The year was 2001. Hector Santellanes is trying to make what some might call a difficult decision: Should he go back to school? He did, and little did he know it would be one of the smartest decisions he would ever make. At first, his main goal was to get an education so he could eventually hold some type of managerial position, but it did not take long for the hands-on learning opportunities at the University of Minnesota Crookston to open multiple doors that lead to the inspired businessperson and entrepreneur Santellanes is today. 

“UMC made a big difference in my life," he said. "It helped me prepare and provided the skills of leadership in management roles.”

Leading up to his decision to continue his education, Santellanes was always an exceptional worker. He described himself as “a man with great work ethic, but no education.” Santellanes found himself in many positions, putting in the hours and paying his dues, slowly but surely moving up the ranks but never quite finding himself where he thought he deserved to be, in management. At UMN Crookston, Santellanes earned his spot in numerous leadership roles, starting with the Golden Eagles football team all the way to becoming a Crookston City Council member. “UMC made a big difference in my life," he said. "It helped me prepare and provided the skills of leadership in management roles.”

As Santellanes describes, there were many stops along his pathway to success.

When college students attend a class, the idea is to pay attention, get a good grade (or at least a passing one), and get one step closer to earning a degree. For Santellanes, who would later graduate from UMN Crookston in 2005, attending class would land him projects and even jobs that impacted the entire Crookston community. One example was Local Foods, a course that required its students to contact growers in the area to find out their wants and needs. When those needs turned out to be in the areas of marketing and sales, that’s when Santellanes took on the position as coordinator of marketing and sales. It wasn’t long before Dining Services at UMN Crookston had some locally grown foods on their own menu. Another course that was taught by Santellanes’ mentor, Brent Sorenson, required a group project that sought the opinions and potential concerns of Crookston residents and local business owners on the construction of the new Walmart on the north end of town. Santellanes and his team identified the pros and cons of the major retail development project and how Walmart's arrival would affect the local and area economy. As a result of that project, to this day, Santellanes says, various economic developers in the area still drop him a line now and then, seeking his insights.

Another stop along his path to success was UMN Crookston's SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise), a club Santellanes joined while he was a student. The SIFE Club entered numerous competitions showcasing new products and projects. Before he knew it, Santellanes had a coffee shop located at RiverView Hospital, and he was contacting local coffee distributors and essentially running a small business while attending school. It wasn’t long until his coffee shop was relocated to campus and was up and running for years after he graduated. “It was a great experience for students to be part of a business and to understand how a business is run," Santellanes recalled.

One of his more impactful projects was Heartland Ingredients, a local, gluten-free food supplier that was in need of a packaging facility. Santellanes and Sorenson teamed up to put together a fully operational packaging facility while utilizing buildings on campus and providing employment opportunities and business exposure to UMN Crookston's international students. “It was one of the greatest business experiences I've ever had," Santellanes said. "Heartland Ingredients and UMC have made me who I am today.”

Fast forward a few years and it should come as no surprise that Santellanes earned another leadership role with a spot on the city council. He knew the magnitude of his position and role and did not take it lightly. “It gave me a different view; I was making decisions not only as a businessman but as an employee of the city," he said.

It was the skills he developed within the university and the city itself that landed him the position of production shift manager at Simplot in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a position he held for 14 years. “It was Heartland Ingredients that planted the seed for my interest in the food industry and eventually landed me a position at Simplot,” he said. Santellanes also states UMN Crookston equipped him with the team building and leadership skills needed to make the right hires and to form a successful team. “The things I do on a day-to-day basis at Simplot (training, coaching, etc.), I learned at UMC from the various experiences that I had." he said.

After many years at Simplot, Santellanes ran into an old classmate, John Bridgeford 2001. After some research and lots of what Santellanes calls “sweat equity,” they found themselves in the midst of a business startup. The result: long hours, research and compromise, all the things that are essential to a successful business and things that helped Santellanes and Bridgeford's company, Sanbridge Properties, run 12 years strong. All of his experiences between his first class at UMN Crookston to his first day at Simplot played a part in his success at Sanbridge Properties. “UMC fueled my passion for growth, going back to school opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities," Santellanes said.

When asked what fuels him, Santellanes says it is the possibility of learning something new every day, along with drinking copious amounts of coffee in the morning, followed by some of the finest tequila at night. Santellanes also emphasized the importance of not fearing a challenge. “There are going be good days followed by some bad days,” he said, “and easy decisions followed by hard ones.” “Making mistakes and learning from them is part of being a leader," Santellanes notes. "Have confidence in your business and in your team and be a role model for both.”

After many years of being employed at Simplot and running his own business, Santellanes is starting to prioritize the "family-first" aspect of the business industry. He plans to retire from Simplot, but is far from being out of the workforce. The plan is to give full attention to Sanbridge Properties, and get back to his roots that involve farming, vineyards, and the family-oriented lifestyle. “Life is short, don't be afraid to turn the page to the next adventure," Santellanes says. "There are plenty of opportunities out there and I think I’m headed in the right direction.”

Written for the Spring 2022 Torchlight e-Newsletter.

Story Contact: Shawn Smith