Header photo: (left to right) Amy Ebensteiner, Erv Inniger, Katie Thorlakson, Staci Holt.
Erv Inniger greets everyone when he walks into Choice Financial in Fargo. He walks up to each desk, looks you in the eye, and says, “Good morning! How are you today?”
“But he doesn’t just ask how you are,” Trevor Matthew, Marketing and Data Specialist, said. “He looks into your soul.”
Amy Ebensteiner, Staci Holt, and Katie Thorlakson, also friends of Erv through working at Choice Financial, laugh knowingly.
“He just makes you feel at home. It doesn’t matter if you’re a customer or an employee that he’s known for 5 minutes or 50 years,” Amy said. “He truly cares about you.”
Meanwhile, over the phone, Erv pipes in from where he is on vacation in Florida.
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me!”
Everyone bursts out laughing. Erv is known for his jokes, like holding his hand too high for Amy’s high-fives and making her jump, or poking fun at Staci — always with a twinkle in his eye.
“He always seems to have a comeback,” Staci said.
“That’s because you make it so easy!” Erv shot back, laughing.
It’s classic Erv, they say; a fun-loving jokester with a heart of gold. It’s part of his character that has carried him throughout a varied and successful career. As men’s basketball coach of the NDSU Bison for 33 years, Erv became the all-time winningest coach with a 244-150 record. He then went on to serve as NDSU’s senior associate athletic director, where he raised scholarship endowments from $356,000 to more than $10.5 million.
In 2008, he was asked to join the board at Choice Financial — a request he took very seriously.
“I interviewed them more than they interviewed me,” he said. “When I join a company, I want them to have the same principles that I do. When I chose to accept the role with Choice, it was because of the culture.”
At Choice Financial, Erv saw a commitment to putting PeopleFirst that matched his own. Values such as, “Do the right thing,” and “Be kind, be helpful and be passionate,” spoke to his own life philosophy.
“I always say, one thing that’s always meaningful to do, is telling people they’re important,” he said. “And sometimes that doesn’t mean saying it. Sometimes you have to show it.”
The team at Choice Financial can testify to the many ways Erv shows people they’re important. As Trevor said, “Erv deserves a nomination every day.” But in February, on Giving Hearts Day, Erv really raised the bar.
The idea was born when Erv was brainstorming little ways he could make peoples’ day. Something like… coffee! Most of the Choice team has a Starbucks special they love, and Erv decided it would be the perfect surprise treat. Coincidentally, Giving Hearts Day was just around the corner. He quickly recruited Amy to help him take the orders.
“He didn’t just order a box of coffee,” Amy said. “He had me go around and take everyone’s personal order. Extra whip, no whip, two shots, what size — he took it all down.”
Erv delivered the list to Starbucks the day before so they would have plenty of time to prepare the drinks. The next morning, he went early and picked them up: 46 individual coffees made to order and listed by name. Erv personally delivered each one, accompanied by Amy and Executive Director of Corporate Relations, Lisa Artz.
“I really feel that you don’t need to do a lot of big things in life — little things mean a lot to people,” he said. “That was the motivation behind it more than anything else. It was such fun to see everybody so happy.”
Because it was Giving Hearts Day, Erv also paired the coffee with boxes of Sandy’s donuts he bought to support the Jail Chaplains non-profit, who received a cut of every dozen that day to assist in their Giving Hearts Day efforts. Needless to say, it was a joyful morning at the Choice Financial Fargo office.
Then again, friends of Erv say it’s always joyful when he’s around.
“There’s really no one word you can use for Erv — he inspires you to be your best every day,” Staci said. “And being around great people and great leaders like Erv makes a positive impact in my life.”
Over the phone, a loud sound came from Erv’s microphone.
“Are you okay Erv?” Staci asked.
“No, I just fainted!” he said, laughing. “That was really nice.”
His joking is light-hearted, but his commitment and love for the Choice team make an impact on those who have known him for years, and those who have known him only for a few days. Katie, who recently joined the team, recalls how Erv remembered her name and background after just one introduction. And anyone who calls his voicemail catches his contagious joy —particularly with his famous closing line, “Have a great day — It’s your choice!”
Erv, of course, turns the praise right back towards his team.
“I believe in our people so much,” he said. “They’re really special to me. With things like the coffee surprise… well, I just hope it makes their day as much as they make mine.”