My Minnesota: From cheese to countertops to an airline

  • Updated: August 17, 2013 - 4:10 PM
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Mark Davis, Le Sueur, 72

If you’ve taken a cruise, you know they’ll put strangers at your table. You may get a mild dud who’s retired from a long career as a burlap bag inspector. Or you may get a fellow Minnesotan, like Mark Davis. I met him on a cruise in 2010 and ran into him again last week on a ship. I wanted to ask if he’d branched into steel or rocket ships since last we met. See, it’s like this:

“I started working at my father’s butter factory, and detasseling corn for Cargill. Had I known how they were going to turn out, I might have stuck with them,” he laughs. Was his father one of the bigger butter barons? “He had a factory in St. Peter, sold butter to Armour and Swift, and had his own brand.”

Many kids want nothing to do with the old man’s business. Did you rebel by eating margarine in front of him? Or did you realize butter was in your blood, so to speak? “After going off to school and considering a career in education — I was interested in economics and poli science, and considered getting my master’s — I decided butter was for me.” He chuckles. “Having a wife and one baby helped with the decision.”

He branched into cheese, going in on a Le Sueur factory in 1969. “The cheese industry was a really minor part of the economy. This was a small factory, but we had some major expansions to build the milk supply, and we had a couple of joint ventures with a French company, making Brie and Camembert.”

Wait a minute. The French got their Brie from Minnesota? I’ll bet they didn’t tell anyone. Mark also got into whey, and here the story gets complex — suffice to say the things his company extracts from milk are being tested for use as an Alzheimer’s treatment. So from butter to cheese to drugs to … well, you won’t see this coming:

“I made a personal investment in a countertop company. We started down a path with Dupont, found they didn’t have the same future view we did, so we brought it in-house, moved it to Le Sueur, and my son’s been running the company.”

Cambria countertops. You may have heard of them. OK, then what? “My son Marty approached Sun Country airlines, because he wanted to get the Cambria magazine in the seat pouch. The man he talked to suggested we’d be interested in investing, and,” he chuckled again, “here we are.”

So they own an airline. You must hear from your friends who have lots of great ideas about that. “We aren’t airline people, we’re customer oriented, so we’re constantly coming up with ways to enhance the experience. That’s why we offer garlic toast!”

Well, anything else? “We milk cows. About 10,000 cows.” So he started making butter, with no cows, and now he has an airline, and 10,000 cows.

God bless America.

James Lileks

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