Staff Directory 157932475

Lee Schafer

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

Lee Schafer joined the Star Tribune as a 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
Bob Biesterfeld, chief executive of Eden Prairie-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide, center, meets with colleagues Pat Nolan, left, and Jerry Hoffman, at t

Schafer: C.H. Robinson leader sees ripples, not big changes, in global trade

It hadn't been a great couple of years for people who manufacture globally even before the coronavirus.
An oil well near Williston, N.D.

Schafer: Shale oil passed its peak without making money

There was a boom in it a few years ago, big enough to be felt in Minnesota. But the reckoning is underway.
Target invested in Casper and didn't make money when the mattress firm listed on the stock market last week. But there are other upsides and potential

Schafer: Why Casper mattresses appealed to Target, and what bounces lie ahead

After just a few days, it's way too soon to reach the conclusion that Casper Sleep is a financial fiasco. However, that's the way to bet.
Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus, is a big manufacturing and transportation hub in the center of China.

Schafer: Coronavirus outbreak underscores global economic connections

In times of heightened uncertainty, making a decision gets put off.
General Mills and other food makers juggle consumers' competing appetites for nutritional foods and indulgent ones.

Schafer: Old is when General Mills brings back a 'nostalgia' product you never heard of

A good way to feel old is to have a major food company reintroduce a “nostalgia” product like Dunkaroos that you didn’t know about when…
This Feb. 10, 2016 file photo shows a former iron ore processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., that would become part of a proposed PolyMet copper-nic

Schafer: Naifs like me thought the PolyMet project would be decided on economics

Whether this proposed mine ever operates in the northeastern corner of our state was always about politics.
Two Mayo Clinic appointment kiosks that were installed in 2018 as part of a electronics records transition designed by Madison, Wis.-based Epic System

Schafer: Hospitals and doctors have your health records. Should app makers get them too?

What the conflict really boils down to is differing notions of security when it comes to patient information. And money, too.
John Stumpf was a small-town Minnesota banker before he became the disgraced former CEO of Wells Fargo.

Schafer: Three years on, the Wells Fargo scandal is still breathtaking

Thousands of people at the bank knew better. Even the friends and family of Wells Fargo senior executives knew better.

Schafer: Taking a cue from activist investors

The best idea for dealing with this kind of hedge-fund shareholder seems too valuable to not share. And easy, too.
There are benefits to a college education besides making more money. And in some ways, the financial benefits are still there.

Schafer: Investing in college doesn't always pay

The thing that matters is whether you got value out of what you paid for.
The latest slowdown in manufacturing is tied to the trade war.

Schafer: Manufacturing has become a weak spot in a healthy economy

The latest of the very closely watched purchasing managers index readings just confirmed what we have been hearing for a while, that American manufacturing went…
Mayo Clinic.

Schafer: For Mayo and other nonprofits, operating in the black is about survival, not greed

We have to once again talk about how it just isn’t possible to have a greedy nonprofit, never mind what presidential candidate Bernie Sanders might…
Activist investor Mick McGuire checked into the Buffalo Wild Wings annual meeting in 2017.

Schafer: For activist investors, real change can be elusive

What really matters is whether the management team generates a return on the capital that exceeds what it costs to get the money in the first place.
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network."

Schafer: Best business movie of the decade? "The Social Network" about Facebook

Without counting documentaries, a list of 10 was way too ambitious.
Neel Kashkari, here in a 2015 file image, is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Schafer: Minneapolis Fed's Kashkari plans a steady course in 2020 — with voting, on Twitter

Neel Kashkari thinks he attracts critics mostly because he's both active and open to mixing it up a little himself on Twitter.
Jeannine Rivet, board member at Anser Innovation and retired UnitedHealth Group executive

Schafer: For Burnsville startup, finding the right board members key to launching product

Chief Executive Lisa Lavin is the only officer listed on the website of Anser Innovation, a startup company based in Burnsville, although a half-dozen additional…
Former barracks at Fort Snelling's Upper Post, shown in 2018.

Schafer: When it comes to affordable housing, money matters

On their own nickel, no developer would so much as paint the porch on any of the Fort Snelling buildings.
Medics from the Colerain Township Fire Dept. resuscitate a victim of an auto accident who overdosed on heroin, in Colerain Township, Ohio, Sept. 2, 20

Schafer: Falling life spans show U.S. economy failing many

Life expectancy stopped increasing in the United States in 2010 and has been decreasing since 2014.
3M headquarters in Maplewood.

Schafer: 3M deal shows importance of knowing when to sell

Finding the right assets to sell is one of the underappreciated arts of good management.
Declining interest rates will be tough of savers, but that's no reason to stop socking it away.

Schafer: Low interest rates mean recalculating the retirement income formula

For that big generation of Americans now retiring, low-risk investing ideas that provide income have got to be top of mind.
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Schafer: Cost-sharing pools don't solve the real problem in health care

A short video entitled “How Does Sedera’s Medical Cost Sharing Work?” on the website of Sedera Health leaves at least one big question unanswered —…
The case the industry makes — renewables are cheap enough, and getting cheaper — is getting clearer in the latest numbers.

Xcel sees financial payoff in push for wind-power development

The case the industry makes — renewables are cheap enough, and getting cheaper — is getting clearer in the latest numbers.
The donation drop-off center at an Apple Valley Goodwill.

Schafer: The first step in helping people is getting to know them

Thinking more about the why behind our gifts could make donating a far richer experience.

Shared prosperity is part of competitiveness

One more program for emerging leaders wouldn’t be all that interesting, until you learn more about the problem that a new Minnesota initiative is addressing.…
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…