Pioneers

Entrepreneurs and successful up-and-comers who already have proven to be enterprising leaders.

November 14, 2014

« Return to Black Book

Abir Sen Abir Sen
CEO
Gravie Inc.

Abir Sen gives new meaning to the term “serial entrepreneur.” Since the late 1990s, Sen has co-founded a series of companies that have capitalized on changes in the health care landscape. His past includes Definity Health (sold for $300 million to UnitedHealth Group in 2004), RedBrick Health and Bloom Health. “I have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder,” Sen told Twin Cities Business earlier this year. His latest enterprise? Minneapolis-based Gravie, a broker that helps people shop for individual health plans. The company is off to a healthy start: Since launching in 2013, it has raised $13.1 million in venture capital.



Bahram Akradi Bahram Akradi
Chairman and CEO
Life Time Fitness

Bahram Akradi revolutionized the workout world with his concept of 100,000-square-foot Life Time Fitness centers that meshed with the suburban zeitgeist of “bigger is better,” opening 47 of them between 2004 and 2008. After holding tight during the recession, the visionary fitness king is now facing tough competition from boutique competitors in a fragmenting market environment, which has triggered membership erosion at his existing club.



Bill Popp
Founder
Popp Communications

In 1981, at age 27 and in the wake of the AT&T breakup, Bill Popp started his eponymous Golden Valley-based company. It has evolved from a telecommunications firm to broad-based internet, voice, and data services. Now serving more than 9,000 businesses, Popp stays abreast of changes in the industry and now offers cloud and hosting services. Active in the community, Popp also is a co-owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves.



Christine Lantinen Christine Lantinen
President
Maud Borup Inc.

This local candy company traces its history to 1907, when its namesake started a business making homemade chocolates. Over the years, there have been several owners. Now in its second century, Borup has a new direction under Christine Lantinen, who bought it in 2005. The company now wholesales its products, such as S’more Bites and Licorice Snowmen, directly to large retailers such as Target, Walmart and Barnes & Noble. Under Lantinen, Borup is expanding, opening a packaging facility in 2013 in LeCenter, her hometown.



Dave Mortensen and Chuck Runyon Dave Mortensen and Chuck Runyon
Co-founders
Anytime Fitness

Dave Mortensen and Chuck Runyon were convinced that getting people to work out would work out. Has it ever—Anytime Fitness has been the world’s fastest-growing fitness chain in each of the past seven years (with revenues up 31 percent to $634 million in 2013), thanks to a paradigm-shattering formula of convenience (24/7 access to “neighborhood clubs”), affordability (low-frills facilities and staffing) and a non-intimidating environment. After just 12 years, Runyon and Mortensen have muscled their way to more than 2,600 units (virtually all are franchises) in all 50 states and 20 countries on five continents in their quest for global domination.



Fiona McCrae Fiona McCrae
Publisher and director
Graywolf Press

McCrae came to Graywolf 20 years ago from the august British publishing house Faber & Faber and has kept the Minnesota nonprofit publisher an internationally recognized independent. Her taste is eclectic and adventurous, and she’s brought attention and awards to authors from around the world. In 2014, Indian-born poet Vijay Seshadri’s Graywolf book 3 Sections won the Pulitzer Prize—evidence that McCrae’s faith in “small” books has big value.



Joel Kramer Joel Kramer
CEO and editor
MinnPost

It seemed kind of a crazy idea at the time: an online-only “newspaper” in a town that already had two full-service ones. But former Star Tribune publisher Kramer and his wife, Laurie, saw an opening in the market when they launched in 2007. Seven years later, they have carved out a sustainable niche and are steadily drawing support from members and foundations. In 2013, MinnPost’s revenue was up 7.3 percent to $1.6 million and the nonprofit has posted a surplus for four consecutive years. With an eye to the future, Kramer replaced himself with Andrew Wallmeyer as publisher earlier this year.



John Gabbert John Gabbert
CEO
Room & Board

John Gabbert looked at his family’s eponymous furniture store and saw the future of retailing. His vision extended beyond furniture to include stylish casual home accessories such as blankets, picture frames and baskets. In 1980, he resigned as Gabbert’s president and launched Room & Board. Today, the company operates 14 stores in eight states and Washington, D.C., with a focus on American-made (90 percent), exclusive (95 percent) products. “We don’t believe in fast growth,” says Gabbert, who projects 2014 revenues of $370 million. “Then our small American manufacturers would have to grow fast, which would put them at risk.”



John Nasseff
Retired
St. Paul philanthropist

The name John Nasseff is well known in St. Paul, Nasseff’s hometown. Nasseff began working for West Publishing in 1946. Fifty years later, when the legal publisher was sold for $3.4 billion, Nasseff’s stock was worth about $175 million. In retirement, Nasseff has made giving back a full-time job. Over the years he’s given more than $10 million to the Mayo Clinic and made major contributions to the Nasseff Heart Center at United Hospital in St. Paul and the John Nasseff Neuroscience Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. In honor of their ongoing generosity, Nasseff and wife Helene Houle were named outstanding individual philanthropists in 2013 by the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.



Justin Kaufenberg Justin Kaufenberg
Co-founder and CEO
Sport Ngin

Who says there’s no money in amateur sports? Sport Ngin has created a software platform providing websites, mobile applications and technology tailored to youth and amateur sports leagues. Founded in 2008 by CEO Justin Kaufenberg and “chief evangelist” Carson Kipfer, Sport Ngin has about 200 employees. Kaufenberg, who played hockey in college, has proven that he can skate in the big leagues with investors, attracting $39 million in financing since inception, including $29 million in Series D financing in 2014. Investors include Mankato-based Taylor Corp.



Kelly Doran Kelly Doran
Founder and principal
Doran Cos.

Don’t bet against Kelly Doran. For years, Doran was best known as a developer of retail properties. But when he returned to the industry after a sabbatical in 2007, Doran was reborn as a multifamily developer. His projects include the luxury Mill & Main apartments on the Minneapolis riverfront. At the same time, his Doran Construction division is increasingly busy. He was ahead of the curve in seeing demand for new student apartments near the University of Minnesota, where he has been prolific. His latest student project, a 210-unit building dubbed the Bridges, opened this fall.



Ken Nelson Ken Nelson
CEO
KLN Family Brands

Life is just a Barrel O’ Fun for Ken Nelson, the homespun munchies merchant who launched that snack food company, as well as Kenny’s Candy Company and Nutheads. His first company, Tuffy’s Pet Foods, targeted canine connoisseurs. After selling Tuffy’s in 1971 and Barrel O’ Fun in 1981, he bought both back and rolled everything into KLN, which now occupies 1.5 million square feet in Perham. All told, KLN’s 2,500 offerings generate more than $500 million in annual sales, with a goal of $1 billion in seven years. How sweet it is.



Louise Erdrich Louise Erdrich
Author/owner
Birchbark Books

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has a reputation as a literary center, and Erdrich has been one of its leading lights since her debut with 1984’s Love Medicine. Erdrich’s work focuses on American Indian themes; she is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. In 2012, Erdrich won the National Book Award for Fiction for The Round House; in 2014 she won both the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Erdrich also owns Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in the Kenwood neighborhood of South Minneapolis. The store opened in 2001 and remains a community anchor.



Mark Stutrud Mark Stutrud
Founder
Summit Brewing Co.

Mark Stutrud still has the 1983 letter from the Brewers’ Association of America advising him that starting a microbrewery in the Twin Cities would be a long and hard road. That brewery, St. Paul-based Summit Brewing Co., has since celebrated more than a quarter-century of business by expanding into a 240,000-barrel facility, and now distributes to 18 states. With revenue in excess of $20 million a year, Summit employs roughly 60 full-time employees, plus 12 part-time employees, and has averaged 10 percent annual growth since opening.



Scott Crump Scott Crump
Chairman
Stratasys

Nothing says “pioneer” like being inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and that’s where Stratasys founder Scott Crump belongs. His development of a fused deposition 3-D printing process—which has transformed manufacturing processes around the world—landed him in the MIHOF this year, alongside such local legends as Seymour Cray of Cray Research and Medtronic’s Earl Bakken. Crump’s acquisition of MakerBot Industries last year has made Stratasys the dominant player in the 3-D printing industry.



Wayne Johansen
President
HOM Furniture

After riding the waterbed wave in the 1980s, brothers Wayne and Rod Johansen changed tack in the next decade and struck pay dirt in their astute observation that the Twin Cities market lacked a big-box furniture retailer with middle-range price points and a fun atmosphere. It led to the birth of the HOM Furniture concept. Wayne Johansen retired from the company’s day-to-day operations in 2007, but continues as HOM’s chief strategist, engineering an acquisition spree during the recession.



Titans

These individuals are No. 1 at their game, each the leading all-star within his or her industry or profession nationally and in some cases, internationally.

See List

Behind The Scenes

If it weren’t for these individuals, the leaders and companies they work for would be nowhere near as successful as they have been.

See List

Hopefuls

These individuals hold positions of considerable power; we’re waiting to see how well they’ll use their influence to effect positive results and, ideally, exceed expectations.

See List

Leaders

While there are lists and lists of leaders ranked by company size, industry type and more, the following people are leading, or have led successfully, through extremely challenging times.

See List

Next-Gen Leaders

Individuals who are leading organizations and causes to help improve the world that we, as well as future generations, will live in.

See List

Most Popular

Current Issue

March

Read this month's issue of Twin Cities Business.