Inside Track: Bus chief Zelle takes the wheel at MnDot

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2012 - 5:39 PM
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Jefferson Lines CEO Charlie Zelle has been named the new Minnesota Transportation Commissioner.

Photo: Neal St. Anthony,

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Charlie Zelle, Gov. Mark Dayton's choice to take over as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), said last week that he has appointed a successor as CEO of Jefferson Lines, the interstate bus company that his grandfather founded.

Zelle will remain chairman and plans to recuse himself from any dealings involving the state.

Zelle said Steve Woelfel, 52, Jefferson's chief financial officer who also functions as chief operating officer, will become chief executive. Jefferson Lines, founded nearly a century ago by Zelle's grandfather, is a $25 million revenue business with routes largely in the Upper Midwest that employs more than 200 people and owns 75 buses.

"Truth is, I couldn't have stepped away from Jefferson a few years ago," Zelle said. "Steve is respected by our drivers and the other people in our company. He's very good at details, which I am not. And I have been increasingly engaged in other things. Now I've got this job in St. Paul, but if this hadn't come about, I think I would have gone ahead and started to step away" from the CEO job anyway.

Zelle quit a Wall Street career with Merrill Lynch in the late 1980s to return home and succeed his late father, Louie, and salvage the family's troubled commercial real estate and bus businesses. Louie Zelle was a pioneer in the revival of the Mississippi River in the 1970s in then-money-losing St. Anthony Main. It took a trip through bankruptcy in 1991 and an infusion of about $4 million in cash from local investors for the modern-day Jefferson Lines to emerge.

Meanwhile, Zelle, 57, isn't showing his hand yet on transportation-finance recommendations. But he sat on a recent state task force of government and businesspeople who recommended that gas taxes rise by 40 cents over the next 20 years to fund an additional $15 billion worth of roadwork.

Dayton has indicated he won't immediately seek a gas tax hike, partly because it is politically unpopular.

"The governor asked the right question of the task force," Zelle said. "What will it take to advance a world-class transportation system? A broad, bipartisan mix of private and government committee members ... said that if this is what we want, we'll need additional revenue.

"Our recommendation lays out the facts, and it's a little provocative. Where it goes, it's too early to say. It will start the discussion. It's a huge challenge for the states and federal government."

Zelle has been active in a variety of business, civic and arts organizations and has been a business adviser to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

BRUCATO TO ANCHOR MSP SHOW

Veteran broadcaster Cyndy Brucato returns to KSTP-TV at 10:30 Sunday morning as the host of "Greater MSP Business," which is billed as "the first local TV show to feature the stories of businesses" in these parts.

Well, maybe the first in modern-day times.

I can remember a business interview show on Ch. 4 on Sunday mornings about 40 years ago that followed Sherm Booen's "World of Aviation."

The new show is produced by Greater MSP, the Minneapolis St. Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership, the 2-year-old private-public partnership charged with accelerating job growth and capital investment in metro area.

Sunday's premiere kicks off 48 episodes featuring profiles of companies and industries, innovations and entrepreneurs.

Mike Brown, vice president of marketing for Greater MSP, said the purpose is to showcase "how competitive our region is not only in the United States, but within the entire global marketplace" and why "businesses prosper here."

Sponsored by U.S. Bank, the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the first episode features guests Jim Russell, senior equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management; Sri Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and Jay Lindgren, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney.

"We have wonderful guests and stories lined up for our first episode, and I'm looking forward to many more. We have the opportunity to give our viewers unprecedented access to business leaders and hear directly from them about the decisions and strategies,'' said Brucato, who also served as communications director to Gov. Arne Carlson in the 1990s.

SALAD DAYS: ROOTS TEAM HAD GOOD SEASON AT TARGET FIELD

Roots for the Home Team had a much better season than its host Minnesota Twins at the ballpark last summer. Roots is the innovative business that employs city teens to prepare nutritious salads for fans, the ingredients for which are supplied by community gardens maintained by teens employed by neighborhood nonprofits that have embraced urban farming.

"You have to be focused and know what you are doing in order to have a successful business," said DeShaun Baker, 16, who worked at the Community Design Center's Eastside Garden Corps and Roots.

Throughout the season, 22 youth leaders of the 159 youth garden growers were selected to sell the tasty salads at Target Field.

Roots for the Home Team also worked with Emerge Homegrown Gardens and Youth Farm and Market Project to secure produce to sell at Target Field. The three garden programs have roots in more than 10 different inner-city communities in the Twin Cities.

The teens made and sold nearly 1,000 salads, earning about $7,000 for their program, which will return to Target Field next season, according to Susan Moores,the visionary nutritionist behind this collaborative effort. More information: www.rootsforthehometeam.org.

TAKE A LESSON FROM THE FISCAL CLIFF

While Americans are clamoring for President Obama and Congress to pass a tax-and-budget package that avoids the fiscal cliff, some folks say both the pols and private citizens can do better.

According to the 2012 Bad Financial Habits Survey from Golden Valley-based Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, the top economic concerns of Americans in 2012 were "unemployment" followed by the "impending fiscal cliff."

But nearly a third of respondents said they were "not saving any money" and 18 percent said they were "spending more than I make" -- the household version of the federal budget crisis.

"Americans want Uncle Sam to address the economic issues that are affecting the country's finances," said Katie Libbe, an Allianz vice president. "It's our hope that discussion ... will prompt more Americans to take action to secure their own financial future."

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