Each year, Twin Cities Business recognizes the accomplishments of Minnesota executives who have made lifetime contributions to the state’s economy and to our greater community. This year, we welcome into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame five innovative leaders. Two started in highly competitive industries, where they had to carve out distinctive niches. The other three reinvented and reinvigorated the companies they have led, skillfully adjusting their offerings to meet major changes in their markets.
What unites these leaders are creative responses to new opportunities—and an approach to business that sees customers and employees as making up a community worth nurturing and preserving. They are all caring, as well as hard-nosed, businesspeople.
James Cracchiolo built a reputation at American Express as an expert in turning around underperforming business units. In 2000, he came to Minneapolis to lead American Express Financial Advisors. Five years later, he directed its spinoff into Ameriprise Financial, which immediately became a Fortune 500 company. As its CEO and chairman, Cracchiolo focused Ameriprise more tightly on its core advisory and wealth management businesses, which helped it to come out of the great recession with enough strength to make strategic acquisitions.
As chairman and CEO of Piper Jaffray Cos., Andrew Duff has guided one of Minneapolis’ best-known financial advisory firms through massive changes in the marketplace. He shed Piper Jaffray’s retail brokerage business (which was competing with far larger rivals) and focused on its thriving investment banking business. Thanks to these moves, Piper’s five-year total shareholder return through 2017 was 174 percent.
Sharon Hoffman Avent is the fourth-generation leader of Hastings-based Smead Manufacturing Co., a familiar name in the office products market. She has kept the company relevant and profitable in the digital age by refreshing product lines, making carefully considered moves into electronic records management, and—perhaps most importantly—building on Smead’s traditions of service to customers and loyalty to employees.
Having grown up in his parents’ home furnishings business, John Gabbert had a vision of a furniture store that would appeal to a new generation. After a brief foray into Scandinavian-style DIY, Gabbert opened Room & Board to create and sell stylishly modern, mid-priced furniture. Room & Board now has 17 stores in major cities across the country—and most of its wares are U.S.-made.
Kenny Nelson launched not just one but three successful companies in highly competitive industries—pet food, snacks, and candy. What’s more, he founded and grew all three in Perham, a small town in central Minnesota far from a major urban center. He succeeded by finding his own niches and by drawing upon the distinctive advantages of his rural hometown.