Be Curious and Never Stop Learning


Averi Haugesag

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Business & Public Administration


UND CoBPA Alumna/ President & CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, Sally Smith, speaks at annual Mellem Symposium.

When Grand Forks, N.D. native and University of North Dakota Alumna, Sally Smith first started working for a small chain of college bars that served chicken wings, she had two young children and planned on working part-time.

“That’s what the original plan was, and that lasted about a month. The rest—well, it was kind of history,” said Smith with a laugh. “I was their CFO and when the guy they hired to be CEO didn’t show up, they said well, I guess you’re going to have to do it. And that is how I became CEO.”

CEO of what Business Insider named 2015’s fastest growing chain restaurant in the United States—Buffalo Wild Wings.

Lateral Moves

Following graduation from the University of North Dakota in 1979 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and accounting as well as earning her CPA, Smith accepted a position with Peat Marwick and Mitchell—a public accounting firm in Minneapolis now known as KPMG. After almost four years of working in accounting and tax, Smith was offered a job at Dahlberg Inc., a manufacturer and franchisor of hearing aids and hearing aid centers. In the elven years she worked there, Dahlberg grew from $9 million dollars in sales to over $125 million. As the company accelerated, so did Smith’s career. Four years into her tenure, she was named Dahlberg Inc.’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

By 1994, Buffalo Wild Wings, then owned by the “two hungry guys,” Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, had grown from one tiny college bar established in 1982 to about 35 restaurants, mostly in Ohio. The partners wanted to expand, but needed money to make it happen. Disbrow turned to his father-in-law, Ken Dahlberg, who happened to be the founder of Dahlberg Inc., where Smith was employed. A year earlier, Dahlberg had sold his Miracle Ear business to Bausch & Lomb. Smith says once the company was sold, her experience as a CFO completely changed and she no longer enjoyed it as much as she once had. So, she started looking for a different job and received a few different offers—one of those offers, the CFO position for a certain small chain of college bars that happened to serve buffalo-style chicken wings.

“Calling my move from CFO at Miracle Ear to CFO at Buffalo Wild Wings a lateral move would have been stretching things a bit,” said Smith with a smile. “As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” said Smith. “A lot of people didn’t see the restaurant business as an opportunity. It’s your first job—or a last resort. I think a lot of things that don’t seem like something at the beginning, turn into something. As important as it is that you see that opportunity, it’s as important to seize it because you’ll see opportunities pass by if you don’t jump in and be a part of that,” said Smith.

Smith didn’t let an opportunity with a small college bar that served chicken wings slide by—this October, she will have served as the President & CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, a chain of 12,000 restaurants, for 20 years.

2016 Mellem Symposium

This year, Smith was selected to be the Keynote speaker at the UND College of Business & Public Administration’s annual Mellem Symposium.

The Mellem Business Symposium is named in honor of College of Business & Public Administration (CoBPA) alumni, Ken ‘70 and JoAnn ‘67 Mellem. The mission is to educate students the necessary skills to excel in business, government, and society. This symposium provides a forum to discuss timely topics with the campus community and business leaders in the region.

“It’s an honor and privilege to come and speak,” said Smith. As a graduate of the College herself, Smith said she was just, “kind of in awe coming back.”

“If someone could take away even one little nugget from what I had to say today, that made it worth it,” said Smith.

With more than 400 student, staff, faculty and community member attendees, Smith says there’s two things she hopes audience members took from her presentation.

“If you’re a business student, I hope you realize that you’re getting a great education at the University of North Dakota,” said Smith. “(But) my first thing I always say is be curious and never stop learning. Your education doesn’t end at the University of North Dakota or when you graduate and walk off of campus. What UND does for you is you learn how to learn throughout your life. So learn, and be curious.”