At first glance, Charles Denny seems an unlikely candidate to be honored for his outstanding work as a director. After all, it’s been 17 years since he retired as president and CEO of Eden Prairie–based ADC Telecommunications, Inc., and simultaneously resigned from all outside corporate directorships. Yet Denny has been anything but reticent in retirement.
“Chuck has not been stingy with his considerable skills,” says Thomas Holloran, a retired University of St. Thomas business professor and senior distinguished fellow of the Thomas Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the St. Thomas School of Law. Holloran was a member of Denny’s ADC board. “He took his talent and understanding of the corporate community and he moved it to a broader concern about society and its common welfare,” lending his experience to numerous community and nonprofit boards.
“Chuck has been a very strong business leader on the side of ethics and ethical conduct,” adds John Stout, a shareholder at Fredrickson & Byron in Minneapolis. Stout worked with Denny a few years back on a task force assigned to review corporate governance and recommend changes at HealthPartners. “In addition to being a skilled corporate executive who’s very mindful of the responsibilities an organization—its management and board—has to the shareholders and other stakeholders in the company, he’s also mindful of the bigger role these enterprises play in our society and the importance that they be ethically led.”
In fact, corporate citizenship was the topic Denny selected to research and write about as the 2007–08 Louis W. Hill, Jr., fellow in philanthropy at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. “It’s a topic I’ve been writing on forever,” Denny says. “It’s important to remember that when you’re an executive, you’re not alone. You are a citizen of your country, your state, your city, and your community. You’re a father, perhaps, and a son and a brother and a friend. You have all these relationships and roles, so you cannot make your business decisions solely on the basis of business. You have to look beyond that to the consequences . . . to those people who look to you for guidance or depend on you.”
He adds, “Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, you can look back and say, ‘Well, in my executive role the company did well.’ But it’s also important to be able to say, ‘In whatever little way I participated, the greater society in which I live has done well.’”
Denny, 77, started his professional career by traveling rural Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota for Home Gas Company, a business owned by his uncles.
In 1959, he joined and subsequently scaled the executive ladder at Honeywell. “I had 10 jobs in 11 years,” Denny says. The high point of his Honeywell tenure, he reports, was his three-year stint in Paris as manager of a fully integrated, 1,250-person French subsidiary. “I was advised by the then executive vice president of Honeywell that that would be the best job I’d ever had,” Denny recalls. “Indeed, that turned out to be true.”
Denny left Honeywell in 1970 to take over as president and CEO of ADC, which, at the time, was a near-bankrupt electrical-components manufacturer with roughly 430 employees and $6 million in sales. He guided the firm into the telecommunications market, and deep into growth and profitability. When he retired in 1991, the company had 3,000 employees and $300 million in sales. Today, Denny proudly reports, ADC is a $1.5 billion operation with about 9,000 employees worldwide.
He stepped away from corporate board service when he left ADC. “I did so on the deeply held conviction that directors should be fully employed executives or business-world participants of some sort who are deeply involved in the business community, reading the financial and technical journals, and dealing with real-time problems,” he says.
Even during his executive career, Denny committed to only two boards at a time (“There’s a limitation to how much time you can take away from your principal occupation”), and he imposed a 10-year cap on all his board seats. “I believe that’s a really important part of corporate governance,” he explains. “Because of the natural social affiliations that develop over time on boards, especially those without term limitations, people begin to act on a friendship basis more than a governance basis. And that generally doesn’t produce the best decisions.”
These days, the admittedly “unplanful” Denny has a plan. He’s offering his services to small nonprofits on a problem-solving basis: “I’ll work with you for as long as it takes to solve that particular problem, then we’re done.”
In addition, Denny will increase his volunteer commitment to the Minneapolis Public Schools, which he serves as a GED teaching assistant. He also plans to expand on his Hill-fellow paper by focusing on what he believes is a crying need for a basic set of employment rights for all U.S. workers. “That’s a cause to pursue,” he says, “and everyone needs a cause.”
Charles Denny is also a director for:
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota; Science Museum of Minnesota; Mayo Clinic Regional Council.
Past Corporate Board Service:
Pako Corporation; E. F. Johnson Company; McQuay Company; Minnesota Power and Light; First Bank System; Tonka Corporation.
Past Community Board Service:
College of St. Catherine; Minnesota High Technology Council; Minnesota Orchestra; Minneapolis Foundation; Minnesota Project Innovation; Minnesota Wellspring; Project for Pride in Living Industries; University of Minnesota Foundation; Minnesota Technology Corridor; Boys and Girls Club of Minneapolis; St. John’s University; Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility; Citizens League; Minnesota Supercomputer Center. Denny has also held executive positions with the Minneapolis Community Development Council and the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota and the Dakotas.