In Memoriam: Ken Melrose, Philanthropist and Former Toro CEO
Ken Melrose

In Memoriam: Ken Melrose, Philanthropist and Former Toro CEO

He’s remembered for steering Toro from the brink of bankruptcy and donating millions to causes in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Ken Melrose, former CEO of The Toro Co. and prolific philanthropist, died May 3. He was 79.

Melrose got his start at Toro in 1970 working in the company’s marketing department. He rose through the ranks and became the company’s president in 1981 amid “extremely challenging times,” Toro officials said in a statement. He was promoted to CEO in 1983. During his time at the helm, Melrose helped the company navigate from the brink of bankruptcy and steered it back on track to steady profitability.

Melrose retired as CEO in March 2005, the same year that Twin Cities Business inducted him into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame. He continued to serve as the company’s chairman of the board through March 2006.

“When the company needed strong leadership most, it was Ken whom the board tapped in 1981 to bring us from near bankruptcy to the vital and successful organization we are today,” said current chair Michael Hoffman upon Melrose’s retirement from the board. “His wisdom and counsel, particularly over the past year, have been invaluable in ensuring a smooth leadership transition. Ken leaves a lasting legacy with all the employees of The Toro Co.”

Throughout his career, Melrose emphasized the importance of “leading by serving,” an ideal he covered at length in his 1995 book. As a philanthropist, Melrose donated millions to causes in Minnesota and across the country. Perhaps most notably, he provided funding to establish his namesake clinic at HealthPartners a decade ago. The clinic, which focuses on eating disorder care, received a fresh infusion of cash last year, when Melrose provided another $18.7 million, marking the largest donation in HealthPartners’ history.

“Eating disorder care—at the time was and to some extent still is—not as available as it might otherwise be needed,” said Beth Warner, executive director of the Park Nicollet Foundation. “When there were severe gaps or opportunities, he always liked to help figure out a solution.”

Warner and other who worked with Melrose closely remember him as a compassionate giver.

“He took his job of philanthropist very seriously,” Warner said. “He was one of the most joyful givers I’ve ever known. While he was very careful about his investment and did his due diligence, it also brought him a tremendous amount of joy to know he was helping other people.”

Over the nearly 10 years Warner knew Melrose, the two worked on several different philanthropic projects. Warner notes that he made several donations to the Park Nicollet Foundation prior to his 2009 donation for the Melrose Center.

Janelle Dixon, CEO of the Golden Valley-based Animal Humane Society, said Melrose gradually increased his support over time and helped the organization complete several large-scale projects. In February, Melrose gave the organization a $3 million donation, the largest gift in its history.

Aside from his donations to the Park Nicollet Foundation and the Animal Humane Society, Melrose provided funds for several other notable causes. For instance, he made a $1 million donation to establish the Henry B. Melrose Veterans Honor Program, which provides services for veterans in hospice care.

“Ken was an incredibly kind person,” Dixon said, noting that he extended that kindness to anyone who crossed his path. “He’s someone who lived by the values that he set forth and the expectations he had for himself.”

Warner echoed that sentiment. For Melrose, it was always important to value “every voice at the table,” she said.

Even after he retired as CEO at Toro, Melrose continued to send handwritten notes to other retiring employees. He’d often show up to workers’ retirement parties, too, Warner said. He made no distinction between C-suite retirees or factory workers.

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Warner said. “He really cared about people.”