Craig Weiss receives Distinguished Alumni Award

Craig Weiss honed his leadership and entrepreneurial skills with nearly 35 years in the banking industry. A 1983 graduate of MSUM, he served on the founding executive teams of two banking organizations and helped to grow them.

He is also the recipient of a 2022 MSUM Distinguished Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni at the peak of their professional careers and who have made significant contributions to their professional fields and communities.

Looking back, Weiss says there were many long days and sleepless nights.

“It was hard work, but if you like what you’re doing, it can be fun and certainly was challenging,” he says.

Weiss grew up in Crookston, Minn., where he enjoyed his business and accounting classes. That prompted him to seek an accounting degree in college.

“Whether you call it destiny or fate, (going to MSUM) set the groundwork for what became a successful career,” he says. “Going to Minnesota State University Moorhead was one of the best decisions of my life.”

During one of his accounting classes, the professor asked everyone to write a paragraph – an accounting footnote – at the end of each class. At the time, that assignment felt punitive but the exercise was beneficial.

“When you’re an accounting major, you don’t have an appreciation for the writing and speaking skills you need to function in the business world,” Weiss says. “It’s not only about the numbers. You need to be able to articulate what you know to be successful.”

Weiss also met his wife, Sarajane, at MSUM. They raised three sons and now enjoy the company of daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

After graduation, Weiss received his CPA designation and became a public accountant with what is now Eide Bailly. Two years later, he was recruited by a former supervisor to join First Bank System as a financial analyst. He moved into a position that Mark Anderson, another MSUM alumnus, had recently vacated.

That career change proved pivotal. When First Bank decided to sell off its rural banks, Anderson and a group of investors put together a deal to purchase a number of them. Weiss was hired as one of the first employees of what would become Community First Bankshares.

“I was fortunate to get in on the initial formation of the company,” Weiss said. “It would become one of the most interesting and challenging times of my life.”

Community First started with 21 locations in three states with the goal of bringing big-bank products to small rural banks. In 1991 the company became a public company through an initial public offering (IPO) and continued to acquire. In total, the company acquired approximately 40 banks with 130 locations and 50 insurance companies. By the early 2000s, the company had approximately $6 billion in assets with 155 locations across 12 states and 2,500 employees. It was among the top 100 banks in the country and made the Forbes 500 list.

“We had so many good people there who have gone on to have successful careers at other companies,” Weiss said. “It was a great company. It provided a lot of challenging opportunities for people to do well.”

Weiss’s career grew along with the company; he eventually became its chief financial officer and executive vice president. In 2004, Community First Bankshares was acquired by BNP Paribas, one of the largest financial institutions globally.

A few months later, Weiss and other former Community First executives raised capital with the intent to acquire regional banks. They acquired bank groups in the Brainerd/Baxter and Alexandria areas of Minnesota and started de novo banking locations in Fargo and Bismarck in North Dakota under the name BlackRidge Financial.

Between 2005 and 2019, they grew the company to 11 offices that managed approximately $800 million in assets. BlackRidge was acquired in 2019.

“Looking back, I can’t believe all we accomplished,” he says. “Making the decision to come to MSUM and the contacts it provided, set in motion a very fulfilling and successful career.”

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