When the five Minneapolis department-store Dayton brothers decided in late 1960 to dabble in discount retailing, they assigned the youngest, Douglas, to take the lead. He was just 36 years old.
The spectacular success of the result -- Target Corp. – shows that he was more than up to the task. Long before Douglas Dayton died Friday at age 88, he had the satisfaction of seeing the little enterprise he ran during first eight formative years subsume its parent and become the nation’s second-largest discount retailer.
“He masterminded its take-off, more than any other individual,” his nephew, Gov. Mark Dayton, said Monday. “He recognized Target’s potential before anyone did.”
The transformation of Dayton’s into Target has been praised by business analysts for the willingness of the parent company to give the offspring free rein. As Bruce Dayton – the only surviving brother – described in a privately published memoir in 2008, Doug’s new company would “operate entirely separately from the Dayton’s stores,” free to make its own choices and mistakes.
But while separate in a business sense, Target was tethered to Dayton’s in a familial sense. For many years, the five brothers met every Saturday to plot strategy. No matter how disparate the Dayton businesses appeared on paper, the close-knit brothers were a team from 1950, when their father died, until Bruce and Kenneth Dayton stepped down in 1983 as the last Daytons on the Dayton-Hudson corporate board.
By the time the Dayton name gave way to Target on the corporate letterhead in 2000, Douglas Dayton was well into a low-profile second career as a venture capitalist and philanthropist.
“Doug would quietly get things done. He understood the reciprocal relationship between the family and the community,” the governor said of his uncle. “We depended on the community for our livelihood.” In Doug Dayton's view, his gifts of time and treasure to organizations including the YMCA, the Nature Conservancy, the Urban League and Urban Coalition were “both a moral imperative and a business strategy.”
That notion of business-community reciprocity, exhibited by the Daytons and other local business titans, did much good for Minnesota. Doug Dayton was an unassuming man who disliked drawing attention to himself. But if the tributes to him in death highlight the value of that idea, I doubt he’d mind.