Carlson’s generosity a wealth of support

by Kane Loukas

Dollars and cents render an incomplete measure of what Curtis L. Carlson did for the University and the Carlson School of Management.
At Carlson’s funeral Tuesday, Nils Hasselmo, president of the University from 1989 to 1997, eulogized, “An era has come to an end. Curt will no longer be here to encourage us.” Carlson died on the evening of Feb. 19 while recovering from a stroke earlier that month, his second since August.
As the University’s most generous benefactor, Carlson’s monetary contributions will likely be what people remember him for. But as his long-time friend and fellow entrepreneur Harvey Mackay wrote, there was more to Carlson than money: “Curt isn’t about numbers; he’s about people. He understands people and they understand him.”
Carlson’s donations do, however, beg attention. Checks signed, “Curt Carlson,” accounted for a hefty chunk of the construction money needed for the futuristic Carlson School of Management building on the West Bank. And in 1986, Carlson donated the largest sum ever to a public university to jump-start what was then a moribund business school.
But as Carlson knew well, money counted for only so much.
“(Carlson) didn’t just give the money and take off,” said David Kidwell, dean of the Carlson school. “He was really the first person who came out and said we need to have a top business school … he kind of gave us a vision and a dowry to start the quest.”
Faculty came first
The first major push was in 1986, when Carlson donated $25 million to the University, $18 million of which went to the business school. The school took on Carlson’s name that year.
While the gleaming Carlson building shines as the crowning emblem of Carlson’s dedication to the business school, more of his time and a great deal more money went toward building the faculty, the human component that would prove the school in the long run.
Enriching the faculty required money, much of which went toward endowing department chairs.
The Carlson school went from zero endowed chairs to 25 since 1986, seven of which were financed by Carlson. Each endowment costs $1 million or more, helping to attract top professors by boosting their salaries.
To establish a chair, the University invests a $1 million initial lump-sum endowment in a department chair. The investment generates, for example, $50,000 per year, or 5 percent. To get top professors, the Carlson school takes the $50,000 and tacks all or some of it onto the usual professor salary provided for in its budget. So, instead of offering a professor $100,000 per year, the Carlson school can afford $150,000 with the endowment.
The top-notch professors — the experts — are now here writing the textbooks that the second-rate university professors teach from, Kidwell said.
To keep the coveted professors after they’ve learned to fear the Minnesota winter, part of Carlson’s 1986 donation went toward establishing a faculty member retention fund to ward off the chance that present faculty would leave. If professors make special requests for research or salary extras, the fund helps meet their needs.
Carlson also put money toward scholarships to offset tuition costs that rose significantly from the about $30 per quarter he paid when he studied economics here in the 1930s.
Carlson, almost a staff member
Much of the faculty development took place without a well-rooted Carlson school leadership. Tim Nantell, now a professor of finance, was the acting dean until 1991, essentially working as a fill-in until Dean Kidwell joined the University. Under the arrangement, Carlson and Hasselmo took a prominent role in guiding the maturing business school.
Carlson acted as the engine driving the project. He traveled with Hasselmo to business schools around the nation, noting what made them the best. Carlson met with business leaders to establish links between them and the Carlson school, links that had long eroded from lack of use.
Carlson called in favors, pushed and prodded administrators and possible contributors and made sure the Carlson school would materialize into what he envisioned.
“One of the keys was that (Carlson) was generally well-liked, Hasselmo said. “That was part of the key to his success.”
His personality, Hasselmo said, was a mix of iron determination and a certain sweetness, something that allowed him to relate with everybody. “Sometimes you have drivers who turn people off endlessly or people who are very nice but get nothing done.” Carlson, he said, could motivate people and push them without looking bossy.
He took his down-to-earth attitude into business school classrooms in the early 1980s, David Lilly remembered; Lilly was the business school dean from 1978 to 1983. Carlson gave a number of guest chief executive officers lectures that went over as big hits with students because he actually answered the questions the kids threw at him, Lilly said.
One of his popular arguments was about why a company should be privately held. “(Carlson) said it allowed you to make longer-range decisions since you didn’t have to respond to stock holders every quarter,” Lilly said.
Carlson’s grandson Curtis Nelson, president and CEO of Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, attributes his approachability to never forgetting his roots and valuing hard work.
“He was incredibly thoughtful and well-researched. He studied up on everything,” Nelson said. Carlson would ask his people for insight and information and he would always listen, he said.
Carlson’s research on the business school was as thorough as what he did for his company. His research, however, shined light on a weak spot.
When Kidwell arrived in 1991, the Carlson school was well on its way. In Carlson’s travels, he saw that top business schools had something his school lacked: adequate facilities.
Carlson came up with an initial $10 million in 1993 to get the $45 million Carlson school building started. The plan was to collect $25 million from the Legislature and the last $10 million from other donors.
Carlson lobbied the Legislature for the funds, met with former Gov. Arne Carlson to assure his backing, wrangled his friends to make sure the school had their support and donations, and worked closely with Kidwell and Hasselmo to make sure his school would be built as soon as possible.
“He didn’t let his investment go fallow,” Kidwell said. “He would always send notes about what other business schools were doing.” After so-and-so school started a program in China, Kidwell said, Carlson would ask, “Should we be there, too?”
Just enough time
Carlson counted down the days until the building was opened. In an interview some 15 years ago, Carlson accurately predicted his death at 84. By looking closely at his family’s genealogy, Carlson found that the men in his family lived, on average, no longer than 84. With good doctors, Carlson said, I’ll maybe make it to 85.
With the Legislature’s decision on the $25 million still pending in 1993, the earliest the school would open would be spring 1999. That was too late, given Carlson’s genealogical timetable, so he decided to start construction and cover the costs with his own wallet.
He paid more than $1 million to start and finish architectural designs that put the project a year ahead of schedule, effort and money that would have gone to waste had the Legislature turned down funding.
Carlson’s urgency and foresight paid off. The Carlson school opened one year ahead of schedule in January 1998.
“He was committed to creating a world-recognized business school,” Nelson said.
“It was close to his heart,” Nelson said. “If there was something outside of his business that he cared about, it was education and the opportunity to learn and grow. The University was a beneficiary of that care and concern.”
In the end, Carlson gave back to the business school what it first gave to him: the means to prosper.