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Curt Carlson Obit
By Mark Zdechlik
February 22, 1999
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Curt Carlson
Curt Carlson's story is a classic tale: an immigrant's son seizing newfound American opportunity.

Carlson: Profits are important because they are the score keeper.
CARLSON'S EYE FOR PROFITS showed itself early. He was a nine-year-old country-club caddie who, by 11, was putting together a network of newspaper-delivery boys. Carlson spoke at length about his life with Minnesota Public Radio two and a half years before his death.

Carlson: One time the old Minneapolis Journal had a contest on for us to get new customers, and I attended the Saturday meetings that we would have with our supervisor for the paper and I asked him if I got him four customers could I have the route? And he said, "you get me four customers and you got it. " I went and got a couple of relatives and I got the route. When the second one opened he gave me the second one and I got a third route. I had my two brothers carry those and I paid them for it and I got an overwrite.

To Carlson, business was in his genes. At home there was no such thing as an allowance. Instead a "get out and work for what you want" philosophy prevailed. If that sounds harsh, to Carlson it was appropriate.

Carlson: I did find in the depths of the depression, and I am talking now about the early 30's, there was 25% unemployment in this country then, that there was all kinds of work. The people I was peddling the papers to, they wanted their gardens spaded up, they all wanted somebody to cut their lawns and so forth. You didn't get a lot of money for it, but labor at that time made 25 cents an hour, so you see it wasn't a lot of money, but your money went a long ways.

Carlson graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1937 and began selling soap and cooking oil for Proctor and Gamble. With America still stinging from the depression, his sales job was good by any measure, but he wanted his own business. In 1938 Carlson left Proctor and Gamble and formed the Gold Bond Stamp Company with a $55 loan from his landlord and a line of credit from a local printer. Carlson's idea was that businesses could foster customer loyalty by rewarding patrons with stamps they, in turn, could collect and redeem for merchandise. Even his father's banker turned down his loan application calling the stamp idea "hair brained. "

Carlson: I got turned down for a loan, but I learned something: that's the last place you want to go to - a bank - if you don't have any money. You got to have money to go to a bank. And I went to the guy - this is all printing - I went to a printer, told him I could be a good customer if he would do this, I'd have his money to him within 90 days or 120 days and I would continue doing business with him. He did the whole thing for me and I was off and running.

By the end of World War 2, millions of people were collecting Carlson's stamps from thousands of businesses around the country. Their popularity peaked in the 1960s. Carlson then directed his energy and growing financial resources toward the hospitality industry with the purchase of the original Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. He began acquiring hundreds of restaurants and hotels and networks of travel agencies. His businesses grew phenomenally. In 1997, Carlson brands, from Radisson hotels to TGI Friday's restaurants, and Carlson Wagonlit Travel agencies raked in $20 billion in sales. Carlson enterprises, most of them franchises, do business in more than 140 countries and employ nearly 150,000 people.

Carlson: The best business advice I ever got was - that I picked up immediately and that's when I was a fairly young fellow - and one of my customers on the paper route made the statement to me -he had a drug store- and he said "you know, I work six days" and he said "I feel that five days is when I stay even, its the sixth day when I get ahead" and I have never forgotten that. Practically all my life, Saturday was my day to get ahead.

Carlson became one of the wealthiest men in the country. Forbes last estimated his net worth at $1.6 billion. Known for his success in business, Carlson will also be remembered for his philanthropy. Over the past nearly five decades he personally donated more than $36 million to the University of Minnesota.

Carlson also believed corporations had a responsibility to the communities in which they did business. In the mid-1970s Carlson Companies joined 21 other Minnesota businesses in pledging to contribute five percent of pre-tax earnings to charity. Grayco Chairman David Koch was President of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce at the time. Koch was among a handful of executives leading the push to recruit five-percent-donor companies.

Koch: We're always looking for leaders or champions in a community and Curt obviously starting very modestly with his business and growing the kind of international global company that exists today and yet continuing to be interested, active and involved in the community is a wonderful example for a lot of other entrepreneurs.

Curt Carlson remained at the helm of Carlson Companies until the Spring of 1998 when daughter Marilyn Carlson Nelson took over. The transformation was timed to coincide with the company's 60th anniversary.

Jacobs: I've never seen a man who makes the demands of what he needs from his people, but has such a marshmallow side to himself when it comes to humanity.
Minnesota financier Irwin Jacobs says he'll remember Curt Carlson as a visionary who successfully tapped the market of the masses through hard work and good ideas. Jacobs also says Carlson, who's normally associated with amassing wealth, placed an enormous premium on his family.
Jacobs: I've seen him socially and I have seen him community-wise, business-wise, and family-wise and I see how important his family is to him. And you know they say the true fortune of any man is the family that he has built around him, and I think that starting with the family of the Carlson family, what Curt's created around there is really his greatest fortune. He is going to be greatly missed based on what he has done to leave his legacy here.
When Curt Carlson's father was dying, he mused to his son, he could not give him the world, but Curt could instead have the United States as his sales territory. In the final days of his life Carlson could have told his daughter Marilyn Carlson Nelson, now head of the global hospitality superpower by her father's name, he leaves the world as her territory.