Business Inspiration How North Dakota's Richest Man Is Building His Second $1 Billion Empire -- At 69

Tharaldson is a driven, shrewd cost-cutter. In March 2006 he sold a portfolio of 130 hotels in a variety of chains to Goldman Sachs for $1.2 billion.

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Even for a former gym teacher from Dazey, North Dakota, 69-year-old hotel magnate and billionaire Gary Tharaldson is pretty unpretentious.

Tell the richest man in the state that you’re flying in to visit him at his Fargo headquarters and he’ll offer to fetch you himself, rolling up in his red Cadillac crossover and wearing his everyday work uniform of shorts and a sport shirt. Cruising along one of Fargo’s main drags, he’ll frown at all of the undeveloped land–potential competition for the existing hotels (even though they aren’t his).

“He’s beyond down-to-earth–he’s almost subterranean,” says Bruce White, a successful Marriott franchisee who has known Tharaldson since they both started in the hotel business in the early 1980s.

Tharaldson is a driven, shrewd cost-cutter. In March 2006 he sold a portfolio of 130 hotels in a variety of chains to Goldman Sachs for $1.2 billion. Six months later he sold the Westward Ho Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which he’d owned for only a few months, to Harrah’s at a profit of $109 million.

“Real estate was going crazy in Las Vegas back then,” he says.

Not long after, it cratered. Those sales capped an empire-building effort that began in 1982 when Tharaldson bought a Super 8 motel in Valley City, N.D. He added other low-end hotels and then moved into “limited service” business-suite hotels (no room service, no restaurants), eventually operating more than 350 across the country.

Almost immediately after his massive windfall–with only a brief time-out to head to the 2006 NCAA men’s basketball final in Indianapolis–Tharaldson, then 60, started on his next act.

“I wondered what I’d do with the money and if it would change me,” he recalls. In his Fargo office, looking over projections for his current enterprises, he says, “I think it didn’t.”

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