Curtis L. Carlson

Curtis L. Carlson

A conversation with Curt Carlson.

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When Curt Carlson died last winter, the media asked his friends and associates to share their glimpses of the man and his career. Almost without exception, they recalled anecdotes of his salesmanship, personal drive, and entrepreneurial spirit. That was to be expected, as Carlson was one of America’s entrepreneurial icons, having launched the Carlson Companies with an innovative idea—a trading-stamp program—that was one of the first times of loyalty marketing programs.

Two years ago, as we were finishing a lunch as his corporate headquarters, discussing family business strategy and planning, he confided that his daughter Marilyn Carlson nelson would be CEO within a year, and that I could have the interview in which he would answer questions about “his” family business. The interview was conducted in spring 1998, shortly after Marilyn was named CEO and Curt had assumed the new role of chairman. As we met in his boardroom, I sensed that what he wanted was an opportunity to share his views on his family business experience without the spins and story angles he had experienced with the news media and business press.

The interview was classic Curt Carlson. He sat the end of the boardroom table he had begun using as a desk and directed the questions and pace of our conversation. When I asked question he didn’t like or didn’t want to answer, his impudence was palpable. No one could ever say Carlson wasn’t in charge of any situation; I could easily see how the rumors of tears in the boardroom got started.

Two things surprised me as we talked. One was his candor; the other was the wide range of emotions he expressed. I hadn’t expected him to say that his reason for retiring was “because I can’t do it as well as my successors will.” Nor had I expected that his eyes would mist over and that his voice would crack when he shared the story of his father’s deathbed legacy. The elder man told Carlson he wouldn’t leave him much money, but hat he was leaving him America for his sales territory. Of course, Carlson expanded that territory to include the world.

Carlson was a master salesman, or maybe a teacher, who never missed an opportunity to share ideas, whether it was with one person or an entire auditorium. I know he would have appreciated this article because it provides a balanced picture of his family business story and because it can help others develop new insights about themselves, their families, or their businesses.

I’ve spend the better part of my professional life working with entrepreneurs, but that afternoon with Curt Carlson taught me that we can never fully understand the drives, motivations, and dreams of another human being unless we listen with curiosity and without judgment. Finally, my wish in sharing this interview is that Carlson’s story be told without someone adding, “He hung on too long,” or “He should have retired 20 years ago.”

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