Evolution of a CEO

Grand Forks native and UND alumna Sally Smith advises aspiring business students to be curious and never stop learning

Sally Smith

Today, UND alumna Sally Smith is CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, which Business Insider named 2015’s fastest growing chain restaurant in the United States. Photo by Shawna Schill.

When Grand Forks, N.D., native and University of North Dakota alumna Sally Smith first started working for a small chain of college bars that served chicken wings, she had two young children and planned on working part-time.

“That’s what the original plan was, and that lasted about a month. The rest—well, it was kind of history,” said Smith with a laugh. “I was their CFO (chief financial officer) and when the guy they hired to be CEO didn’t show up, they said well, I guess you’re going to have to do it. And that is how I became CEO.”

Today Smith is still running the business, one that Business Insider named 2015’s fastest growing chain restaurant in the United States—Buffalo Wild Wings.

Following graduation from UND in 1979, a business administration degree in hand in addition to being a CPA, Smith accepted a position with Peat Marwick and Mitchell—a public accounting firm in Minneapolis now known as KPMG. After almost four years of working in taxes and accounting, Smith was offered a job at Dahlberg Inc., a manufacturer and franchisor of Miracle Ear hearing aids and hearing aid centers. In the 11 years she worked there, Dahlberg grew from $9 million dollars in sales to more than $125 million. As the company accelerated, so did Smith’s career.

Four years into her tenure, she was named Dahlberg Inc.’s CFO.

Sally Smith

Smith recently spoke to a packed house as the keynote speaker at the 2016 UND College of Business & Public Administration’s annual Mellem Business Symposium, held during Homecoming Week. Photo by Shawna Schill.

By 1994, Buffalo Wild Wings, then owned by the “two hungry guys,” Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, had grown from one tiny college bar established in 1982 to about 35 restaurants, mostly in Ohio. The partners wanted to expand, but needed money to make it happen. Disbrow turned to his father-in-law, Ken Dahlberg, founder of Dahlberg Inc., where Smith was employed.

A year earlier, Dahlberg sold his Miracle Ear business to Bausch & Lomb. Smith says once the company was sold, her experience as a CFO completely changed and she no longer enjoyed it as much as she had. So, she started looking for a different job and received a few different offers. One of those offers was a CFO position for Disbrow and Lowery’s chain that specialized in buffalo-style chicken wings.

“Calling my move from CFO at Miracle Ear to CFO at Buffalo Wild Wings a lateral move would have been stretching things a bit,” said Smith, with a smile. “As Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,’ A lot of people didn’t see the restaurant business as an opportunity. It’s your first job—or a last resort. I think a lot of things that don’t seem like something at the beginning, turn into something.

“As important as it is that you see that opportunity, it’s as important to seize it because you’ll see opportunities pass by if you don’t jump in and be a part of that.”

Smith didn’t let an opportunity with the small college-bar chain slide by. She has served as the president and CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, and its current make-up of 1,200 restaurants, for 20 years.

Smith recently was selected to be the keynote speaker at the 2016 UND College of Business & Public Administration’s annual Mellem Business Symposium, held during Homecoming Week.

More than 400 students, staff, faculty and community member showed up to hear Smith speak.

“My first thing I always say is be curious and never stop learning,” Smith said. “Your education doesn’t end at the University of North Dakota or when you graduate and walk off of campus. “What UND does for you is it teaches you to learn throughout your life. So learn, and be curious.”

Averi Haugesag
UND College of Business & Public Administration