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Lee Schafer

Columnist | Business
Phone: 612-673-4302
Location: Minneapolis
Other languages: None
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
Slow wage growth continues to be puzzling, particularly so far into a long economic expansion.

Schafer: Rising costs are canceling out wage increases for most workers

The Trump administration insists wages are increasing. Many economists seem pretty sure that if so, the growth rate rounds to zero.

Schafer: Lessons from the crisis still relevant a decade later

The single best explanation for why we had a terrifying financial crisis 10 years ago goes back to how easy it seems to be to…

Schafer: Crow Wing Power co-op should look after members, not insider executives

The idea is that co-op members are well-equipped to look out for themselves, but Crow Wings is putting that to the test.
Paul Aasen, president of the Minnesota Safety Council, said, “The workplace culture … [is] definitely heavily influenced by the organization’s i

Minnesota Safety Council's Paul Aasen has good, bad news

Focusing on workplace safety can pay off by lowering costs.
Mmany renters would love to own their own home, but without much net worth, it isn’t going to be easy coming up with a down payment.

Schafer: Income stagnation is a big factor in housing crisis

Housing costs more than it used to for most of us, and our incomes haven't kept up.
Columnist Lee Schafer, left, and Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari in the rain at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.

Schafer: Talking bank failures and 'Hamilton' at the fair with Neel Kashkari

Part of the fun of going every year to the Minnesota State Fair is seeing what’s new — and this year that included Federal Reserve…
Ryan, right, and Rob Weber are the founders of Great North Labs, a Minnesota-based venture fund that invests in startups.

Schafer: Founders of St. Cloud startup build tech portfolio on the prairie

They don't suggest it's a lot easier to build a successful technology company in a college town more than an hour's drive from downtown Minneapolis and half a world away from Silicon Valley. They just doubt it's any harder.
In 1937, Henry Ford is seated in his first car, built in 1896. Behind him is his son Edsel, then president of the Ford Motor Company, inside the 25,00

Schafer: Ford case defined role of business

Sen. E­liz­a­beth Warren hopes to see a new legal chart­er ad­opt­ed by big A­mer­i­can busi­nes­ses. The Mas­sa­chu­setts Democrat’s i­de­a being to kill the no­tion that…
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, in happier times at the introduction of the Model X SUV in 2016.

Schafer: How Minneapolis' top tech watcher views the Tesla and Musk drama

After talking to Gene Munster, it's clear he's remaining as professional as possible when sharing his thoughts on a potential transaction that was disclosed in the wackiest possible way.
When it comes to apartment projects, without money for investors and bankers, nothing happens, no matter how brilliant the vision.

Schafer: Key to apartment development is yield, and it's slim these days

If public officials don't take the time to really get it, odds seem high that the problem of not enough lower-cost housing gets worse in the Twin Cities.
A home that was sold by realtor Terry Ahlstrom after multiple buyers bid on it in Richfield. The suburb's proximity to the downtowns have made it a po

Schafer: Commuting cost can drive home-buying decisions

Home buyers have long known about this trade-off between cheaper houses and longer commutes, sometimes called the drive-until-you-qualify strategy. Buying cheaply enough to get approved for a mortgage loan means looking in neighborhoods that are probably much farther out from the city center. But commuting with a car isn't cheap.
Schafer: Cheap, short-term health plans are a cure worse than the disease

Schafer: Cheap, short-term health plans are a cure worse than the disease

The Minnesota Council of Health Plans hasn't taken a position on a new policy initiative out of Washington because its members apparently can't all agree.
Neel Kashkari, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank president, said embracing immigration is one way to build a healthy local economy.

Schafer: Immigration and immigrants are a positive force in Worthington

If you're in favor of economic growth, welcoming immigrants is one good way to get that.
Kelly Skalicky (Provided by Stearns Bank)

Schafer: Answering the phone on the first ring is more than a courtesy at Stearns Bank

The Stearns Bank equipment finance operation in Albany, Minn., has a much bigger front desk than anyone could expect.It only takes one person to greet…
In some Twin Cities suburbs, builders can't say where all the fees they pay are going.

Schafer: Municipal fees a barrier to more affordable housing in suburbs

Another column in an occasional series on the future of housing. Realtor Kathy Samson knew exactly how a parcel of 6.3 acres in the northwest…
The Supervalu Inc. logo is displayed at a distribution center in Hopkins, Minnesota on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.

Schafer: Issues behind Supervalu sale built over decades

That just isn't Supervalu's fault. It was, however, Supervalu's problem. The company never quite met the challenge.
GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, touted the impact of their 2017 tax bill for workers and companies. One group — corporate executives

Schafer: CEOs are doing just fine thanks to corporate tax cuts

Top executives are doing just fine, thanks to corporate tax cuts.

Schafer: Main Street Meter can tell us when there's no room left to grow

The current economic expansion is about a year away from setting a record as the longest in American history.
Pedestrians walk past a recently built trio of geodesic domes that are part of the Seattle headquarters for Amazon. What e-commerce companies are demo

Schafer: Online businesses turn to old-school offline marketing

Maybe it shouldn't have been surprising that the world's leading e-commerce company plans to distribute paper catalogs and is going after new customers with direct mail.
A billboard for Tuft & Needle in St. Paul. The online retailer sells a basic mattress that comes packed in a big box.

Schafer: Bed-in-a-box concept lowers prices, but is it adding value?

For those determined to figure out what to buy without any help, good luck.
The Minnesota Timberwolves' Derrick Rose (25) passes the ball to a teammate in the second quarter against the Houston Rockets' Clint Capela (15) in Ga

Schafer: Adidas deal with Timberwolves' Derrick Rose a bet that didn't quite play out

Co-branding with a bench player in an NBA backwater obviously isn't what anyone at Adidas had in mind when locking up the endorsement rights to Rose back in 2012 — a contract that has been regularly reported as worth about $190 million.
A 1950 historic enameled steel Lustron home, one of 2,500 built, on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.

Schafer: Market forces, regulation have worked against more affordable housing

If the question is how to make more affordable housing units available, a Minneapolis Fed official's answer is not that complicated.
A barge filled with soybeans.

Schafer: Minnesota soybean farmers have a problem, but how big?

Thanks to an escalating trade dispute between the United States and China, Minnesota-grown soybeans are about to get a lot more expensive for Chinese buyers.

Schafer: Want affordable housing? Do you have 40 years?

Third in an occasional series on the future of housing. Here’s an old real estate joke you maybe haven’t heard before: Know how to create…
Mayo Clinic signage at an event

Schafer: Defining the Mayo Clinic could cost it millions in lawsuit

While it's obvious the Mayo Clinic is a health care provider, it's not at all obvious that this is the best way to describe it.
HealthPartners is unusual in the Minnesota market as both a big health-plan company and a big health care system of clinics and hospitals.

Schafer: New HealthPartners CEO keeps eye on goal of simpler, less costly care

The CEO changed but the business plan didn't at one of the largest health providers in the Twin Cities.

Schafer: For smaller firms, going public is a big challenge

The story of ASV illustrates some of the trends that have made Minnesota’s list of public companies much smaller than it once was. Before the…
A vacant lot in north Minneapolis.

Schafer: Why there's no longer such a thing as an affordable new house in Minneapolis

"In a weird way, it's not that complicated" to explain why those lots in Minneapolis are fairly valued at pretty much zero, said Chris Wilson, senior director of real estate development for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Project for Pride in Living.

Schafer: Building leases can guarantee control for business owners

Just outside the construction fence for the Major League Soccer stadium project in St. Paul is Big Top Liquors, a retailer that has been there…
In the Twin Cities, mortgage payments on a median house cost about 16 percent of income; in Boston and Denver, it’s a quarter and in the Bay Area, h

Schafer: Kipsu founder says low cost of living is region's secret weapon

First of an occasional series on the future of housing.   Entrepreneur Chris Smith just moved a company called Kipsu into new office space in…
The Fort Snelling barracks photographed on May 24,, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. An item tucked into the Legislature's bonding bill would hasten the conve

Schafer: A large fee for proposed Fort Snelling housing project, yes, but the risk is there

Take a closer look at the project now called the A-Mill Artist Lofts, and you can see this isn't the kind of work that novices should take on.
An autonomous version of Tennant’s T7 floor scrubber learns as it cleans. Look for Tennant’s first self-driving scrubbers this year.

Schafer: In consumer robotics race, Tennant keeps focus on customer

The machines embraced by mainstream customers rarely seem to be cool, ground-up inventions.
The Federal Reserve’s John Williams spoke at the Economic Club of Minnesota Tuesday.

Schafer: Are low interest rates here to stay? Fed official says they might be

It always pays to be at least a little skeptical of talk of a new normal, but John Williams' talk was still well worth taking in.

Schafer: Mosaic's headquarters move is disappointing but put it into context

It was surprising to learn this week that the Mosaic Co. has elected to relocate its corporate headquarters to Florida, though the surprise was in…
Medtronic corporate campus

Schafer: Medtronic hire brings expertise and plenty of questions

Medtronic clearly wanted to show how serious its executives are about creating "shareholder value." That only invited more questions.
For fintech companies like Minneapolis-based Sezzle, young adults who can't borrow money because they were turned down for a credit card represent an

Schafer: Sezzle online installment plans appeal to millennials without credit cards

There has been a boomlet of financial technology startups since the Great Recession, with fintech firms making a home in the Twin Cities.
Amazon has an expanding presence in the T3 building in Minneapolis’ North Loop.

Schafer: Hiring challenge knocked Twin Cities off Amazon's list

The recruiting challenge is what came out of feedback Amazon gave officials as part of calls to most of the also-rans in the race to become a second headquarters town.
A row of 2015 Ford F-150 pickup trucks were parked on the sales lot at Butler County Ford in Butler, Pa., in 2015.

Ford Motor Co. isn't quitting the car business—just the unprofitable car business

Doubters' misunderstanding seems to be a big part of the head-scratching reaction.
The Herberger's at Southdale Mall has going out of business signs displayed earlier in the month.

Schafer: Herberger's closing hard to take, but it's hard to fault investors

It's galling to have to admit they were almost certainly right.
In 2011, Medtronic founder Earl Bakken was acknowledged by CEO Omar Ishrak at the annual shareholders meeting in Fridley.

Schafer: Decades-old Medtronic mission statement offers lessons today

At first it seemed that Medtronic Chairman and CEO Omar Ishrak planned to deliver a superficial introduction to Medtronic, as if maybe no one in…
Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari

Schafer: Fed's Kashkari sees strengthening case for higher rates

Kashkari spent much of last year as a sometimes lonely voice at the Fed opposing the idea that short-term interest rates should go up. While he's not exactly on board now with boosting them, a lot has changed since his last no vote. That was only last December.
Anybody looking for a bad guy in the story of Sun Country Airlines stranding passengers in Mexico as a snowstorm disrupted its operations could quickl

Schafer: Private equity has a PR problem

An April blizzard turned into just another bad PR moment for private-equity managers, who can't even seem to come up with a good word to describe themselves.
Four Polaris RZR sports off-road vehicle models have been part of recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Schafer: Rolling recalls test Polaris' commitment to running lean

If operational excellence is a big part of the Polaris story, it really needs to stop recalling its products for potential safety problems.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Schafer: How much are your online data really worth?

So what's the users' privacy worth? It's priceless.
In this Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, photo, the headquarters of Ucare is pictured in Minneapolis.

Schafer: UCare created a culture that allowed turnaround after big loss

UCare executives had to cut costs to survive. But there are lessons to be learned here about how they went about it.
Ceridian's headquarters in Bloomington

Ceridian growth is good sign for the Twin Cities

You may have to forgive some of us for our enthusiasm at the launch of Ceridian HCM Holding as a public company. It's a compelling growth story right now.

New numbers show PolyMet's Minnesota mine holds smaller potential, except to backer Glencore

Opponents of PolyMet Mining's plan to mine for copper, nickel and other metals in northeastern Minnesota keep hoping that the economics of the project collapse…
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty spoke at the Edina Country Club on the Future of Work at a joint meeting of the Chambers of Commerce for Bloomington, Eden Pr

Schafer: Pawlenty's futurism helps steer broader understanding of changing economy

Whether talking about 3-D printed houses or smart toilets is a shrewd way to win votes remains to be seen.
Kim Griffith, motor vehicle supervisor in Bloomington, speaks to the committee about the problems with the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System

Schafer: Firing MNLARS manager won't fix what led to debacle

It may look like the state of Minnesota acted just like the state’s best-run companies by holding someone accountable for the mess made of a…
Unionized employment in St. Paul's newsroom has fallen from about 150 at the time MediaNews acquired the publication in 2007 to the most recent count

Schafer: Lawsuit calls out Pioneer Press owner for its tactics

Alden Global Capital has for years treated one of the biggest media companies in the country like a big ATM. Someday, it will run out of money.
Target CEO Brian Cornell spoke during Tuesday morning's annual investors meeting in downtown Minneapolis.

Schafer: Target's decision to remodel stores goes beyond gut instinct

Target Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan says he gets asked “all the time” why the company keeps investing in its stores. It’s a new digital…
Patterson's Mendota Heights headquarters.

Schafer: New ERP programs can cause headaches for companies — ask Patterson

After Patterson Cos. announced that an ERP problem — among other factors — led to a disappointing quarter, its stock ended the day about 24 percent cheaper.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Republican House leaders waited by the door to greet Gov. Mark Dayton as he left the budget announcement news conference.

Schafer: Lawmakers' claims that tax cuts led to state surplus don't add up

The best explanation for the billion-dollar surplus guess has to be that Republicans had really wanted to take a victory lap.
The door to the bank vault at a Wells Fargo bank is shown after a news conference announcing the Wells Fargo vSafe, a personal online safe, in San Fra

Schafer: Annuities may offer a security blanket in uncertain times

For those of us who have had no choice but a do-it-yourself retirement program, there just isn't a sure path to a worry-free future.
3M headquarters in Maplewood. Along with Post-it notes, Scotchgard is maybe the best invention story 3M has.

Schafer: 3M must learn from its $850 million mistake

Minnesota's lawsuit and the settlement arose out of the traditional strengths of an enduringly excellent company.
General Mills headquarters campus

Schafer: Is General Mills deal a good one? Only the company can make it so

General Mills is paying what seems like a lot of money — about 25 times cash earnings — for the Blue Buffalo pet food maker.…
Kate Knuth

Schafer: Chief resilience officer is lesson in risk management

It was a bad PR day for the city of Minneapolis last week when its chief resilience officer left after only seven months and without…

Schafer: Noncompete contracts can make it tough to change jobs

The law is fine, one Twin Cities attorney says. It's getting the law applied that's so challenging for workers.

Schafer: Minneapolis mutual fund manager Disciplined Growth Investors aims to attract clients directly

Some pithy, funny or sometimes odd statements about investing that appear on the sides of transit buses and billboards in the Twin Cities can be…
From left, Mary Vanderwert, Steve Marchese, Zuki Ellis, and Jon Schumacher are the candidates who ran for St. Paul school board under a Caucus for Cha

Schafer: St. Paul schools negotiators started out on the same side

Let’s hope the St. Paul Public Schools’ contract negotiations with its teachers’ union aren’t the start of a new and more chaotic era in labor…
FILE - This May 6, 2012, file photo, shows a Wells Fargo sign at a branch in New York. The Federal Reserve’s move against Wells Fargo & Co. late las

Schafer: Fed wisely puts Wells Fargo on a short leash

The agreement with the Federal Reserve keeping a lid on the size of the Wells Fargo balance sheet is a big deal.
CEO of Cliff Natural Resources, Lourenco Goncalves.

Schafer: Cliffs' CEO plays offense in Iron Range land dispute

Lourenco Goncalves, who put on a not-to-be-missed show for a roomful of Iron Rangers last week in Eveleth, is a miner with a track record of delivering.

Schafer: Wage inflation starting to show its face

There's nothing riskier when deciding what to do with your savings than concluding "this time it's really different" in the market.
This Wednesday, May 3, 2017, photo shows a U.S. Bank branch in Omaha, Neb. U.S. Bancorp reported solid financial results for its fourth quarter, altho

Schafer: U.S. Bank finds policing the bad guys is expensive

U.S. Bank just booked a $608 million expense to settle with regulators over compliance failures.
Pedestrians walk past a recently built trio of geodesic domes that are part of the Seattle headquarters for Amazon.

Schafer: Why would Amazon snub Twin Cities in headquarters contest?

The worst possible outcome in the competition for Amazon.com's second headquarters has already come to pass for the Twin Cities.
Neel Kashkari, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Schafer: Higher interest rates drive investment? One CFO explains

Neel Kashkari of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis visited Cargill, and much of what the Fed really does was discussed.

Schafer: Visible City connects data to real-life decisionmaking needs

His company is still just a startup, yet Visible City has been analyzing multiple layers of data to do things like help a client find the sin­gle best site for a new a­part­ment build­ing. That seems pret­ty prac­ti­cal.
By Twin Cities technology entrepreneur Casey Allen's count, Minnesota now has 33 co-working centers. While the supply seems a sign of good, some sort

Schafer: Are co-working spaces disrupting real estate?

It's also seen as a sign of a healthy culture of entrepreneurship to have lots of busy co-working places nearby.

Schafer: Retailers do care what happens in far-off apparel factories

Brands can be easily tarnished when workers are injured or systematically exploited.
FILE - This Tuesday, July 19, 2016, file photo shows the Google logo at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google is clearly useful i

Schafer: Students, find your vocation, not your passion

The college students career counselor Emily Reinert sees at Augsburg University in Minneapolis won’t hear much from her about passion. Instead they will hear more…
President Donald Trump grabs a box containing the tax bill after signing it Friday in the Oval Office of the White House.

Schafer: Tax bill helps some industries a lot more than others

  The assumption in my household all year was that the Republican tax cut bill was meant to really benefit people richer than we are,…
Medica Headquarters in Minnetonka

Schafer: No one should be upset that Medica transferred funds to a for-profit subsidiary

It’s hard to guess who critics thought got the profits when nonprofit Medica transferred capital to its for-profit health insurance subsidiary. No one does, of…
In this Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, photo, people use the Bitcoin ATM in Hong Kong.

Schafer: Ignore the talk of new paradigms in rise of bitcoin

To state the obvious, no one can really "invest" in bitcoin. Just speculate.
Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s chief executive, could see half a billion dollars in compensation when the purchase by CVS goes through.

Schafer: Aetna sale spotlights CEO pay

Aetna Inc. CEO Mark Bertolini will collect about half-a-billion dollars when and if Aetna’s sale to CVS Health closes, according to the Wall Street Journal.…
Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group is in the sights of CVS and Aetna as they try to merge.

Schafer: CVS-Aetna deal is about catching up to UnitedHealth

Of the two competitors, the one to bet on is the one that doesn't need to operate a big network of brick-and-mortar stores.
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