Dennis Frandsen

Frandsen Corporation
Dennis Frandsen

Just after he graduated from high school in 1951, Dennis Frandsen left his hometown of Luck, Wisconsin, to seek his fortune in the big city. Months later, he started what became Frandsen Corporation, now a $150 million company with operations in manufacturing, banking, and real estate that employs about 1,000 people. But he found fortune in his own backyard.

Frandsen had grown up on his family’s small dairy farm outside Luck, the older of two sons. There was no talk of college. Instead, Frandsen’s father suggested that he go to the Twin Cities and find a good job.

Naïve and nervous, Frandsen and a pal drove to Minneapolis, slept in Dennis’s car, and looked for work. To his surprise, 3M Company hired him as an office boy. “I don’t know why,” Frandsen says, still bemused nearly 60 years later, “but they did.”

Unfortunately, at least for 3M, Frandsen never started the job. “I realized that with what they were going to pay me”—minus rent, groceries, and other necessities of life in the metropolis—“I’d barely be able to exist.” He decided he could do better back in the sticks. Which he did, starting with only a chain saw, a horse to drag felled timber out of the woods, and a stand of hard maple on his parents’ farm.

“It proved to be one of the major decisions in my life,” says Frandsen, who at 75 still chops wood—albeit as a hobby now—and has the physique to prove it.

He has steadfastly resisted the pull of the city. Frandsen Corporation is headquartered in Forest Lake, and several of its businesses have a rural tinge: cattle prods made by Nebraska-based Springer McGrath Company; 38 mostly small-town banks run by Arden Hills–based Frandsen Financial Corporation; farm, ranch, and pet supplies made by Eagan-based Miller Manufacturing Company. There’s also Industrial Netting, a maker of plastic netting and tubes based in Minneapolis, and Plastech Corporation based in Rush City, which does custom injection molding for companies including 3M, Toro, Polaris, and Sub-Zero.

In all, Frandsen has made 40 acquisitions over the years. Plainspoken and self-effacing, he says his business grew without a grand plan.

“I consider myself an entrepreneur and an opportunist,” he explains. “And I worked all the time.” Growing up with his parents’ modest, hard-earned income, he adds, “I was motivated to make money.”

He remembers making more than $1,000 his first month in the lumber business—minus the $10 he agreed to pay his mother for room and board—selling his maple to nearby manufacturers. As Luck would have it, his tiny hometown was the “yo-yo capital of the world,” where Duncan yo-yos were made. Within a year, Frandsen arranged to harvest timber on his neighbors’ land and hired his first employee.

He had never flown on an airplane, or even been to Chicago, but when Frandsen heard, in 1953, about a tract of forested land near Rush City that a Chicago woman had inherited, he got on a plane, called on her without an appointment, and eventually persuaded her to sell. Turned down by his banker in Luck, he financed the $13,000 purchase with a bank in nearby Grantsburg, Wisconsin—and promised himself he would someday buy the recalcitrant Luck bank.

In 1981, he did, and it became the seed of Frandsen Financial Corporation, which now has $1.4 billion in assets, seven banking charters, and 38 branches in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.

More good things happened in Rush City. He met and married his wife, Jeanette, then a nurse at the local hospital. He purchased farm land on Rush Lake, improved it, and created 100 prime lakeshore lots, “which put me in the real estate business.” He later bought a thousand acres on the nearby Snake River, improved and subdivided that property into five-acre tracts, and handled the financing for cabin lots. “I was something like 25 years old,” he says. And by that time, a millionaire.

In 1961, Frandsen bought a failing tool-and-die maker in Rush City and turned it into what is now Plastech Corporation. It annually sells $50 million worth of injected plastic moldings, and has been the buyer in some of Frandsen’s key acquisitions—other molding companies in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota.

Frandsen likes to say there are only two things he can do “pretty well”: milk cows and handle a chain saw. Clearly, his skills are more extensive, though he insists his guiding principles are simple.

“I’ve always been very careful managing finances—we’ve never been overleveraged,” he says. “Our bankers have been our friends because we’ve always made our payments. Our vendors have been our friends because we’ve never abused them. As we’ve grown, I’ve let people run things as long as things are going well. When something isn’t going well, I get involved.”

Though Frandsen and his wife now spend much of their winters at a second home in Palm Desert, California, he says there’s always a computer at hand so he can “stay in tune with everything that’s going on.” And as much as he loves the California sunshine, he says he relishes the week when he’s back at his desk at the Forest Lake office.

Why does he still work so hard? Frandsen laughs and says, “Oh, I can’t help myself. It isn’t about the money anymore.” He and his wife plan to leave 80 percent of their estate to charity, most of it to the Wisconsin and Minnesota communities where he’s already had a significant impact. “I could have quit working several years ago,” he says. “But is society better off with me working or retired?”