Edgar Hetteen, an inventor and "godfather" of a Minnesota snowmobile industry in the 1950s that spawned Polaris and Arctic Cat, died Saturday in Grand Rapids, Minn. He was 90.
"One of his great traits was tenacity," said Gary Lemke, a onetime Arctic Cat dealer and retired CEO of ASV, a Grand Rapids manufacturer of all-season utility vehicles, a business he started with Hetteen in 1983. "He always said, 'There's got to be a better way.'" He tried to find it, in snowmobiles, ATVs, wheelchairs and other products.
The snowmobile was invented as a utility product before Hetteen got involved, Lemke said. "But he improved the snowmobile and his 1960 trip across Alaska proved the reliability and he invented the 'sport' of snowmobiling. And he always surrounded himself with good people at Polaris and elsewhere."
The son of Swedish immigrants, Hetteen grew up on a farm near Roseau, Minn. A tinkerer, he developed a keen eye for innovation and invention, despite only an eighth-grade education. He worked in an uncle's machine shop as a teenager, served in the military and started Hetteen Hoist and Derrick in 1945.
The company expanded to build farm equipment and eventually became Polaris Industries, run by Edgar and two brothers. In 1956, Polaris produced its first snowmobile and Edgar became its champion, leading three snowmobilers across 1,200 miles of Alaskan wilderness in 1960.
Hetteen left Polaris later that year to start Arctic Cat, which also grew to be a major snowmobile and ATV company.
"Edgar was an icon, a snowmobile pioneer and visionary who helped grow ... a thriving pursuit and business that people love worldwide," said Polaris President Bennett Morgan. "He was an inspiration to generations of Polaris employees who admired his Budesire for innovation.
"Edgar's spirit and passion for people and snowmobiling never left our company, and over the past several decades he has been a wonderful ambassador for Polaris and for snowmobiling.''
In the early 1980s, Arctic Cat and Polaris fell on hard times amid recession and a series of light-snow winters. But both survived and became major public companies and employers, based in Thief River Falls and Medina, respectively.
In 1983, Hetteen and Lemke started ASV, another Hetteen invention that made big inroads with wide tracks. By using tracks similar to a tank's, vehicles greatly reduce damage to lawn and roadway compared with wheeled vehicles. ASV-equipped vehicles are used by contractors, landscapers and farmers. The military uses them in clearing landmines.
"Edgar brought credibility to the company," Lemke said. "We found investors, suppliers and others and we built a company of $250 million in sales."
ASV, which had 250 employees, was sold in 2008 to Connecticut-based construction-equipment giant Terex Corp. in a stock transaction valued at $488 million.
Hetteen was the millionaire next door.
"Money did not drive him," Lemke said. "His driving force was to make things better for people, whether a wheelchair, snowmobiles or ASV-type vehicles. ... Not all were successful. He could rub people the wrong way with his tenacity, but he was almost always proved right. He was generous, but most of his donations were anonymous. He tried to make things better for the elderly.''
His widow, Hannah, survives him in the same nursing home in Grand Rapids where Hetteen lived the last years of his life. A funeral will be held Saturday at the Grace Bible Chapel in Grand Rapids.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144