching for Trump's character helped him decide to endorse the presidential candidate.

"Gary is just genuinely humble," Cramer said. "He was legend for being generous with his employees."

A native of the small town of Dazey, N.D., Tharaldson started as a teacher before selling insurance. He bought his first two hotels in 1982, and by 2005 he had built and bought more than 400, according to McCloskey's book.

Forbes lists Tharaldson's net worth at $900 million.

McCloskey said Tharaldson introduced a number of innovations into the industry, such as locating the laundry room behind the hotel front desk, allowing employees to complete another task during slow periods.

In 2008, his ethanol plant near Casselton, N.D., was built. He said Tuesday that business there is doing well, and they plan to produce about 168 million gallons of ethanol this year following an expansion.

But Tharaldson has also experienced recent personal tragedy. One of his sons, Michael, died last month of natural causes at the age of 48, according to an obituary. Tharaldson said it was something "that shouldn't happen, but it did."

Tharaldson moved back to North Dakota full-time from Las Vegas about a year and a half ago, but he doesn't plan to build more hotels here.

"I need a city of 250,000 (people) or more," he said. "I will have my company here that runs them. I'll always be a major employer in North Dakota."

As for his other love, softball, Tharaldson said he's "debating" whether to play this year "only because my team is out in Las Vegas and I'm here."

"It's getting harder to do," he added.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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