When opportunity knocked, I didn’t complain about the noise.”
Over the years, that knock has come often for Ken Dahlberg, a Wisconsin farm boy who earned fame as a triple ace during World War II and fortune as the founder of Dahlberg, Inc. At 86, Dahlberg continues to fly—he purchased a new jet in December. He’s also still involved in business, as chairman of Carefree Capital, a Twin Cities–based venture capital firm. A voracious reader and enthusiastic mentor, Dahlberg remains vigorous in “retirement.”
After graduating from St. Paul’s Harding High School in 1935, Dahlberg began his business career washing pots and pans at the old Lowry Hotel in St. Paul. Two years later, he had become the food and beverage controller for the Chicago-based Pick Hotels chain. At 23, his career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. There he learned something that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
One day, a corporal lined up Dahlberg and nine other privates. He said he needed a volunteer to take one step forward. Without knowing what he was volunteering for, Dahlberg took that step. “Look at Private Dahlberg,” the corporal shouted to the others. “He’s a leader. He’s one step ahead of all of you.” The lesson? “A step into the unknown can make you a leader,” Dahlberg says.
In 1942, he joined the Army Air Corps. As a figher pilot, Dahlberg shot down 15 German fighterrs and earned two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, and the Silver Star. He was shot down three times, escaping twice but captured the third time. He spent four months in Germany as a POW.
Following his discharge, Dahlberg returned to the Twin Cities and went to work as the assistant to the president of Telex, an electronics company that manufactured hearing aids. At the same time, he was a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard and found himself comparing the clumsy headphones he used while flying to Telex’s small hearing aids. In 1948, after helping Telex form a new division to make smaller headphones using hearing-aid components, Dahlberg decided to try his entrepreneurial wings. “I thought I could make a better hearing aid,” he says.
He did. In 1955, Dahlberg, Inc., developed the first all-in-the-ear hearing aid, the Miracle Ear. Dahlberg’s company also developed paging and patient-monitoring devices for hospitals.
In 1959, while at a national meeting of company presidents, the head of Motorola took interest in a small two-way radio Dahlberg had with him. Dahlberg, Inc., was sold to Motorola later that year. Five years later, in 1964, when Motorola divested itself of consumer products, Dahlberg bought his firm back.
That same year, Dahlberg was involved in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Goldwater lost, but Dahlberg stayed active politics. In fact, his name became rather prominent in 1972, when a $25,000 cashier’s check that Dahlberg had given to President Richard Nixon’s national finance chairman turned up in the account of one of the Watergate burglars, whose arrest would lead to Nixon’s resignation.
As a result, Dahlberg was interrogated by an investigator with the Florida attorney general’s office in Miami, where he was attending the Republican National Convention. “I had gotten that money from Dwayne Andreas, Hubert Humphrey’s chairman,” Dahlberg says. Andreas told him he was growing disillusioned with the Democrats and asked Dahlberg to give the money to Nixon’s campaign.
Dahlberg discovered that the investigator had once helped rescue him after being shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. The story that made the front page of the Miami Herald the next day was about the rescue, not Watergate. “I gave him credit for saving my life and diverted the story’s focus,” Dahlberg says with a chuckle.
In 1994, Dahlberg once again sold his firm, by now a public company with some $100 million in annual revenues. “I was 76 then and thought I had better find a good home for it,” he says. Bausch & Lomb purchased the company for $139 million.
He wasn’t ready to retire completely, however. Using the profits he realized from a $75,000 business loan to a friend, he founded Carefree Capital.
“Ken’s business activities today revolve around the idea that as you acquire wealth, your responsibility is to redeploy it to produce jobs and to give opportunities to others,” says Carefree Capital President Paul Waldon. The firm has invested in several businesses, including Buffalo Wild Wings, a 200-plus restaurant chain headquartered in St. Louis Park. “He is a huge supporter, personally and professionally,” says Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith, a one-time chief financial officer for Dahlberg, Inc.
Dahlberg has earned numerous honors over the years for his military, business, and civic activities. One of the latest is an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Hamline University. “One of our values at Hamline is to make the world a better place,” Hamline President Larry Osnes says. “Ken has done that.”
1917 Born in St. Paul.
1937 Becomes food and beverage controller for the Chicago-based Pick Hotels chain.
1941 Drafted into the Army. Graduates from Pilot Officers Training School, becoming a triple ace. Later spends four months as a POW.
1945 Signs on as assistant to the president of Telex, an electronics firm that made hearing aids.
1948 Starts Dahlberg, Inc., which developed and marketed the Miracle Ear hearing aid, as well as paging and monitoring devices.
1955 Introduces the Miracle Ear “all-in-the-ear” hearing aid.
1959 Sells Dahlberg, Inc., to Motorola.
1964 Buys the hearing-aid business back from Motorola.
1994 Sells Dahlberg, Inc., to Bausch & Lomb for $139 million.
1995 Starts Carefree Capital, a venture capital firm.