Staff Directory 157932475

Lee Schafer

Columnist | Business
Phone: 612-673-4302
Location: Minneapolis
Other languages: None

Lee Schafer joined the Star Tribune as columnist in 2012 after 15 years in business, including leading his own consulting practice and serving on corporate boards of directors. He's twice been named the best in business columnist by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, most recently for his work in 2017.


Schafer grew up on a southwest Minnesota cattle farm and studied history and economics at Macalester College. He received his masters degree from Northwestern University and worked as a writer and editor for a regional business monthly before returning to business. His work included investment banking but he had the most fun advising CEOs on growth strategy. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Tanya Bell, a real estate development consultant and civic leader, and they have three adult daughters. He's also been active as a volunteer, including for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Neighborhood House and Urban Homeworks.
Recent content from Lee Schafer
A battle campaign portrait of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, taken by Mathew Brady,

Schafer: Trade warriors should heed bloody lessons of the Civil War

That's where the reality of the war finally sank in for Gen. Grant: There wasn't going to be any one decisive action that could bring the war to a quick close.
Why the bets on food delivery and short-term office space rentals unraveled.

Schafer: Big valuations for Bite Squad, WeWork were never realistic

A reckoning with reality was inevitable.

Schafer: Formula for retaining software engineers is mostly hard work

Maybe that's the lesson for employers, when it comes to talent: Constant recruiting followed by a willingness to train.
Diane and John Dormanen decided to rebrand. “It got to the point when we’re embarrassed to give people our business card.”

Schafer: Rebranding a company is never easy, but sometimes necessary

To understand where Discount Steel came from, you have to go back to its beginning in the summer of 1992.
A machine at the Best Buy warehouse in Compton, Calif., builds shipping boxes to the exact size of the item, eliminating waste and the need for plasti

Schafer: Major threat to U.S. jobs today? It's automation, not China

The adoption of technologies to let machines take over much of the work people do is just getting going.
Figuring out how much a credit card costs is complicated. (iStock image)

Schafer: Credit card industry seems stacked against young adults

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the evolving credit card market sent me checking to see which card I actually carried. Credit cards are…
Blue Cross executive Dr. Craig Samitt worries about the trajectory of health spending. “I don’t want to spend future resources to build more hospi

Schafer: Best way to cut health care costs is keeping people healthy

One person's runaway and wasteful costs are someone else's core business revenue.
IN THIS PHOTO: Minneapolis,MN., Tuesday, 6/5/2001. (far lower left) The old Washburn A mill, on the river in downtown Minneapolis, the proposed site o

Why do so many Fortune 500 companies call Minnesota home?

The country's 16th largest metro doesn't dominate the Fortune 500 list because of its size.
Ecolab's headquarters in St. Paul

Schafer: Why Ecolab must undo a deal that's already complete

It provides a fascinating glimpse into a problem that big companies might continue to have as they keep trying to grow in their main lines of business.
Soona CEO cofounder Liz Giorgi recorded her weekly vlog,

Schafer: Minneapolis startup aims to stop sex harassment with 'candor clause'

Soona CEO and co-founder Liz Giorgi put contract language into the company's financing documents: "I'm sick of this nonsense."
Christopher Ingraham takes his twin sons, Jack and Charlie, for their first snowmobile ride this winter. ] Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingrah

Schafer: Flow of ideas gives large cities an economic edge

The growth of the Twin Cities can't be explained by having more appealing restaurants or shiny stadiums.
A logo sign outside of a WeWork coworking office location in Denver, Colorado, on July 22, 2018. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP

Schafer: Could WeWork become an economic risk in a downturn?

Flexible office spaces like WeWork's represent just 2% of the U.S. office market. But some experts worry they are subject to a run when a downturn comes. It's a classic mismatch problem, our business columnist writes.

Schafer: Preparing for college helps families to talk about value

One reason to pick up a book described as a “field guide for college preparation” for the parents of high schoolers is for insight into…
The artist community at the Northrup King Building has been a lynchpin for development and gentrification of its neighborhood. Shown is an Art-A-Whirl

Schafer: Northrup King's success with artist community shows that capitalism works

You have to wonder, once again, exactly what's wrong with trying to make money or why a nonprofit has to step in.
Gene Munster believes Apple remains better at producing consumer-technology products than anybody else.

Schafer: Apple watcher Gene Munster on why the company still shines

What he got out of the presentation is that Apple displayed what its customers wanted.
Target flexes its muscle on behalf of consumers.

Schafer: Will tariffs hit Target's customers or its suppliers?

Tariffs reshape economic activity in lots of different ways. It's not always easy to know who bears how much of the burden.
Minneapolis is moving forward with a $7 million deal to buy the land under the Kmart store at Nicollet and Lake. The city hasn't been able to reach an

Schafer: As Kmarts close, store blocking Nicollet Av. in Minneapolis endures

For years we have read of a top-performing Kmart store in south Minneapolis, as recently as 2017 described as the most successful Kmart in the…
Control Data Corp.'s William C. Norris.

Schafer: The CEO who said attacking society's ills is a good aim for business

For Bill Norris, there wasn't really a choice to make between making money or having a social impact. Why not do both?
Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, shown in 2017.

Schafer: Mpls. Fed leader Neel Kashkari sees room for even lower interest rates

Kashkari's point is that interest rates can still decline from here, particularly short-term rates.
A WeWork and WeLive location in Arlington, Va.

Schafer: Will the 'energy of We' fuel the WeWork IPO?

The fun went out of the WeWork story the morning the company, now called the We Co., filed to sell shares to the public. There…
About 6% of borrowers were responsible for roughly a third of all student loan debt, as of 2018.

Schafer: Student loan debt won't lead to another financial crisis, economist says

It's one of those situations where the averages aren't really very helpful in forming a clear picture.
Rendering of the proposed Mall of America water park by the DLR Group.

Schafer: Is everybody really OK with the Bloomington-MOA water park project?

The problem is that the water park — which would cost about $250 million just for construction — does not seem viable with private-market money.
Commissioner Steve Grove led Google’s $300 million Google News Initiative.

Schafer: DEED has new plan to measure results

Former Silicon Valley executive Steve Grove knew where to look for a better way: Google.
FILE -- President Donald Trump's bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of China at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

Schafer: We could be watching the end of an era of globalization

For the youngest baby boomers and those born later, this is the only world they've ever known. And it has transformed American business.
John Tedesco

Schafer: Leadpages founder tries 'radical candor' at new startup

The co-founder and board chairman of the company behind the marketing software Leadpages and Drip, Clay Collins, meets regularly with CEO John Tedesco, often over…
Former Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Schafer: Adrian Peterson shows why pro athletes need to be careful with their money

When stories surface of pro athletes in financial trouble, it's fascinating how often the big issue is that one investment after another has fizzled.
FILE- This Nov. 29, 2018, file photo shows a Wells Fargo bank location in Philadelphia. Wells Fargo customers are experiencing issues with accessing o

Schafer: Wells Fargo's challenges start with finding a new CEO

Maybe my expectations were too high, but finding the job I was looking for on the careers web page of Wells Fargo & Co. proved…
Minnesota native and economist Thorstein Veblen developed the theory of conspicuous consumerism, which could help explain the continuing growth of CEO

Schafer: 'Conspicuous consumption' theory could explain runaway CEO pay

With nothing new to say about CEO pay, I decided to look for inspiration by driving south to Nerstrand, a village of about 350 an…
Fastenal reached a new milestone in the second quarter: It placed its 100,000th industrial vending machine in a factory, this one an Oshkosh fire truc

Schafer: Fastenal could predict trouble for manufacturing sector

Sure there are a lot of construction cranes swinging and news of more open jobs than unemployed people. But before concluding the economy must be…
FILE - This Oct. 4, 2018, file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington.

Schafer: Lawsuit over U.S. Bancorp pension headed to Supreme Court

The lawsuit against U.S. Bancorp for mismanaging its pension, which is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, originated in our backyard, but that’s not the…
UnitedHealth Group Inc.'s campus in Minnetonka.

Schafer: UnitedHealth is smart to add doctors to its fold

Anybody curious about why a company like UnitedHealth Group continues to gobble up physician practices and pharmacy companies just needs to ask themselves one question:…
A study known as the "Cookie Monster experiment" found that even a tiny amount of power can turn people selfish.

Schafer: Irrational thinking usually holds us back, but not always

Even a tiny bit of power can turn people selfish, something that workplaces must try to avoid.
A history of debt: If you had to say when it became clear PolyMet’s project was really up to Glencore, the best choice would be 2008.

Schafer: PolyMet's Iron Range project has been Glencore's all along

There was a typically long and tedious list of risk factors in the recent stock deal prospectus of PolyMet Mining Corp., but the company helpfully…
A recent research note by Minneapolis-based Loup Ventures said the nation's $1.5 trillion in student loan debt could offer a great idea for a startup

Minneapolis venture capitalists zero in on ways to solve massive student debt

Sen. Bernie Sanders seems completely serious about the proposal he offered this week to wipe out all the debt of student loan borrowers, and if…
Dollar stores did well in the Great Recession. And as the economy recovered, they continued to thrive.

Schafer: The economy soars, but many see little benefit

We are now just weeks from breaking the record for the longest uninterrupted stretch of economic growth. But will this feel like a record worth celebrating?
Rendering shows a preliminary plan for renovation of Garfield Elementary School in Brainerd.

Schafer: Brainerd's $205M investment in schools is good for business

A project this sweeping was years in the making.
Hopperstad Stave Church, a 12th-century structure in Vik, Norway.

Schafer: My family's story shows why people come to America

  VIK, NORWAY – Each stop at the homes of my family’s immigrant forebears was more scenic than the last, until finally reaching an…

Schafer: Are bond markets sending a warning on the economy?

One of the first things we learned while getting trained in the bond-markets unit of First Bank St. Paul 35 years ago was that there’s…
Atif Siddiqi, cofounder of Branch Messenger, spoke during Target's Techstars demo day at Orchestra Hall in 2016.

Schafer: What it's like starting up a company in a headquarters town like the Twin Cities

The first tech entrepreneur to describe the Twin Cities as a “company town” for me was Jamf co-founder Chip Pearson of St. Paul, and since…

Schafer: Pair has a new idea for a great product: Happiness

Lots of things are pitched to us as consumers with the promise that buying will make us happy. Products, vacations, social media apps, you name…
Quinn Nystrom, a Minnesotan who traveled to Canada to buy lower-cost insulin, showed her dad Bob Nystrom insulin outside Shoppers Drug Market pharmacy

Schafer: It's time to do something about runaway insulin prices

At some point, people won't put up with any more price increases.

Schafer: VivaQuant makes intriguing bet on equity crowdfunding

VivaQuant is not anything like the dozen or so Minnesota businesses that have sought funding directly from small investors in the last few years.
Gov. Tim Walz announced earlier in May that he supports the independent review results recommending MNLARS be replaced with a packaged software soluti

Schafer: Buying a new system is right solution for MNLARS debacle

What's changed to make buying a system the right choice now? One thing is the growing capability of companies like Colorado-based Fast Enterprises.
Berkshire Hathaway leaders Warren Buffett, left, and Charlie Munger met with reporters last Friday, a day before Berkshire Hathaway's annual sharehold

Schafer: Why crowds still flock to hear Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway is an old-fashioned conglomerate of a type that went out of fashion a long time ago.
3M headquarters in Maplewood.

Schafer: 3M staffing shakeup has been a long time coming

3M executives admitted to being too slow to do what investors saw as the right thing — letting a lot of 3M employees go.
A gas tax is really a textbook example of a form of tax that economists call regressive.

Schafer: Fairness is built into state's tax code; gas tax wouldn't end that

A gas tax is really a textbook example of a form of tax that economists call regressive, meaning it takes a bigger bite out of the incomes of lower-income people than the well-off.
Students who come out of college during a recession can pay for it the rest of their working life. File photo of graduation at Ramapo College in Newar

Schafer: If you want to be rich, don't be young during recession

Timing is everything when it comes to building wealth. That's the message from a recent gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Angie Eilers, founder and CEO of UR Turn, created the company to make a decision-support software tool available and affordable to students and famili

Why start a company that helps kids track education progress? Its founder explains

UR Turn, based in Minneapolis, got its start in 2016 with the first users in 2017.
UnitedHealth Group Inc.'s campus in Minnetonka.

Schafer: UnitedHealth isn't the one to listen to when it comes to Medicare for All

UnitedHealth's experience with the ACA says a lot about how big insurance companies react to changes out of Washington.
An Uber test of a self-driving Ford Fusion.

Schafer: How many jobs will robots eliminate?

Self-driving cars and other robotic technologies won't come for a while, a top McKinsey executive says. But until then, leaders in business and society need to figure out how millions of people's jobs will be affected.
Irwin Jacobs, pictured in 2009.

Schafer: Did Irwin Jacobs improve the companies he targeted?

Lord only knows how many different businesses Irwin Jacobs touched during his career, but it was his high-profile public role as a takeover artist that…
Former Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan testified before the House Financial Services Committee on March 12.

Schafer: Insider was wrong person to fix Wells Fargo's biggest problem — its culture

It’s actually possible to feel a little sorry for Tim Sloan, the departed chief executive of Wells Fargo & Co. Like the time Tim Sloan’s…
Banks are now paying interest rates that are below, or just around, the rate of inflation.

Schafer: Have low investment returns become normal?

If the Fed is backing off rate hikes, big questions still loom, business columnist Lee Schafer writes. Among them: how will savers beat inflation? And what will happen when the next recession comes and there is little room to cut rates?
Lyft went public last week valued at more than $24 billion, but the people providing its assets can’t afford the payments on a Honda Civic.

Schafer: Lyft's filings are a new milestone for asset-light businesses

There were few surprises in the filings of ride-sharing firm Lyft Inc. as it prepared to go public. Anybody paying attention already knew the company…
Alan Krueger, in 2011, when he was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Schafer: With 'Great Gatsby Curve,' economist Krueger saw inequality kids face

His work in the Obama administration highlighted just how long the odds kids might face of lifting themselves into the upper classes are.
In this 2018 file photo, a trader works at the New York Stock Exchange. Corporations' appetite for buying back their own stock hit a record high in 20

Schafer: Companies should be smarter about stock buybacks

When looking to confirm news of a stock buyback plan, a first scroll through recent news releases of Medtronic PLC turned up nothing. There was…
Schafer: As people live and work longer, is it time to rethink retirement?

Schafer: As people live and work longer, is it time to rethink retirement?

Maybe it's time to dump the term full retirement age: A lot of hard-to-plan-for things can happen between the last day on the job and last day on earth.
Prior Lake is having a debate on how to fund infrastructure improvements for new housing developments.

Schafer: New-housing infrastructure fees stir up the suburbs

Deep in a report by the trade group Housing First Minnesota on fees cities collect on new housing is a little chart that shows how…
For many who move to the Twin Cities for jobs, cold winters are not the draw -- it's good schools, health care and outdoor recreation.

Schafer: Lessons about the power of being a 'headquarters economy'

Our governor and legislators might be a little busy now but by next session they should have read a new book called "Headquarters Economy" by business school Prof. Myles Shaver.
Target has boosted same-store sales by giving customers several ways to shop and pick up merchandise, including in the store, online and drive-up deli

Schafer: Amazon's single-minded focus has allowed retailers like Target to outflank it

E-commerce giant's focus on delivery left a gap for those who knew customers.
Jim Ratcliffe, chairman of Ineos, along with two partners are reportedly on their way to relocating to the tiny Mediterranean city state of Monaco for

Schafer: Tax avoidance might make financial sense, but is it fair?

It’s apparently not embarrassing any more to talk openly about tax avoidance. This term shows up in news articles, investment websites and in invitations to…
This undated photo provided by Google shows a Google data center in Hamina, Finland.

Schafer: Public subsidies for the Apples of the world are real puzzlers

While it's certainly possible to have missed some, a good-faith effort to find one built without any public subsidy came up empty.
"If we canvas the community and ask if there is a system or a health plan or care system that stands out, that clearly stands above others, there’s

Schafer: When a health system works together, outcomes improve

A HealthPartners senior leaders' meeting was a rare opportunity to see and hear how the managers think and talk to one another.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans reminded the governor and all the legislative leaders who were copied on the memo that varian

Schafer: In light of 2017 law, Minn. needs to take a look at its income tax

Perhaps it's time for at least a little concern that Minnesota, a state that gets more than half its general fund revenue from individual income taxes, has the kind of problem that has been brewing elsewhere.

Schafer: Otis-Magie Insurance Agency bought by industry innovator, Marsh & McLennan Agency

The recent acquisition of Otis-Magie Insurance Agency in Duluth by a firm called Marsh & McLennan Agency LLC was too small to be statewide news.…

Schafer: It's smart to get in on stock options with promising startups

Venture capitalist Rob Weber of Great North Labs really wants more Minnesotans to overcome their hesitancy and join promising young technology companies to get in…
This undated image provided by Anheuser-Busch shows a scene from the company's Bud Light 2019 Super Bowl NFL football spot. (Anheuser-Busch via AP)

Schafer: Bud Light's Super Bowl ad missed target market, upset farmers

For students of business, the whole episode seems baffling.
A day at the beach, especially in January, is quite different in Minnesota than it is in Florida. But weather isn’t the only factor in determining t

Schafer: The best spot to retire might not be the warmest

It turns out that Minnesota is a contender on lots of rankings of the healthiest states.
The interior of a TCF branch on W. 50th St. on Monday, when the merger was announced.

Schafer: TCF Financial-Chemical Financial merger comes down to one thing

What really matters now is cutting costs and becoming efficient enough to hang around as the industry consolidates.
Gov. Tim Walz, shown with Minnesota Chamber President Doug Loon, has described how the prospect of a state government technology collapse costs him sl

Schafer: IT woes that haunt Walz also plague businesses everywhere

He lamented there's no real constituency championing more IT investments, at least until something goes wrong. But that's hardly unique to government.
A logo sign outside of a Shopko Hometown retail store in Kiel, Wisconsin, on June 24, 2018.

Schafer: Shopko bankruptcy filing raises some questions

Shopko stores are being put out of business by competitors who are simply better at delivering what more consumers want.
C.H. Robinson provides transportation, shipping and related services, including technology for truckers shown here.

Schafer: New normal highlighted by growth of logistics at C.H. Robinson Worldwide

For those of us who have marveled at how fast business processes seem to change and technology gets adopted, that pace is only going to accelerate.
Investors are hungry for reliable data on cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, which can be traded on more than 200 exchanges.

Nomics co-founder Clay Collins sees future in cryptocurrency

What he believes in is the long-term business opportunity for the tools and infrastructure.
The Federal Reserve building

Schafer: Fed finding maximum employment hard to measure these days

The law requires Federal Reserve officials to do what they can to foster maximum employment, yet it’s becoming obvious they really won’t know when or…
When it moves into the Gateway tower, RBC will have the highest sign on a Minneapolis skyscraper.

Schafer: Was RBC's fight for a prominent Minneapolis building sign worth it?

There's a temptation to think of rooftop signs as similar to the brands all over sports stadiums.