Marilyn Carlson Nelson

CEO and president, 1998-2008; Board chair, 1998-2013, Carlson
Marilyn Carlson Nelson

When Marilyn Carlson Nelson took the helm as president and CEO of Carlson in 1998, the family company had already been in business for 60 years. Her father, Curt Carlson, was a Minnesota business legend, building the Gold Bond Stamp Co. into a global hospitality leader.

How do you bring an entrepreneurial spirit to a company that already has a decades-long track record? Her father had a term for it, calling it “intra-preneurship,” she recalls.

“Every one of these large companies has had to reinvent itself several times in order to continue to grow and to survive,” says Carlson Nelson, noting current transformations underway at local companies such as Target and Best Buy.

“Because he owned 100 percent of the company, he was more risk-tolerant,” says Carlson Nelson of her father. “I had to build a collaborative environment. I had to move the company from its original entrepreneurship into a more professionalized, institutionalized organization, still hoping to keep some of the agility and flexibility and creativity of entrepreneurship.”

During her 10-year tenure as CEO of the company, Carlson Nelson led a transformation of the company’s culture. By the time she stepped down as CEO, women held more than 45 percent of the company’s executive roles.

Today Carlson Nelson remains actively involved in numerous civic and community causes.

Richard Davis, chairman, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, has worked with Carlson Nelson on the boards of Greater MSP and the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as the successful effort to land the Super Bowl in Minneapolis in 2018.

“She has continued through generations to be a voice of leadership and a role model,” Davis says. “She’s a heart-driven leader, probably as much as anyone I know.”