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Published July 08, 2014, 12:01 PM

Business ‘visionary’ Bert Johnson dies

Bert Johnson was a prominent farmer, businessman and landowner in the northern Red River Valley and someone who never turned down the opportunity to make a deal.

By: Trent Opstedahl , Forum News Service

Bert Johnson was a prominent farmer, businessman and landowner in the northern Red River Valley and someone who never turned down the opportunity to make a deal.

If there was any kind of business deal on the table, Johnson wasn’t afraid to take it, likely leading to his involvement in founding Choice Financial Group, which now has 15 locations in eastern North Dakota including two locations in Grand Forks, according to family and friends.

Johnson died Sunday at the Pembina County Memorial Hospital in Cavalier, N.D., at age 77.

Though making deals was a big part of his life, Johnson’s foremost passion was farming.

“He loved soil and the land,” Sandy Crary, Johnson’s daughter, says. “He loved to say he was a farmer more than anything.

He and his wife, Betty Lynn, raised four children and lived in Walhalla, N.D., for several years. She died in 1998. Johnson then married Sandra Gendreau.

In his lifetime, Johnson embarked on numerous business endeavors and was involved in several communities in the region.

In 2001, Johnson helped oversee the merger of four community banks to create Choice Financial Group, which today boasts assets nearing $900 million.

Brian Johnson, CEO of Choice Financial and Johnson’s nephew, said Johnson’s optimism is what made the merger so successful.

“He was instrumental in getting us off the ground,” he says. “He was a believer that banks made the community stronger.”

Landowner

Having a strong family history in farming, Tom Campbell, chairman of the bank’s board of directors, says Johnson developed the institution’s roots in agriculture banking.

“He always wanted to see people succeed in farming,” Campbell says. “I don’t remember him ever turning down a loan.”

Inheriting about 480 acres of farmland from his father, Russell, Johnson began making land deals in 1959 to build up Johnson Farms, which today operates more than 100,000 acres of land in the state according to his son, Al Johnson.

“We just hope we can carry on his legacy,” says Al Johnson, who has worked at the farms his entire life.

Paul Sproule, Johnson’s son-in-law, operates a potato farm and said his father-in-law taught him a lot about farming.

“He was a very entrepreneurial visionary,” he says. “He’s been a big influence to a number of people.”

Involved with several land deals in Grand Forks, Johnson built up a hefty portfolio of property deeds throughout the years, resulting in him and his family to become one of the largest land owners in southern Grand Forks — much of which is now being sold for housing developments.

Tim Crary, owner of Prudential Crary Real Estate and Johnson’s son-in-law, has been the primary developer of the land and worked closely with Johnson.

“He could see a possibility in something like other people just couldn’t,” Tim Crary says. “He said the worst kind of deal he made was not making deals.”

Funeral services for Johnson will be held Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Walhalla Lutheran Church.

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