Larry Wilson taught high school English and sold shoes in the 1950s, then was a top-selling life insurance salesman by 1964. By the 1970s, he had started Wilson Learning Corp., considered an innovative leader in human and organizational development.
An obvious go-getter, he also had other talents.
“He also was famous around the house for getting all of us six kids to stage plays just before bedtime,” said his daughter Susan Wilson Robinson. “He was always fun.”
Wilson, 83, died earlier this month of complications related to a stroke.
Wilson Learning, started as a local management-and-sales training outfit, evolved into a global organization that challenged corporate conformity and hierarchy, and encouraged creative thinking and employee engagement.
“He was an incredible visionary,” said Chuck Gorman, head of investment banking at financial firm Cherry Tree, who worked for Wilson in the 1970s. “He studied and applied behavioral science and psychology to help people and organizations become as much as they could be. He basically developed a research-based think tank to help people develop personally and professionally. That was pretty visionary back in the 1970s.”
Wilson also studied health and wellness and concluded correctly that “healthy people make a better, more successful company and help keep costs down,” Gorman said.
In 1981, Wilson sold Wilson Learning to publisher John Wiley & Sons. It was later repurchased by Japanese-based employees who continue to operate the company in several countries.
Wilson moved his family to New Mexico in 1982 and started Pecos River Learning Corp., a conference and retreat center near Santa Fe for businesses and other organizations. There were more than 100 employees at the firm’s peak, many of them working-class Hispanics who worked in hospitality and managed the grounds.
“There was a lot of unemployment in that area and [Wilson] hired these people and they and their families became our extended family and he bought a fire truck and an ambulance and helped open a fire station and at Christmas time he would buy presents for all the employees’ kids and take the fire truck to those surrounding towns to give out presents,” said Robinson.
“I remember that one year, we had a good year and he gave out about $1.5 million to the employees, and that was pretty much all the profits. He paid for some of those kids to go to college from families who otherwise couldn’t afford it. He was kind of generous to a fault.”
Wilson expanded Pecos River to several conference centers and moved the headquarters back to Eden Prairie before eventually selling the business. He focused on writing business books.
Gorman said Wilson delighted in former employees who started their own businesses. And Wilson helped innumerable colleagues and others through chemical dependency treatment, rough personal times and financial difficulties.
“Money was never that important to Larry,” Gorman said. “He had a big heart. I’ve had success running three technology companies and he was always the standard by which I measure myself for generosity and human kindness. He believed in clearing the bureaucracy and empowering people.”
A memorial celebration will be held at the Basilica of St. Mary on Hennepin Avenue S. at 11 a.m. April 26.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144