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This column, by American Experiment Chairman Ron Eibensteiner, appears in the new Winter 2020 Issue of Thinking Minnesota.
Progressives these days like to disparage American business owners—the job-creating heroes who maintain the economic foundation upon which our exceptional state and nation have been built.
We all read how liberal politicians trash American capitalism as a never-miss applause line in their stump speeches. Businesspeople exploit the poor, they say, usually with racial undertones. They hoard their wealth while depriving their employees of a livable wage and minimal health care benefits. And they scorn concerns about energy or the environment. They’re rich, for crying out loud.
I wish these were exaggerations.
Advocates of the free market—and I include Center of the American Experiment in this group— must do a better job of publicly celebrating the accomplishments and good deeds of our business leaders. Students in public school classrooms are widely exposed to the Che Guevara school of social policy and economics. They might be astonished to see how many business leaders—most of them, in fact, outside of Wall Street—don’t neatly fit the mold of Enemy to America.
A history of Minnesota business leaders is itself a celebration of innovative, risk-taking entrepreneurs, who were also civic-minded do-gooders. Think about the McKnights at 3M or the Dayton family. And also think about Bill Norris, founder of Control Data Corporation, which became one of the most respected computer companies in the world. Or Seymour Cray, founder of Cray Incorporated, once called “the Thomas Edison of the Supercomputer industry.” Or Earl Bakken, who developed a pacemaker in his Minneapolis garage that eventually became Medtronic. Or Manny Villafana, a serial entrepreneur who moved to Minnesota to work with Bakken and then developed Cardiac Pacemakers, followed by St. Jude Medical and a host of other innovative companies.
These people used their sweat and perseverance to create thousands of opportunities for Minnesotans—who benefited not only from their products but also from making them.
We recently lost a contemporary giant among Minnesota’s civic-minded business leaders when Chuck Denny passed away this fall. Chuck was the gentle and kind-hearted former CEO of ADC Telecommunications who lived a life of business success and civic action. I never met a single person of any political stripe who didn’t admire Chuck.
A Minneapolis native, Chuck was recruited in 1970 to help turn around then struggling ADC. And he did just that. In his 21 years as CEO, he transformed the company into a very profitable industry leader in television and internet technologies.
Chuck’s admirers marveled at how he matched his business accomplishments by using leadership to create a generation of solid corporate citizens. He later equaled those accomplishments in retirement with social activism.
He was a leader at the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, the Minnesota High Technology Council, the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility, Minnesota Project Innovation, Minnesota Wellspring, and the Minnesota Technology Corridor. He was also a philanthropist and advocate of the arts. He served on the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union Foundation and the Humphrey School Dean’s Advisory Council; he worked with the Mayo Clinic and served on the board of trustees at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Chuck tutored kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods as well as inmates at Hennepin County jail.
And there’s more. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Chuck’s community leadership was his humility. Unlike a speech-making politician, he never sought personal recognition or public praise.
Did he make money along the way? You bet he did! He transformed a company from the verge of bankruptcy into an entity that served all its stakeholders. The company provided value to its investors, customers, vendors, and employees. And to those employees, he gave income and purpose.
A couple of decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with a high-tech entrepreneur who was in the early stages of launching his
company. He would get teary-eyed when describing the obstacles he faced. Would his technologies work? Did his investors continue to believe in him? Would he find others? Would his money last as he navigated the steep path of government regulatory approvals? And would he find customers?
A brilliant scientist with a keen business sense, he would sometimes say, “Maybe I should just go get a job.”
Thank God he didn’t. His company eventually succeeded. Spectacularly. Over some 30 years, it created thousands of high-paying jobs, provided best-inthe market health care benefits, and produced generous stock benefits for rank-and-file employees. Not to mention the spin-off opportunities enjoyed by all his vendors and suppliers. His entrepreneurial tenacity, and the savvy expertise of his successors, have created hundreds of millionaire employees.
Which is why we need to recognize the contributions of business people and celebrate how their triumphs and achievements benefit everyone.