Curt Carlson, loyal

by Kane Loukas

The University lost a great friend and its greatest benefactor.
Curtis L. Carlson — namesake of the Carlson School of Management — died Friday evening at age 84.
Since his first gift of $500 in 1952, Carlson gave more than $36 million to the University.
The business school took on Carlson’s name in 1986 when he donated $25 million — then the largest single gift to a public university — and agreed to lead a three-year, $356 million University fund-raiser. In 1993, Carlson put up an additional $10 million toward construction of the new Carlson school building.
As founder and chairman of Plymouth-based Carlson Companies, a massive $22 billion marketing, travel and hospitality company, Carlson’s net worth grew to $1.7 billion in 1998, making him the wealthiest man in Minnesota.
While his business acumen built his fortune, Carlson’s gifts to the University crowned his philanthropy.
“He wanted to see the University in general, and the business school in particular, succeed,” said Frederick Beier, professor and chair of the marketing and logistics management department. Beier was associate dean of the business school in 1986 when Carlson made his $25 million donation.
“He was extremely easy to work with,” said Tim Nantell, professor of finance and former interim dean who also worked with Carlson in 1986. “He was very easy to talk with, to the point where he would have the common touches of asking you about your life and your kids.”
Despite Carlson’s sizable gifts and his hallmark tenacious business attitude, he never forced himself on the workings of the school, Nantell said. But Carlson did impose himself in insuring that the business school grew into a top-ranking institution.
In order to strengthen the school’s faculty, Carlson endowed department chairs, which pay for the faculty members and their research costs. Seven chairs carry his name today.
He also wanted to unify the business school under a single roof. At the inauguration of the Carlson school building in January 1998, Carlson said, “When I was here over 60 years ago, we were meeting in five buildings. (Business students) never had a home of their own.”
When friends and colleagues reminisce about Carlson, it is rarely out of the context of some sort of working relationship. “You work five days a week to keep up with the competition,” he used to say. “The sixth day is to pull ahead of them.”
His credo did the trick.
After graduating from the University in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Carlson went to work for Proctor & Gamble as a soap salesman making about $110 per month.
He noticed how local department stores used stamp books to build customer loyalty. Customers would receive a stamp for each purchase made. After collecting enough, the stamps could be redeemed for merchandise.
In the evening and on weekends, Carlson adapted and began selling stamp books to local grocers. The stamp books took off. Carlson quit his job at Proctor & Gamble after 16 months and founded the Gold Bond Stamp Co. in Minneapolis.
During the 1960s, his trading stamp business grew to encompass 19 of the top 20 national food chains and half of all U.S. gas stations. Businesses in Europe and Japan also adopted Carlson’s stamps.
Finding it impossible to grow further, in 1962 Carlson began diversifying his company with the purchase of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Eleven years later he renamed the business Carlson Companies.
Today Carlson Companies is one of the 20 largest privately held companies in the world. It comprises more than 100 separate businesses — including T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises — and employs 150,000 in 140 countries.
“He was very attached to his work,” said Winston Wallin, chairman emeritus of Medtronic and long-time colleague of Carlson.
But his loyalties, said Wallin, were concentrated on his family and not so much on other people. “You wouldn’t see him in a lot of social situations. He felt better working on his business or going places with his family,” Wallin said.
Carlson is survived by his wife of 60 years, Arleen; daughters Barbara Carlson Gage and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who is the president and CEO of Carlson Companies; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at United Methodist Church on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. The funeral will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the church. Both are open to the public.