ARTHUR, North Dakota — The last time Doug Burgum took such a colossal risk, the software company he bought into by borrowing money against his family’s farm eventually turned into a billion-dollar deal with Microsoft that would seed his venture into politics.
Now a two-term North Dakota governor, Burgum has something even more audacious in mind. He’s running for president in a Republican primary field that this week gained another popular two-term governor — one with a much higher profile: Florida’s Ron DeSantis.
Burgum, who is expected to launch his campaign in the coming weeks, would enter the race somewhere between afterthought and asterisk. One poll this week placed him at 1%, far behind DeSantis and front-running former President Donald Trump.
The challenges and doubts he faced 40 years ago when he bet the farm on software aren’t unlike those Burgum, 66, faces today. Back then, there were more competitors and fewer customers than he had realized. Burgum wrestled with those parallels this week before leading a tour to the small rural town in which he grew up where his family has operated a grain elevator since 1906.
“The number of competitors in some ways was noise, because some were good, some were bad, some were whatever,” Burgum, riding shotgun in an SUV, said in an interview with NBC News — his first since his interest in a White House bid became known. “The signal was that software was going to change the world. So I had the signal right.”
Burgum’s probable candidacy follows DeSantis’ struggles to assert himself as the GOP’s strongest alternative to Trump. Undeterred by a field that could soon grow even wider, Burgum has begun assembling a staff and collecting video footage that could be used for ads that the multimillionaire said he is prepared to self-fund.
“I’ve always had my own skin in the game,” Burgum said. “I’ve always felt like I would never ask others to invest if I weren’t always investing.”
Though he sidestepped questions about his would-be rivals, he made clear his message would differ from theirs and that he sees a path for himself by focusing less on culture war grievances and more on the economy, energy policy and national security.
“Everything else,” he said, “gets better if we solve those problems.”
And Burgum — who hands out medallions bearing the seal of North Dakota and a promise of gratitude and humility — consciously or not presented several sharp contrasts with the combative DeSantis.
Both governors recently signed legislation banning abortion at six weeks and restricting the rights of transgender people in their states. And both have veto-proof GOP majorities in their legislatures. But Burgum doesn’t ordinarily emphasize such topics, while DeSantis championed a bill that banned teaching gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms up to third grade — legislation that critics branded the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Cultural issues can be handled by states, and they can be handled by school boards and local libraries and city commissions,” Burgum said. “And there are certain things that the federal government has to focus on, and that’s what our campaign is going to be about.”
At another point, Burgum recalled his defense of masks during the height of the pandemic as a plea for empathy at a time when the country had “devolved into a little bit of neighbors fighting neighbors.” (DeSantis once mocked students for wearing masks at a news conference.) Burgum also bragged about North Dakota’s youthful population gains — a testament, he said, to young families finding opportunity in the state. (DeSantis often brags about Florida being the warm-weather destination of choice for elderly retirees.)
Burgum prefers fashionably dark jeans to slacks and talks passionately about architecture and urban planning. From the rooftop patio of the Fargo development firm he founded, he offered a virtual tour of the city’s downtown, pointing out where power lines had been moved underground and how parking areas could be built to make better use of retail and residential space.
While riding between Fargo and Arthur, he described himself as the kind of traditional pro-business, anti-regulation Republican that thrived more before Trump’s takeover of the party. Even so, he resisted any urge to draw more explicit distinctions and over nearly four hours never mentioned Trump.
“You wouldn’t enter a market as someone with 0% market share and lead off with criticism of the others,” he said, acknowledging his lack of name-recognition. “You basically have to make the case as to why people should pay attention, why people should invest some time in getting to understand what the alternatives are.”
Arthur, population 328, is little more than a half-hour drive from Fargo and takes up but a dusty 1.5 square miles.
Burgum’s family has controlled the grain elevator that towers over Main Street since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. It remains, after all these years, the centerpiece of a business portfolio that has ranged from the area’s first electric company to the modern advent of Big Green Egg grills and smokers.
Early on, Burgum shared his family’s entrepreneurial spirit while also asserting his independence. Drawn by the mystique of the outdoors, he spent two months hitchhiking to and around Alaska in the summer after his sophomore year at North Dakota State.
Senior year, with energy costs rising, he borrowed a friend’s red 1947 Chevy pickup and started a chimney-sweeping service that brought in at least $40 per job. A local newspaper published photos of him scrambling around rooftops in a top hat and tuxedo, looking like Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins.” Impressed by his hustle, one of Burgum’s professors encouraged him to apply to business schools.
“I did not know what an MBA was,” Burgum said. “Like, in February of my senior year, I never had heard of it.”
Each of the six schools he applied to accepted him, Burgum added. He recalled choosing Stanford because “the brochure had palm trees on it,” and he later learned that the photos of him cleaning chimneys that he had included in his application packet had clinched his admission.
It was there, in the gateway to Silicon Valley, where he met Steve Ballmer, who would soon drop out of Stanford to join Microsoft, where he would later become CEO and preside over the company’s 2001 acquisition of Burgum’s Great Plains Software Inc.
Few could see that $1.1 billion stock deal coming in the early 1980s when Burgum made his initial investment in the Fargo-based company, which specialized in accounting software for small businesses.
“What’s software?” cousin Rick Burgum, a longtime executive with the family’s Arthur-based companies, recalled wondering at the time.
Burgum plowed ahead. Soon other relatives, flush from the recent sale of a seed company, joined him as investors and bought out Great Plains from the original owners. Skeptics remained, and Burgum received plenty of puzzled looks as he worked to grow his business in Fargo — a backwater compared to the bubbling tech scenes in Seattle and Silicon Valley.
“You sound like an oyster fisherman trying to get a loan in Kansas City,” Burgum recalled Alan Greenspan, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, telling him at a conference.
Over time, the location became an easier icebreaker. “Fargo” — the 1996 film by Ethan and Joel Coen — became an instant classic with regional colloquialisms like “You betcha” and darkly comic beats that included the use of a wood-chipper to dispose of a body. The movie landed around the same time that Burgum was preparing to take Great Plains through an initial public stock offering, and he couldn’t get through a meeting with prospective investors without someone asking whether it had accurately captured life in the upper Midwest.
It got to the point where “one of us would say, ‘Yeah we don’t even have paper-shredders in the office — we just use wood-chippers,’” Burgum said.
But the meetings were successful. Great Plains enjoyed a strong stock market debut. And by the time Ballmer and Microsoft swooped in a few years later, Great Plains had annual revenue of about $195 million and a staff of more than 2,000, Marino Eccher wrote in “Vistas and Visions: Microsoft in Fargo,” an e-book published in 2011 by The Forum, a local newspaper. Burgum stayed with the company for several years as a senior vice president. The company still maintains a large campus in Fargo.
“People said you cannot build a software company in Fargo,” Burgum said. “So many times in my life … the risk that I’ve taken has been something where people said it can’t be done.”
Defying conventional wisdom
Until he began angling to be governor, politics had been more of a behind-the-scenes game for Burgum. His late mother, Katherine Kilbourne Burgum, was Republican National Committee member in the late 1960s, and Burgum recalls passing out her buttons — “K’s OK” — at a 1968 convention. He also served as student government president at North Dakota State.
Many doubted that Burgum would succeed. He entered the 2016 race a severe long-shot, trailing badly in polls and watching the GOP establishment coalesce around a sitting attorney general. But he spent big time on the trail — making efforts to visit any town of more than 1,000 people — and big money on his campaign, easily winning the primary and general election. He was re-elected by 40 points in 2020, beating his Democratic opponent by a larger margin than Trump beat President Joe Biden in the state.
Now eyeing a presidential race already dominated by Trump, himself a wealthy businessman, and DeSantis, who has strayed from traditional GOP orthodoxy by picking fights with private-sector giants like Disney, Burgum chose his words carefully when asked about both.
“I am not in a position to pass judgment on what other governors are doing or not doing,” Burgum said when asked about how DeSantis has talked about building a prison near Disney’s Florida theme park and other forms of retribution in a clash over LGBTQ issues. “I would say from my perspective, in North Dakota, coming from a business background, the folks that are willing to invest capital in our state, the folks that are creating the jobs in our state, the innovators and the entrepreneurs — that’s what’s driving our country forward.”
Burgum reserved his most pointed attacks for Biden, whom he called a “career politician for 50 years,” and whose policies he directly criticized as anti-business. He dodged, though, when asked why he doesn’t believe Trump should be nominated again in 2024
“The cool thing about elections in America is voters get to decide that,” he said. He added that he would back Trump if the former president wins the nomination.
“I will support anyone who’s not Joe Biden,” Burgum said.
While he has acknowledged self-funding his campaigns for governor, North Dakota filings available online don’t provide a full picture of how much Burgum contributed or loaned to the efforts. He also declined to say how much he might spend on a White House bid or how hard he plans to work a network of wealthy tech executives he’s known for years. Leaning into those connections carries risk, given that Burgum made his fortune in a Big Tech industry that today’s Republican Party has vilified. (Ballmer, who now owns the Los Angeles Clippers, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has spoken fondly of his relationship with Burgum, did not respond to requests for comment.)
“It might be a little early to talk about campaign finance questions,” Burgum said, noting that he is not an officially declared candidate.
He seemed eager, though, to once again test his entrepreneurial confidence.
“I’ve just gotten used to the idea of people saying, ‘Well, if you’re from North Dakota, if you’re from a rural state, if you’re from someplace where it isn’t the conventional wisdom, it can’t be done,’” Burgum said. “But conventional wisdom often is not the predictor of the future that’s coming next.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com