David Olson, who led the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for nearly a quarter century, was remembered fondly Thursday by associates as a staunch business advocate who always found time for a light moment and common ground with political opponents.
Olson, 57, died late Wednesday after the sudden return of cancer that had appeared to be in remission.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend and colleague David Olson,” Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said in a statement. “David made a difference. He fought hard to make it easier for large and small businesses across Minnesota to grow and prosper, but he never took himself too seriously. He was widely respected at the [Minnesota] Capitol by Republicans and Democrats for his integrity, passion and sense of humor. Any meeting he attended was sure to involve a lot of laughter. He will be sorely missed.”
The Olson family placed word on the CaringBridge website Wednesday that he returned to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis last Friday after a recurrence of lymphoma. He died after 11 p.m. Wednesday.
“He died peacefully surrounded by family members and very close friends,” his wife, Carolyn, and sons Erik and Nick wrote on the site. “Thank you all for your outpouring of love and support. You were all important to David and I know he will be deeply missed.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Before his death, the family wrote on the site, “As many of you know, last month David had received a report that he appeared to be in full remission following his stem cell transplant this past spring for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. David was strong and in good spirits, beginning to return to work activities and enjoying being with friends and family.”
Olson was known as a strong business advocate who was a master of the art of good-faith negotiation and problem-solving.
“David’s deep commitment to improving the state’s economy and the lives of Minnesotans carried throughout his career,” said Bill Blazar, the chamber’s senior vice president of public affairs and business development.
Olson led an organization that represents more than 2,300 Minnesota companies, 130 local chambers and 65 business trade associations at the Minnesota Legislature.
“David was a gentleman in the best sense of the word,’’ Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday. “He was an excellent leader for, and advocate on behalf of, his members.”
A champion for his group
During his tenure, Olson was known for driving thousands of miles annually around Minnesota to meet with local chambers and businesses.
Under his leadership, the chamber also sought private-sector solutions to statewide problems. Its Waste Wise program helped hundreds of Minnesota businesses cut tons of waste annually and increase commercial recycling.
In 1995, the chamber negotiated legislation that led to significant workers’ compensation reform, without harming injured workers. In recent years, Olson’s chamber led the successful campaign that constitutionally dedicated more for transportation funding.
And in 2008, the chamber supported an increase in the gas tax to repair roads and improve mass transit.
Olson, supported by his board, defied the wishes of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and most Republican legislators who opposed the tax increase. The chamber board, however, supported increased funding for roads and transit after 20 years of no gas-tax increase and deteriorating roads. Olson, who was pilloried by opponents, quipped that getting taken behind the woodshed went with his turf.
“David was a remarkable leader who understood that politics is not about how loud you can talk, but rather how effective you can be,” said Matt Kramer, CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and who was commissioner of economic development under Pawlenty. “He was willing to see the long view instead of the short win.”
Duane Benson, a former Republican Minnesota legislator who ran the Minnesota Business Partnership for about a decade, said: “David’s magic was that he never built staffs, coalitions, networks, etc. He created families to solve problems. He probably never realized how effective he was as a team leader, because it was never about him. … It was about the success of the family.’’
Former Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, recalled Olson as a strong leader who sought relationships.
Carlson recalled that he joined Olson and the late Teamsters union leader Harold Yates on an inaugural flight from the Twin Cities to Reykjavík on Icelandair. Yates and Olson, who often warred over legislation, also enjoyed each other’s company.
“Harold was a meat-and-potatoes guy and David, a Scandinavian, loved fish,” Carlson recalled. “It seemed that all we were served was salmon in Iceland.’’
Other organizations also sought Olson for his expertise and diplomacy. He served six years on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board of trustees, including as chairman from 2007 to 2010.