Rick Harding has an interesting office vantage point. Looking through the south-facing window in his office on the second floor of the Northbank Professional Building, he can see the Mississippi River flowing serenely (at this time of year, anyway) past his building, the library and the KAXE studio.
Rick earned a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. His first job was with Minnesota Power in Superior, Wisconsin and Eveleth, Minnesota. From there he moved to Eveleth Taconite and Malton Electric. He lived in in Hibbing during the 1970s while working as a project manager for Malton Electric. He commuted to Grand Rapids to work on Blandin Paper Company’s No. 5 paper machine project in 1974-75.
“I’ve had the good fortune to be able to earn a living in places I wanted to live,” said Rick. “After working at Malton Electric for three years, I bought Thompson Electric in Hibbing. Our projects included Blandin Wood Products Company (producers of Blandex, oriented strand board,) and the Blandin Paper Company power plant which was started up in the early 1980s.
“While living in Hibbing and spending a lot of time in Grand Rapids, I realized what a unique community Grand Rapids is,” Rick added. “Hibbing is a nice community, but there were things about Grand Rapids that ultimately made moving here an easy decision choice for Vicky and me,” continued Rick. “Grand Rapids is the county seat; Itasca Community College is here; the Reif Center and the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program are here. There is a mix of industry here—mining as well as forest products and a variety of service industry; and plenty of lakes and rivers. We fell in love with Trout Lake on the Wabana lake chain, and that ultimately led us to buy a cabin there.”
Verta Corporation, one of five businesses Rick founded, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Verta services permanent rooftop building maintenance units (BMUs) for tall office buildings from Toronto to San Diego and from Seattle to Atlanta. These services include periodic safety and reliability maintenance, replacement parts supplies, annual inspections and certification, load testing, and operator training programs.
Verta Corporation’s 11 employees live throughout the northern Minnesota region. They rely on the Hibbing/Chisholm airport for access to the widely dispersed nationwide customer base.
“My son, Rick J., handles sales and manages our team of service technicians who live across the Range from Deer River to Hibbing,” said Rick. “As long as they can be at the airport in time for their flights, it doesn’t really matter where they live. Everyone has home offices.”
One of the challenges Rick faces is hiring people with the right training and skills to service the 80 installations of BMUs perched on skyscraping office buildings around North America. Another challenge is letting our regional colleges know when Verta is in hiring mode.
“The demands of servicing BMUs are similar to servicing elevators,” Rick explained. “We’re involved with electrical systems, interlock systems, complicated safety features and basic mechanical components.
“The people we’ve hired have a variety of backgrounds,” he continued. “We have ex-Navy electricians, a professional engineer, an electrical engineer and a couple of graduates of the Iron Range Engineering Program here at Itasca Community College.”
Rennix Corporation, one of four businesses Rick owns and operates that manage commercial office space, is 25 years old this year.
“When we moved to Grand Rapids in the ‘00s, and with Verta on an even keel,” said Rick, “I saw more opportunities to invest in property. My first foray into commercial property was the Grand Plaza building on Highway 169 east (which I later sold). I was helped by several people as I was getting started. Mike Ives introduced me to a number of people, and Bruce Ogle worked with me to creatively finance my purchase of his former grocery store building. Peter McDermott at Itasca Economic Development Corporation and Rob Mattei and Ed Zabinski at the Grand Rapids Economic Development Authority also were instrumental in identifying opportunities. I appreciated the good relationships with the groups and individuals who helped me achieve my goals.”
Over time, Rennix Corporation assembled properties in Grand Rapids by purchase or new construction: the Fastenal and Habitat for Humanity (formerly Ponsse) buildings on Highway 169; the 200 North Bank building (home of Grand Rapids’ newest restaurant); the Northbank Professional Building; and Block 37 (the cluster of buildings south of Highway 2 between Pokegama Avenue and First Avenue Northwest).
Rick’s plans for growth required financing, and Rick tipped his hat to Noah Wilcox, GRSB president and CEO. “Noah made an effort to seek me out and ask for my business,” said Rick. “I respected that overture, and I’ve appreciated the banking relationship we have since developed with Grand Rapids State Bank.”
Rick enjoys managing his business portfolio, although he is the first to admit that not everything he’s attempted has worked out perfectly. As an entrepreneur, he knows that some ventures don’t succeed and accepts the risks that accompany investing in and starting up new businesses.
Rick and his office support crew are based in the Northbank Professional Building, a former grocery store (it was the National Tea grocery store and later Ogle’s IGA) he acquired in 2004 before repurposing it into a multi-user office building. Cory Jackson heads up the office team which handles administration for both Verta and the Rennix property companies. Rick’s youngest daughter, Libby, is part of the administrative crew.
In addition to business management, Rick and his wife, Vicky, love to travel. In addition, Rick is a community volunteer. His most recent work has been with Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI), a nonprofit whose mission is to serve people with disabilities by offering inclusive employment opportunities and services. Rick recently completed a two-year term as board chair. His interest in helping work with organizations that serve developmentally disabled people stems from serving on the board of the Range Center in Chisholm which provided services for his daughter, Kathy. Rick has volunteered with similar organizations in Hibbing, Afton (where they also lived) and now Grand Rapids.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” said Rick, “and serving on boards of non-profits like MDI is a small way of returning something to the communities in which we live. It’s an important part of my life.”