From farm boy to billionaire, Glen Taylor steers his own course

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2014 - 5:44 PM

The Mankato businessman looks forward to the latest addition to his corporate family: the Star Tribune.

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Glen Taylor keeps a copy of his 1959 commencement speech from tiny Comfrey High School tucked away in a drawer at home.

“I can’t remember what I said. But I know right where it is.”

His high school’s brass never wanted him to deliver that senior speech. After all, he married his pregnant girlfriend at 16. But teachers rallied behind him, saying he had posted the best grades and earned the right to speak.

Hanging on to that speech for 55 years reflects an “I’ll show ’em” streak in Taylor, the farm kid turned billionaire who plans to show naysayers that he can make money investing in an industry that faces more competition than ever for both readers and advertisers. Taylor is on the verge of closing a deal this week to buy the region’s largest news organization, the Star Tribune, for an estimated $100 million.

“Most business guys are saying about the newspaper thing: ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’ and that’s why I’m doing it,” Taylor said, cackling. After five years of on-again, off-again pursuit, he adds the newspaper and its website to his dizzying collection of holdings. He has significant stakes in 80 businesses employing 9,000 people, from wedding invitation printers to liquefied egg producers, software designers to investment bankers, hearing implant specialists to Timberwolves point guards.

All controlled by a 73-year-old who grew up on a southern Minnesota farm where they could afford to eat only the chickens they raised, not the pigs, because times were lean.

He says the rationale for the purchase is partly civic, sparked by his desire as a former state senator to keep institutions such as newspapers and basketball teams in the hands of Minnesota owners. He says he’s also impressed with how the paper’s current managers “right-sided themselves” back to profitability after a 2009 bankruptcy. That allowed the Star Tribune to expand its digital and print products while paying down debt and shoring up employee pension funds.

“I’m interested in being part of that team,” Taylor said, promising to be both hands-off but demanding of a newspaper he doesn’t want to see resting on the laurels of two 2013 Pulitzer Prizes. “Even if you think yourself near the top, I want them to be better,” he said. “It’s my job to stimulate the Tribune people to say, ‘Yes, we’re proud, we’re good, but can we be better?’ ”

‘Why make it fancy?’

North Mankato is a blink on Hwys. 169 and 14, about 90 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities and most of Minnesota’s big business happenings. But this is the vortex of the Taylor Corp. empire, run from a relatively Spartan office in a nondescript industrial park.

“It’s run like a small, very closely held family business,” said Stephen Pflaum, a lawyer who helped broker the Star Tribune deal. “But it’s big.”

Really big. Taylor Corp. is among the nation’s largest privately held companies with $1.6 billion in sales. His newspaper ownership will join his ag, basketball, hearing implant and financial services holdings that exist outside the Taylor Corp. umbrella.

Taylor keeps his hands in everything, yet still finds time to raise pigeons and chickens, rake sticks and weeds from his tomato gardens or hop on a tractor on some of the 15,000 acres of farmland he owns in Iowa and southern Minnesota. Those chores, as he still calls them, give him time to think.

“I like the garden and the farm stuff because I’m by myself, and it’s the opposite of what I do all day long: sit in meetings, solve problems, listen to people, hear complaints and deal with bad things. That’s my job.”

He said he’s often given 10 minutes to decide whether to spend millions on this business or that, when some decisions, like buying a news organization, require more time.

“Just pulling a weed gives my brain the freedom to think a little longer about complicated decisions like, should I fire somebody? Those are the really hard ones.”

Taylor Corp. turns 40 next year, and Taylor stepped back in as CEO in 2010, after an in-house shake-up that saw his daughter Jean Taylor step aside after 16 years at the company and three as CEO.

“It was something my dad and I agreed on,” said Jean, who lives in Eagan and declined to elaborate on why she left.

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  • At a glance

    Age: 73

    What: New owner of the Star Tribune

    Home: Mankato

    Education: Studied math and physics at what was Mankato State

    Politics: Served as a Republican state senator in the 1980s, including as minority leader from 1984-86

    Car: Audi A8 with nearly 80,000 miles

    Family: Second wife, Becky Mulvihill; five grown children Terri, Jean, Taylor, Jeff and Kendahl and more than 20 grandchildren. Taylor has known Becky’s family for years and knew her husband, Jim, before he died of cancer. Their daughters eventually told Taylor, “Mom’s thinking of dating again.” They were married in 2007.

    Businesses: Taylor Corp. started as a North Mankato printing firm and in 40 years has grown from a single company with 200 employees to an array of 80 companies with 9,000 employees. Taylor also owns the Minnesota Timberwolves; one of the nation’s largest egg companies, Rembrandt Enterprises in Iowa; he’s the largest shareholder in Northland Capital investment bank and owns Envoy Medical Corp., makers of implantable hearing devices.

    Philanthropy: Taylor has donated millions to Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is a major supporter of a group in Guatemala that builds schools and trains teachers to educate indigenous children.

    Fun fact: The doors at his house are custom-made and tall so Wolves employees don’t have to duck.

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