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Wall Street Journal lauds Bay City native

Dan Florness actually had hoped to play euchre with friends the day former Ellsworth High School classmate Paul Solyntjes talked him into attending a career fair at UW-River Falls.

Florness remembers having had a great conversation about hockey when the recruiter with the international accounting firm of Peat Marwick brought the discussion back to Florness' future and offered him an internship. The move shaped his career and helped bring him to his position as a key executive in a $3 billion publicly held company.

Florness, 48, son of Adeline and the late Ken Florness of Bay City, shared his life story with students at UW-River Falls last Tuesday as "Executive in Residence," a daylong visit hosted by the College of Business and Economics.

Florness drew national attention recently when he was named among the Wall Street Journal's Top 10 Chief Financial Officers -- a distinction linked to his somewhat unique role with Fastenal as both executive vice-president and CFO.

"I'm responsible for the checkbook" and asking the question -- "Do we have the cash to pull this off?" Florness explained to 200-plus business students, faculty and guests at an hour-long talk April 23 at the University Center.


He described Winona-based Fastenal as a "store-based industrial supplier -- a fancy way of saying we sell nuts and bolts."

Fastenal has grown 10-fold since Florness shelved a dream of moving to Chicago and, instead, accepted Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin's invitation to join the company 16 years ago.

Along with financial oversight, Florness is responsible for the property management associated with 2,600 retail stores in 20 countries, relationships with 4,000 suppliers, a fleet of 6,000 vehicles and semi-trailer, new product development and investor relations.

Florness is modest about his success, much of which he attributes to parents who inspired him to a habit of lifelong reading, independence fostered by growing up on a farm a mile from the nearest neighbor, a good education and exposure to farmers who are natural risk-takers.

"I was surrounded by entrepreneurs; people who took their life savings and dropped it in the ground every year, expecting it to grow," said Florness, paraphrasing investment guru Warren Buffett.

"My father had an insatiable appetite to read. When the newspaper arrived, he'd take an hour or two in the middle of the day and read it."

Florness said he regularly preaches to his four children "your life is tremendously influenced by those whom you spend time with every day. They can bring you up or bring you down. I had a good group of friends," he recalled.

The culture at Fastenal reflects the value system under which Florness was reared.

During his comments Tuesday, Florness projected an image of a card Fastenal employees carry with them that declares the firm's cultural values of ambition, innovation, integrity and teamwork.

As an organization, Fastenal "inherently trusts people," he said. There are no check-ups or corporate monitoring for compliance. Those who are found to have violated that trust are asked to leave.

Florness told students that may seem harsh, but it's simple, "and simple is good."

In a brief interview, he said was that sort of genuine caring for employees and ethical transparency that impressed him when Kierlin invited him to join the company in 1997. "If you don't have a moral compass, you don't have anything," Florness said.

Ellsworth influence

There were also many teachers and coaches in the Ellsworth school system who played a part in his success -- including his fourth-grade teacher Gladys Severson at Maiden Rock Elementary and fifth-sixth grade teacher Mel Manthey. The school closed soon after Dan moved to the Ellsworth Junior High, where he remembers math teacher Jack Tomhave as a positive influence.

Florness had some fun recently when he called Severson -- a Fastenal shareholder -- and invited her to read a resolution from the floor during Fastenal's annual meeting, held in one of the company's yawning truck bays.

It felt a bit disrespectful when he greeted her by her first name when he called to extend the invitation.

She countered, "Are you the Danny Florness who I had in the fourth grade?"

In the course of the day Tuesday, Florness several times referred to the influence of high school athletics on his success.

"I was a pretty mediocre athlete yet I was able to achieve some success in wrestling because I studied other athletes who were better. Surround yourself with people who are better -- not worse -- and enjoy life!"

Later, while encouraging students to take a hands-on mechanical class to "learn how things work," Florness volunteered that he once took an evening shop class at Ellsworth High, in part, to help him maintain his 138-pound wrestling weight.

Had he taken the bus home after practice, he'd have eaten too much.

Active in community

Although Florness spent two years living in New Jersey and traveling in a teaching role with Peat Marwick, he's never strayed too far from his Pierce County roots. He still owns about 65 the farm.

He has two sisters: Patricia (Ellsworth High School 1977) is a tax accountant in New Jersey and Cindy (EHS '74) is a computer consultant, living in New York City. A brother, Peter, died in an accidental drowning in 1980.

Dan and wife, Jennie, live at Winona with their four children; Peter (15), David (13), Daniel Jr. (9) and Anna (7).

Although much of their Pierce County acreage is rented out, Dan said they held onto a "few pieces of machinery so I can go there and play once in a while." His mother said he hopes to one day build a vacation home on the old farmstead.

His community involvement includes director seats on the Winona Community Foundation, Faith Lutheran Church in Winona and National Future Farmers of America and on alumni board of UW-River Falls.

Florness was gracious upon receiving two different commemorative plaques as acknowledgment for his participating in Tuesday's "Executive in Residence" program. He said he'd display them once his family again had a home of their own.

Early Jan. 24, the Flornesses lost their rural Winona home and most of their possessions in an early-morning fire.

The family and their pets escaped unharmed, but Dan said he walked away with only his pajamas, shoes, jacket and apparently his wallet, which he pulled from his hip pocket and opened to show off a card-sized laminated copy of the diploma awarded by the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in November 1986.

In remarks later to students, Florness included "going to the Poor House to send Junior to a country-club college" as one of his five "really dumb" financial moves that many people make, noting that he received a "great education at a great value" by attending UWRF.

Florness' tips for success

• Treat everyone with respect ... a smile, "thank you" and "you're welcome" really goes a long way toward making things a little better.

• Keep things simple. I've surrounded myself with people better than I am. Approach problems in the most simple way that you can. Don't get caught in the weeds.

• Have a plan and be open to change.

• With career preparation, take courses in finance and take a shop class to learn how things work. IT knowledge helps too. "You can't have enough!"

• Do at least one internship. Florness completed two; one with Cenex at Wisconsin Dells and the second, with Peat Marwick, that paved the way to Fastenal. "Sometimes luck occurs because you put yourself in the position to get lucky."