Erik Burgess, Published April 30 2014
Former city commissioner, Great Plains Software executive, US Senate candidate Sydness dies at age 59
Steve Sydness, who also made an unsuccessful bid in 1992 to be a U.S. senator from North Dakota, died April 16 in his Wellesley, Mass., home after a brief, undisclosed illness, according to an obituary provided by family. He was 59.
Although Sydness left Fargo in the late 1990s for a successful career on the East Coast – he was most recently entrepreneur in residence at Harvard Business School – he maintained close ties to his hometown.
Colleagues and friends in Fargo who remembered Sydness as a good-humored, intelligent guy said Wednesday that they were surprised by the news of his death.
“Steve was such a vibrant guy,” said Michael J. Olsen, a former Great Plains executive who worked with Sydness for several years. “When you were around Steve, he just oozed this energy. (He) always stayed fit and seemed to just be full of life. When you were around Steve, it was just pleasant.”
Sydness is survived by his wife, Lisa, 24-year-old daughter Lindsay, 22-year-old son Kenny, sister Virginia Harris of Weston, Mass., and brother Jeff Sydness of New York.
A ‘superb’ human being
Sydness, a varsity athlete in tennis and swimming, graduated from Fargo North in 1972, and went on to Principia College in Elsah, Ill., where he met his wife and where both of his children would later attend.
He earned his master’s of business administration degree from Harvard in 1981 and spent the next few years as a business consultant in New York and Tokyo.
But with strong Midwest roots – his father, Ken Kennedy, was a popular TV personality on WDAY-TV in Fargo and his mother, Jeanette, managed a family resort in Detroit Lakes, Minn. – Sydness returned to Fargo and started work as a consultant for Great Plains Software in 1987.
He went on to become the company’s executive vice president for sales, marketing and support, and was an “instrumental player” in the company’s leadership, said Doug Burgum, then-president of Great Plains.
Sydness was key in turning the Fargo company into a global enterprise with offices in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Australia. He was also an essential part of the team leading up to the company’s initial public offering in 1999, Burgum said.
Through it all, Sydness was a dedicated husband and father, Burgum said.
“He’s a superb executive and an even better human being,” Burgum said.
Burgum first became acquainted with Sydness during their high school years. With slicked-back hair, Sydness crooned ’50s-style tunes at high school dances with his band, Bob E. Sox and the Sneakers.
Even as he aged, Sydness kept that fun-loving demeanor, which is what made him such a successful businessman, Olsen said. With his “gentle humor,” Sydness was able to lighten the sometimes-stressful mood of business meetings and get warring sides to compromise.
“He could certainly be silly,” Olsen said. “Steve had a silly streak. There’s no two ways about that, but he knew how to use his humor strategically, I’d say. And he was about as smart as they come.”
Sydness was a Fargo city commissioner for one term, from 1990-94, and former Mayor Bruce Furness remembered him as a well-organized public servant.
“We hated to lose him, hated to have him move out to Massachusetts,” Furness said.
In 1992, Sydness ran as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from North Dakota against Democrat Byron Dorgan.
Sydness lost, and not long after he left Great Plains. In 1999, he became chief executive officer of Endurance International Group in Massachusetts, and he made his home on the East Coast.
But Sydness never forgot his roots, and came back to North Dakota often, Olsen said.
The two friends stayed in touch and had lunch just last year, sharing a bowl of Paradiso tortilla chips, which were one of Sydness’ “guilty pleasures,” Olsen said.
“I know he maintained a great affection for both Fargo and the state of North Dakota,” Olsen said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518