MN Businessman Kenneth Dahlberg Dies at 94

The Deephaven resident, who founded Miracle-Ear and pumped money into several companies, was a decorated World War II fighter pilot who also played a cameo role in the Watergate scandal even though he engaged in no wrongdoing.

Minnesota businessman Kenneth Dahlberg, who founded what became Miracle-Ear and bankrolled other companies, died Tuesday at the age of 94.

“A step into the unknown can make you a leader,” Dahlberg told Twin Cities Business in 2003. And the Deephaven resident was known for being a leader wherever he took a step.

Dahlberg began his business career washing pots and pans at the old Lowry Hotel in St. Paul. Two years later, he had become the food and beverage controller for the Chicago-based Pick Hotels chain.

At 23, he was drafted into the Army, and he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. As a fighter pilot, he shot down 15 German fighters and earned two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, and the Silver Star. He was shot down three times, escaping twice but captured the third time, after which he spent four months in Germany as a prisoner of war.

After his discharge, Dahlberg returned to the Twin Cities and got a job as assistant to the president of Telex, an electronics company that manufactured hearing aids. He left that job in 1948 because he believed he could make a better product. And in 1955, his company-Dahlberg, Inc.-unveiled the Miracle-Ear, the first all-in-the-ear hearing aid.

Warren Mack, Dahlberg's longtime attorney and friend, says Dahlberg represented the Greatest Generation as well as anyone could. He grew up without money, lacked higher education, and started out at the bottom. But “people could see immediately that this guy was intelligent and curious and charming and motivated and a wonderful human being-the qualities that get you promotions, one after another, fast and furious.”

Mack-who works at Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.-says that Dahlberg “could do most everything extremely well,” but what was perhaps most notable was Dahlberg's creativity. He was always drawn to the marketing side of business but applied his creative genius to many facets-creating effective sound bites, figuring out how to sell a product, and even coming up with brilliant product designs, like the Miracle-Ear, Mack told Twin Cities Business. “And he combined that across-the-board creativity with such a winning personality, such charm, such ability to be interested in the other guy, not himself.”

What was perhaps Dahlberg's biggest claim to fame was his brief appearance in the Watergate scandal, despite the fact that he didn't engage in any wrongdoing. In 1972, a $25,000 cashier's check that Dahlberg had given to President Richard Nixon's national finance chairman turned up in the account of one of the Watergate burglars, whose arrest would lead to Nixon's resignation. The contribution came from former Archer Daniels Midland Chairman Dwayne Andreas. It was legal, and Dahlberg was cleared by a grand jury-but not before he was interrogated by an investigator with the Florida attorney general's office in Miami, where he was attending the Republican National Convention.

In 1994, Dahlberg sold his company to Bausch & Lomb for $139 million and went into the venture capital business. He then founded Carefree Capital, a Wayzata investment firm that pumped capital into several Minnesota companies.

One of those companies was Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc. Dahlberg served on its board from 1994 to 2008 and was its chairman from 2003 to 2007.

“Ken played a very important role at Buffalo Wild Wings during his 14 years on our board and was instrumental in bringing this organization to where it is today,” Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith said in a statement. “Ken served as a role model, trusted advisor, and a friend to me for many years…”

Dahlberg was inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame in 1993.