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NORTH MANKATO, MINN. -- 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.
Despite that internal turmoil, Taylor remains a loyal patriarch and plans to appoint Jean to the Star Tribune’s board of directors as his family’s representative.
Most CEOs in Taylor’s league — Forbes estimates his worth at $1.7 billion — are surrounded by advisers and image handlers. Taylor is surprisingly down-home.
He has had the same secretary, Linda Danielson, for more than 35 years. She runs his schedule from a simple cubicle. Taylor’s brother Larry, a Taylor Corp. vice president, has an office next door to his.
Power lunches? Nope. Taylor said he seldom bothers to eat lunch. He prefers dinner at home in his kitchen.
Taylor’s oldest brother, Roger, once asked him why he doesn’t have a more sumptuous office.
“He said, ‘Everything you need is here, why make it fancy? This is practical.’ ”
A ‘pretty simple’ youth
As the second of seven kids, five of them boys, Taylor helped raise corn, soybeans, flax, oats, chickens, pigs and dairy cows on the family’s 150 acres near Comfrey.
“It was a pretty simple life,” Taylor said. “You collected eggs and took them to town on Saturday. The milkman picked up the milk, and that was your income.”
His mother would buy sugar, salt and spices with the money the eggs, milk and butchered livestock fetched.
“Everything else you raised on the farm,” he said. Taylor loved keeping records of when pigeons were born and when cows were slated to calve.
Teachers urged him to give up farming for math and physics classes at what was then Mankato State University. Taylor took their advice and graduated with a math degree in 1962. He planned to become a teacher like his big brother, Roger. “We were very close,” Taylor said. “I always wanted to do what he could do.”
Working 40 hours a week in college as a part-timer at Bill Carlson’s Wedding Service printing business in Mankato, Taylor used the $1 an hour he earned to augment his $300 college scholarship. “I’d go to the bank and cash my check and get all $1 bills and come home and do the budget,” he said.
That meant depositing the bills in envelopes for rent, food, clothing, etc. If he went over budget on food, he’d write a note that he borrowed it from the rent envelope.
“I didn’t have Post-it notes then,” he said, flashing his wry humor. Taylor Corp. is now among the leading printers of customized Post-it notes.
The math geek from Mankato State was quickly morphing into a businessman. A frugal, tightfisted, bottom-line watcher.
“Budgets are what I’m good at,” Taylor said. “People ask how in the world do you manage so many companies? And it’s all about managing to a budget.”
When Carlson, his first boss, retired in 1975, Taylor had been working there for years. He purchased the company and was on his way. By acquiring competitors and growing its printing operations, Taylor Corp. mushroomed in size. From there, he took calculated chances, buying into professional basketball, egg production, hearing implants and financial services.
“He buys companies many times a year,” Jean Taylor said. “This one is more public than wedding invitations. But a big hunk of Taylor Corporation is going through that transition from traditional print to digital so there are adjacencies but also new challenges and risks.”
Taylor likes to buy companies he considers astutely run. He tends to retain management and, depending on the deal and the economy, uses his own formula of cash and borrowing to finance those transactions.
And Taylor has never shied away from the public eye. When the Timberwolves were poised to move to New Orleans, he stepped up to buy them in 1995 — thrusting himself into the glare of the pro sports.
He’d never been to the Capitol before he was elected a state senator in the 1980s. He rose to minority leader and toyed with a gubernatorial run but scuttled those plans when his first marriage dissolved and he fathered a child out of wedlock.
That daughter, 26-year-old Kendahl Prokop, graduated from the University of St. Thomas and works as a marketing specialist at Taylor’s hearing implant business in White Bear Lake. “My dad has always been a big part of my life no matter what our situation was,” she said. “It’s never been awkward to me. It’s just the way it is, and I’m really in awe of my dad and what he does and how he takes a challenge and works so hard to overcome it.”
Thorns amid roses
Amid all Taylor’s success, growing Taylor Corp. from a single printing company and then building his many-tentacled holdings, not everything has turned out rosy.
Workers at Rembrandt Enterprises in Thompson, Iowa, complained about having overtime pay wiped out when Taylor was part of an acquisition that made the giant ag firm the nation’s third-largest egg company with nearly 6 million hens.
Taylor’s NBA team had struggled to win since he took over in 1995, partly because of league sanctions that included the loss of several first-round draft picks after a case of salary-cap tampering involving forward Joe Smith. Recently, reports have surfaced that Taylor has discussed shopping his basketball franchise around for a new owner.
Taylor wound up with 70 percent of a $10 million promissory note when former Wolf Christian Laettner’s plans to redevelop a tobacco warehouse went belly up recently in Durham, N.C.
His Envoy Medical Corp. hearing implant firm in White Bear Lake has struggled to attract customers because insurance companies won’t pay for a new procedure.
And union leaders complained about his tough tactics at a Golden Valley envelope company he took over in the mid-1970s and another operation in Hugo.
“He was anti-union, and we were told that he threatened to shut the plant down if they organized in Hugo,” said Dean Stanton, a former president of the local printers union.
Taylor, who takes over a Star Tribune where roughly two-thirds of the employees belong to one of eight unions, bristles at the charge that he’s ruthless when it comes to unions. He mentioned one plant he took over that included both union and nonunion workers. When he offered to pay everyone the same union wage, the union eventually disbanded.
“If you ask me would I prefer to have unions or not, I’d prefer not to have unions because I want to have as close a relationship with the employees that I can. I want to know what’s in their interest and there is a lot of ways of getting that done.”
He points to Taylor Corp.’s in-house day care center — among the nation’s first — as an example of taking care of workers’ needs. “Society at one time had people who got abused at workplaces, right?” he said. “They had to collectively get together to protect their interests. So they became union members. But society is changing now and some things unions brought society, government gives the people, right?”
Dollar bills to billions
When Taylor called his brother Roger in March to tell him about his rekindled interest in the Star Tribune, the younger Glen said the decision had risks but felt right. Those who know Taylor say he has an uncanny way of balancing his analytical brain with gut feelings.
“The night we talked about the newspaper, he said he always thought he was good at looking at things and making a decision without a lot of going back and forth,” Roger said. “He won’t say 100 percent have turned out right, but an awful lot have. He’s not nervous at all about it. He’s excited.”
Taylor first considered buying the Star Tribune before the 2009 bankruptcy, then displayed his trademark patience — waiting to make a tender offer after the paper emerged with less debt. He was going in on the deal with Vance Opperman, heir of a legal publishing fortune.
When the duo realized the bankrupt company’s price was nevertheless steep and they couldn’t grab enough stock to control the Star Tribune, they backed away for a few years.
“They see every deal in town, and they can pick and chose,” said Pflaum, the Minneapolis lawyer close to the newspaper deal. “It’s a much lower return than if he went out and bought another business, and that was one of the challenges for us in getting him to commit to this.”
Pflaum and Opperman made a civic pitch, urging Taylor to take a chance to keep a Minnesota news organization from the hands of an out-of-state chain.
His daughter Jean, who was skeptical of the investment, said that civic pitch seemed to sway him. He told her, “If I’m able to do it, I want to do it and make sure it remains an important part of Minnesota.”
He’s looking for the Star Tribune to improve on both its news pages and its balance sheet. But despite questions about the industry’s future, he’s encouraged about buying a newspaper with some 500,000 Sunday subscribers and more than 7 million unique monthly users across its digital platforms.
“I see a formula, businesswise, where it will pay for itself,” he said. “If I’m wrong, I will survive.”
The skeptics, pointing to intense competition for ad dollars as news organizations transition from print to digital technology, “might be right,” Taylor admitted. “But I’m telling you, I see it differently, and I guess I want to prove that, and see if it can’t be done.”