Dennis Frandsen passed on an “office boy” job at 3M Co. after graduating from high school in 1951.

Instead, Frandsen, who grew up on an 80-acre dairy farm near Luck, Wis., harvested some of the farm’s hardwood trees for his dad. He then offered his services to neighboring farmers, paying $30 for every $100 he made on their logs. He sold the wood to a yo-yo manufacturer.

By 1956, Frandsen, a newlywed, was living above a furniture store in Rush City, Minn., with his wife, Jeannette, trying to raise $10,000 to buy 200 acres of timberland. The local banker in Luck turned him down. A neighboring banker decided to back him, and Frandsen pulled off his biggest transaction. Years later, he bought the Luck bank.

Frandsen inadvertently became a developer when he tried to buy a piece of land from a Rush City farmer in the late 1950s to build a home on East Rush Lake. The farmer wanted to sell all his acreage, with the exception of the farmstead. Frandsen subdivided the land into 100 lots for cabins and sold them. In the 1970s, Frandsen bought acreage along 5 miles of the Snake River from a Mora banker for $110,000, subdivided the land, erected unfinished cabins and sold them like hotcakes.

“I made $1 million on that,” Frandsen recalled “I did a lot of that.”

Frandsen, 85, has only worked for himself. And it’s worked out better than he dreamed.

Frandsen, a so-so, shy student who never went to college, is chairman and majority owner of North Branch-based Frandsen Corp. and Frandsen Financial, parent companies of a community banking and manufacturing empire in more than 30 Minnesota communities.

Frandsen puts the value of the 1,300-employee enterprise at several hundred million dollars.

“I’m fortunate to have more than enough,” Frandsen said. “I’ve sent my [10] grandchildren to good colleges. My children already have what they’re going to get. Now, I get to do the right thing for me with that money.”

Dennis and Jeannette Frandsen are investing it in the future.

This fall, about 100 graduates of high schools in Luck, Rush City and Braham, Minn., will attend local community colleges on full scholarship, plus $1,000 for books and tools, thanks to the Frandsen Family Foundation.

“I want to have an impact,” Frandsen said. “I want to help the kids who were like me.”

Frandsen is targeting working-class students who aren’t heading to a four-year college. Any graduate is eligible. He plans to gradually add more school districts to the scholarship program.

“We’re helping people who are going to be welders, carpenters, mechanics, accountants and in health care in their communities,” Frandsen said. “The amount of student debt out there is just crazy.”

Frandsen already has donated several million dollars to North Branch-based Lakes Region Emergency Medical Services for equipment and facilities. The company provides ambulance and emergency medical services in Chisago, Isanti and Pine counties in Minnesota and Polk County, Wis.

“I’ve just put cash in the foundation as needed up to now,” Frandsen said in May. “When the day comes of my death, the foundation will be able to add another half dozen community colleges.”

The Frandsen fortune will transfer to the foundation to fund scholarships and charity in perpetuity.

“He wants to create a legacy and money is no longer a big motivator for him,” said Greg Frandsen, 59, CEO of Frandsen-owned Industrial Netting and also president and a minority owner of Frandsen Corp.

Dennis Frandsen is not taking a vow of poverty.

He owns a comfortable home in Rush City, a winter place in Palm Desert, Calif., and added a house to the 80-acre farm near Luck that he bought from his dad in the 1970s. He has acquired hundreds of adjacent acres that are mostly woodland and trails and are open to anyone with permission.

“We took down all the fences,” Frandsen said. “A local farmer farms some of it. I don’t charge him rent.”

Frandsen still oversees the businesses daily from his North Branch headquarters and offices in each of his homes.

“I’ve never had a financial problem or trouble making payroll,” Frandsen said. “I have to be confident and have sufficient funds before I do something. I don’t overextend. And I don’t have a lot of stress. And my wife and I have never had a serious argument.”

The joke among Frandsen Corp. managers is that Dennis Frandsen is cutting back to half days.

“He figures he can get just as much done in just 12 hours a day,” quipped Greg Frandsen. “He’s got a lot of ideas and suggestions. Over the weekends, too. He plays golf. I think he has more fun working. He enjoys California. But he comes back once or twice a month during the winter.”

Frandsen said his only luxury may be the pricey private-jet company he uses so he can avoid the hassles of commercial airlines. And he doesn’t complain about taxes. Or plan to move to a low-tax state.

“I pay millions a year in income taxes,” Frandsen said. “I’m proud of that. If you’re paying taxes, that means you’re making money.”

Fredrikson & Byron attorney Bill Brody worked with Frandsen on his estate plan and foundation.

“Dennis is a shining example of a guy who built a business that’s been good for his family and created jobs … and who cares about employees and communities,” he said. “This effort to use some of the economic benefit to further elevate people is a natural extension of that. He can get these kids out of high school and economically productive in communities where he does business.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.

Correction: A previous version misstated the town of the bank and the number of Frandsen grandchildren.