James Campbell

James Campbell

For Jim Campbell, board service is about community.

Since just after his graduation from the University of Minnesota, he has put together such an astonishing CV of Minnesota non- and for-profit board service that it’s difficult to find someone in the Twin Cities whose life he hasn’t touched in some way. Those organizations and businesses have all drawn from the rich banking and financial acumen he honed as a top executive at Wells Fargo and its local predecessors Northwestern National Bank and Norwest Banks.

Looking at his continuing board career, Campbell identifies several common themes or “threads.” One is service to family-owned and –run businesses. (Perhaps surprisingly, he has served on very few public company boards.)

“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed in the family companies is the work on succession and on having adequate management,” Campbell observes. “Financial discipline, succession planning and strategic planning have been areas where I think I’ve added value.”

Board Service

Current

Artis-Naples 2013-present
Destination Medical Center Corp. 2013-present
United Health Foundation 2009-present
Westminster Presbyterian Church 2013-present
Marvin Cos. 2002-present

Past

Abbott Northwestern Hospital
Allina Health System
Bailey Nurseries
Children’s Home Society
Courage Center
Cretex Cos.
Forsythe Appraisals
Greater Twin Cities United Way
Itasca Project
Junior Achievement
Lifetouch
Minneapolis Foundation
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minnesota Business Partnership
Minnesota Zoo
Ryan Companies
University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management
University of Minnesota Foundation

After Campbell retired from Wells Fargo in 2002, several of those family companies that had been bank clients asked him to join their board. The first was Warroad-based window and door manufacturer Marvin Co., a board on which he still serves. “I’m really the only non-employee outsider on the board,” Campbell notes. Other family-company boards he has served on include Elk River-based manufacturer Cretex Cos. and Bailey Nurseries in Newport.

Family businesses, particularly in small towns like Warroad, are intimately bound up with the health of their communities. That’s equally true for firms operating in large cities. For instance, Campbell served on the board of Minneapolis-based real estate firm Ryan Cos., whose accomplishments include developing the Midtown Exchange, which has helped economically anchor Minneapolis’ disadvantaged Phillips neighborhood.

Ryan CEO and president Patrick Ryan says Campbell “brought a discipline to the board about governance, and what the best practices of a board are from a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. We were not operating at that high a level, so he really set us on a course to have a much more effective board than we’ve ever had in our 75 years.” Among the practices Campbell introduced to Ryan Cos. was a formal committee structure.

Campbell himself observes that “I’ve become more alert during the last 10 years on the importance of governance—of term limits, of diversity on boards, on everything from how large the board should be to the skills that you have on the board.” These topics sometimes aren’t always easy for family-run businesses to address. But to Campbell’s thinking, these uncomfortable issues are exactly the types of concerns directors need to raise.

“I think that often it’s felt that corporate boards are sort of rubber stamps for management and that they pretty much go along with whatever management wants to do,” he says. “There are a lot of examples of this in the press recently.” Despite that perception, “boards really do take their roles seriously, and don’t always side with management.”

That means, he says, that “yes, I have taken several controversial positions.” Given his banking expertise, that has included putting a company’s financial strategies under the microscope. “As a banker, I’ve disagreed with how much leverage a company might have—that they should really get their house in order.” He has also offered “a critical view of key managers whom I didn’t feel were performing and who needed to be dealt with.” At some firms, he’s raised the issue of succession, being willing to ask the CEO “ ‘Are you going to stay forever? Do you really have a plan?’ ”

Another theme in Campbell’s board career is health care. “I’ve always had an interest in the complexity in health care,” he says. “It probably started when I went on the board of Abbott Northwestern,” which he chaired for four years. He then moved on to Abbott’s holding company Allina. There he served as vice chair of the Allina board during “difficult times” with the Minnesota attorney general—difficulties that would split Allina from health insurer Medica—and its headquarters move into the Midtown Exchange. Campbell is now on the boards of the Mayo Clinic’s Destination Medical Center Corp. and the UnitedHealth Foundation.

Then there’s a third theme: service to Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. Westminster’s was the first board he joined right out of college. He’s now on the strategic planning committee that’s determining how to best develop some unused church land. Besides Westminster, Campbell has served on the boards of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Itasca Project, and many other civic-minded nonprofits.

Campbell has retired from banking, but he hasn’t retired from board and community service. For him, they’re one and the same.