Navigating To Greatness

Navigating To Greatness

While some succeed by pursuing their goals from Day One, most others do so by changing course.

This month marks the 16th year that Twin Cities Business has honored five business leaders for their lifetime of achievement. We carefully vet the honorees, and through the years the magazine has found truly inspiring individuals to profile and celebrate at our live awards dinner. (Join us at our July event and you’ll see what I mean: Information is at

Honorees have ranged from Earl Bakken (Medtronic), Carl Pohlad (Marquette Bank, Pohlad Cos., Minnesota Twins), Curt Carlson (Gold Bond Stamps, Carlson Cos.), Stanley S. Hubbard (satellite TV, KSTP) and Richard Schulze (Best Buy) to Bahram Akradi (Life Time Fitness), Douglas Baker Jr. (Ecolab), Mary Brainerd (HealthPartners), Sally Smith (Buffalo Wild Wings) and Richard Davis (U.S. Bancorp). And our slate this year is equally impressive.

Through the years, it’s been interesting to hear how some of the inductees, such as Pohlad, Carlson and Akradi, knew from the get-go that they were out to forge a new approach to doing things or revamp an industry. A few, including Hubbard and Red Wing Shoe Co.’s Bill Sweasy, inherited a family business and used that base to transform an industry. But many others didn’t plan to work in the industry they would later help lead and change. For example:

Mark Stutrud (2015) graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in social work and practiced in that area before deciding to take the plunge and transform his hobby into a business. He developed a fantastic recipe (yes, I am biased, as Summit Extra Pale Ale is my favorite beer), conducted thorough market research and developed a business plan solid enough not only to start a brewery but to grow it into one of the nation’s very first successful “micro-breweries.”

Steve Leuthold (2015) began his post-high school life writing songs and starting a band dubbed Steve Carl and the Jags. He went to college to become a lawyer but found it boring and decided instead to major in history, joining the Army National Guard to help pay tuition. Because he had worked for his father’s clothing business as a kid, the captain of his unit assigned him to distribute uniforms and fit shoes for new recruits. Then, as Leuthold tells it, one day the captain said, “ ‘You know something about investments, apparently. How would you like to sit in the office?’ I took a correspondence course in securities analysis while I was there. He said ‘Just do my charts for me, will you?’ I said, ‘Sure I will,’ and I got off the line fitting shoes!” he concludes with a laugh. In all seriousness, though, his captain’s request steered him toward his calling: Leuthold went on to become one of the world’s most respected institutional investment researchers and managers.

Robert Senkler (2015) had a variety of jobs before and during college, ranging from bus boy and fry cook at Big Ben’s Restaurant in White Bear Lake to running parts for a bearings company and guarding ships in Duluth while attending college there. “The philosophy was to do a job enough to know I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life, and maybe get a little education along the way,” he says with a smile. He knew since second grade he wanted to be a math major, and he earned an undergraduate math degree with plans to obtain a Ph.D. so he could teach. “But after four years of college I had the opportunity to go into the actuarial science field and I thought making money and actually getting a job was more attractive than four more years of school.” He subsequently fell in love with an industry that he later became a titan of, after successfully revamping, bolstering and steering Securian through a recession that took out many of its competitors.

Randall Hogan (2013) majored in engineering, but didn’t really know where that would take him. “One of the benefits engineering [brings to corporate leadership] is that you do have to understand the laws of physics. If you understand how things work, the laws of nature, and how man has applied the laws of nature to how things work—whether it’s a water system or an electrical circuit or some kind of chemical process—you get into a line of questioning where you’re bounding your thoughts by the science around it,” Hogan, CEO of Pentair, told us. “I haven’t practiced since 1980, but most people in the company will probably tell you I’m an engineer.”

Douglas Baker Jr. (2012) graduated from college with an English degree and spent the following year in Aspen, Colo., as a self-described ski bum. But after that, he took a job with Procter and Gamble and quickly earned a reputation as a successful business leader. The English major/ski bum joined Ecolab, worked his way up to the CEO chair and subsequently tripled the company’s sales and doubled its headcount to 40,000.

Earl Bakken (1999) simply knew he loved to invent—and was good at it. Before he was 18, he built a 5-foot-tall robot with blinking eyes that could brandish a knife, talk and puff on hand-rolled cigarettes; invented the Kiss-O-Meter to measure the emotional connection of a kiss; and built a homemade taser-like device to keep bullies away. His first company focused on producing records, starting with local singer Slim Jim, the Vagabond Kid. He then partnered with Palmer Hermundslie to start a business servicing medical electronic equipment, calling it Medtronic. A power outage raised the question: How can heart pacemakers keep running without power? So he created the first wearable, battery-powered transistorized cardiac pacemaker.

There are more examples of what seem like outliers to those who believe they or their children must choose and then stick to a specific career choice, or believe true greatness in business leadership only comes from those who create their own business and industry.

Call them what you may, they prove there is great potential for the 47 percent of 2013 college graduates who did not find a first job related to their college major, according to a CareerBuilder survey, and the 63 percent of college graduates who as of 2010 did not have a job related to the area in which they majored (U.S. Bureau of the Census). And they help explain, in part, why the average American changes jobs 10 to 15 times between the ages of 18 and 46 (Census).

But most of all, they confirm how important it is for us to listen to ourselves enough to discover, and then pursue, our passions and talents wherever they may take us.

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