First PREMIER Bank was founded by T. Denny Sanford. Denny grew up in a working-class family in St Paul, Minnesota, in the post-Depression era, where his early upbringing taught him the importance and value of persistence and hard work. When he was only 4 years old, he lost his mother to breast cancer. He started his first job at age 8, stocking shelves every summer in his father’s garment shop, where he continued to work through college.
At the age of 20, Denny lost his father to heart disease. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology in 1958. He was recruited by Armstrong Cork Company to pursue a career in sales and marketing. In his early years, he often slept in his car the night before appointments.
In 1960, Sanford left Armstrong Cork to found a company that promoted technical products through architects and engineers. The company, “Contech,” grew quickly from a regional operation to a national success. In 1964, Sanford formed another regional distribution company that also expanded nationally. In 1971, he acquired a 50-year-old chemical company, specializing in architectural sealants, coatings and adhesives. In 1972, he took Contech public, selling the company in 1982 for $28 million.
As Denny’s success grew, so did his philanthropic interest. In 1983, inspired by the difference between leading a life of success and a life of significance, Denny established a venture capital fund to help young entrepreneurs establish promising new businesses. This was the beginning of what would become a life marked by philanthropic contribution.
In 1986, Sanford purchased United National Bank, which was later renamed First PREMIER Bank. Inspired by changes in South Dakota law, Sanford sought to expand the bank by extending credit to higher-risk individuals who might otherwise be turned down by traditional lenders – people with damaged credit due to past financial difficulty, divorce, job loss and other hardships. In 1989, the bank began issuing credit cards, managing credit lines and collections tightly to mitigate risk.
Buoyed by its credit business, First PREMIER Bank transformed into a major national player in consumer credit and banking. Today, PREMIER Bankcard services over 3 million credit card holders nationally. Denny continues to serve as Chairman and sole owner of United National Corporation, the holding company for First PREMIER Bank and PREMIER Bankcard, which is today rated the 17th most profitable bank over $1 billion. First PREMIER is the 11th largest ACH originating financial institution and the nation’s 12th largest issuer of Mastercard® credit cards.
Denny’s lifelong business success continues to fuel his passionate and generous giving. Sanford’s first big donation was in 1998 for $2 million, which was given to the Children's Home Society of South Dakota. He later added $15 million to this amount, allowing the organization to build an endowment, construct more buildings and establish programs for troubled kids in South Dakota. In 2007, he provided a historic gift to Sioux Valley Health (which later became Sanford Health), the largest donation ever to a health care organization. Throughout the years, Sanford has donated over $1.2 billion dollars to philanthropic causes, and he shows no sign of slowing down.
--Denny Sanford, Chairman, United National Corporation