Around 800 to 900 requests for donations arrive on Hal Gershman’s desk each year. They come not only from the North Dakota cities of Fargo and Grand Forks, where Gershman’s five Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops are located, but they trickle in from across the state as well, hailing from rural areas located as far as 150 miles away. And while Gershman can’t oblige every request he receives, he’s made it his mission to support as many communities as possible, both through his personal foundation—the Hal & Kathleen Gershman Family Foundation—and in his capacity as the president and chairman of the board at Happy Harry’s. “I don’t believe that it’s enough just to pay your taxes,” Gershman says. “If you’re fortunate enough to have wonderful people that work with you, as well as the loyalty of consumers, then it’s incumbent upon you to give more back.”
For his dedication to serving communities local and afar, Hal Gershman has been honored with the 2018 Market Watch Leaders Community Service Award.
Art Hits Home
At the heart of Gershman’s charitable contributions lies the Empire Arts Center, a nonprofit performing arts facility in Grand Forks. Gershman, who was originally named a Market Watch Leader in 1990, and his wife, Kathleen, were instrumental in getting the Empire off the ground. Kathleen was the first to propose that an old movie theater in town be converted into a community arts space, and the couple hosted a number of fundraising receptions in their home in the months leading up to the renovation, ultimately fielding over $1 million for the cause. “We really wanted to provide a performing arts space for the region,” Gershman says. “Now, the North Dakota Ballet Company and the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra perform at the Empire, and it features a theater company that’s not volunteer—we pay our actors, directors, and producers, and we’re very proud that we do so.”
The Gershmans also collaborate with the University of North Dakota on the Empire’s lobby, which doubles as an art gallery. “The university has an incredible art collection, which no one really knew about,” Gershman says. “They’ve got Rembrandt, Warhol, Daumier, and more. We decided to work with them to turn our lobby into a world-class art space, changing what’s on view two or three times a year and having it available to the community for free.”
While the Gershmans regularly donate to the Empire through their personal foundation, contributing a total of $15,400 in 2017, Happy Harry’s also actively supports the Empire via a variety of sponsored events. One such function is the annual Happy Harry’s-sponsored golf tournament, which exclusively benefits the center and features a silent auction that includes rare, top-shelf spirits, courtesy of the retailer. The tournament generally yields around $35,000 for the Empire each year.
Additionally, Happy Harry’s provides beverages for the Empire’s annual dinner-dance fundraising event, which presents live music by the Philadelphia-based James Gerard Orchestra and welcomes around 400 guests annually. Between donations from various businesses—including Happy Harry’s—and his family foundation, Gershman estimates that the dinner-dance, which is now in its fourth year, raised an additional $75,000 for the Empire in 2018.
Gershman’s arts-centric donations aren’t limited to the Empire, though; through Happy Harry’s, he also supports organizations like the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. At the museum’s annual Spring Gala, Happy Harry’s provides some 80-plus wines for an extensive walk-around tasting—one of the largest of its kind in the region.
The Bottle Shops also support such arts-minded nonprofits and events as the Fargo Film Festival, the Hillsboro Museum Wine Dinner, and the Jamestown Art Center, among countless others. While Gershman’s affinity for the arts is influenced in part by his family—his daughter is an actress, writer, and director—he also has a deep admiration for the skills of live performers. “I go to the theater and I’m so moved by the people on stage,” he says. “The level of talent performers have and their ability to get in front of an audience and deliver is amazing.”
In total, Happy Harry’s contributed nearly $150,000 to 96 charitable organizations and sponsored community events in 2017. “We support a lot of organizations in the small towns around us,” Gershman says. “We’ll go over a hundred miles from our locations to support arts organizations and fundraising dinners for different nonprofits in these smaller communities, because without the business from those communities, we wouldn’t do much business at all.”
Kids Come First
Youth-focused organizations are also of major importance to Gershman, though he primarily supports such groups personally or through his family foundation and not via Happy Harry’s. “We don’t support the youth groups through the Bottle Shops because we don’t want to commingle alcohol with schools,” he explains. One of Gershman’s most enduring annual contributions is to the local school system’s music program. Normally, students have to provide or rent their own instruments. “There are a lot of kids that can’t afford to do that, so my wife and I buy instruments for those students,” he says. “It’s like a scholarship for them; we provide violins, trumpets, and whatever the school district needs.” In 2017, Hal and Kathleen personally donated $35,000 to the Grand Forks Foundation for Education, enabling low-income students to participate in the music program.
Through his family foundation—which was established in 2008—Gershman contributed a total of $192,633 last year, with funds going to such local, youth-oriented organizations as the Northern Valley Youth Orchestras and the Grand Forks Foundation for Education, and to operations as far-reaching as the Fontbonne Academy in Milton, Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C.-based Youth for Understanding USA.
From 2000 to 2014, Gershman served as a Grand Forks City Councilor, and the position came to inform many of his philanthropic missions. “I learned a lot from the city council,” he says. “I was able to see the effects of funneling federal, state, or local money into causes that ultimately made a difference for people, and it was so satisfying to watch. The best part of that job was being able to make a difference in someone’s life.”
Early on in his tenure, Gershman helped push through a major initiative that set aside funding for the arts and for special events, allocating $100,000 to each. “Not everyone has a lake home they can go to in the summertime,” he says. “So we developed local, free events that people can attend in the summer, and they remain in place to this day.”
While serving as city councilor, he also paid special attention to North Dakota’s immigrant community, and continues to do so as a private citizen through donations from his family foundation to organizations like the Global Friends Coalition, which fosters refugee integration in the Grand Forks community. “We have a growing immigrant population in Fargo and Grand Forks, and we’re working with them to understand our culture, and vice versa, and it’s interesting,” Gershman says. “I started an immigrant initiative on the council in response to that burgeoning community, and it’s still going today. We teach businesses how to understand cultural differences, and grow with them. We call it integration—not immersion, or assimilation. It’s important that these immigrant families keep their culture, even as they make North Dakota home.”
Framework For The Future
Though the 14-year city council stint took Gershman away from Happy Harry’s full time, he reflects that the separation enabled his employees to fully take up the reins. “My employees said that my being away helped them develop,” he says. “They couldn’t turn to me all the time because I was working 20-30 hours a week on city business.”
Such confidence in his employees, as well as his general affinity for giving back, is part of the reason Gershman began rolling out Happy Harry’s employee stock ownership plan in 2015. While he remains president and chairman of the board at the Bottle Shops, ownership of the company is now transferring to the employees. “We’re very proud of the plan,” Gershman says. “This is going to create wealth for our employees, and permanence and pride in the job.” He adds that since many of his employees have been with him for decades, they understand the importance of continuing on with charitable contributions, even after he’s retired. “My employees get it,” he says. “Together, we’ve created a business culture that thrives on giving back.”
As Gershman lays out a framework for the future of his business, he also remains dedicated to the fortunes of the local community. On September 19, he and Kathleen announced their single most substantial donation to date: $3 million for the restoration of the former University of North Dakota president’s home in Grand Forks. The funds, which are being matched by $1.5 million from the university, come directly from the Gershmans and not through their family foundation or the Bottle Shops. “My wife was a professor at the university for 34 years, and it’s made a big difference on our lives,” Gershman says. “This is one way to honor her service there.” Named The Gershman Graduate Engagement Center, the new building will serve as a facility for the university’s fast-growing graduate program. “This is significant for us,” Gershman adds. “It will have a sort of legacy effect for Kathleen and me.”
For now, Gershman is set to continue on as Happy Harry’s president and board chairman, all the while maintaining focus on where and when he can contribute next. “As a family, for three generations we’ve been very fortunate,” he says. “Everybody worked hard; no question about that. People know we’ve had some success, and they appreciate when something comes back to the community. It feels good to provide contributions, and it’s my belief that you always feel better giving than getting.”