On a wall at Jake’s Pizza in downtown St. Peter is a photo of the town’s 1981 Class A high school football champions. Wearing No. 10 for the St. Peter Saints is defensive back Marty Davis. Wearing No. 22 is his older brother Mitch, the team’s fullback.
Fast forward 33 years and the two brothers are still teammates, only the stakes are considerably higher as they lead the third generation of one of Minnesota’s most successful business families.
From Cambria quartz countertops to Davis Family Dairies to Sun Country Airlines, the Davis family owns and manages some of the state’s landmark homegrown businesses. They employ 2,600 workers and take in about $710 million a year in revenue, a figure that would rank the privately held business 38th among Minnesota’s 100 largest publicly traded companies.
For years, the Davis operation was little known beyond its southern Minnesota base. That started to change in 2011 when the family engineered the purchase of Sun Country for $34 million. This fall, for the first time, the Davis clan landed on Forbes magazine’s list of richest American families, with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion.
“My neighbors must think I have money hidden under the bed,” joked Mark Davis, the second-generation patriarch of the Davis business operation.
The family is only the fourth from Minnesota to make the Forbes richest-family list, putting them in the company of the Cargill-McMillans, the Carlsons and the Pohlads.
But the family knows that prosperity can be fleeting. It only takes one housing crisis to send the home countertop business reeling, high feed prices to cut into dairy yields or low competing airfares to knife airline profit margins.
For Mark Davis, 73, who now serves as CEO of Davis Holdings, success came from working hard and occasionally taking risks. And he’s passed those habits along to his sons.
“Both started at the bottom and worked their way up. That’s what I experienced with my dad,” Mark Davis said. “If they gained anything from me, it was by watching.”
The Davis family business dates to the 1930s when Stan Davis, now 96, learned the dairy business as an apprentice at a creamery in tiny Norseland, Minn., just west of St. Peter.
After acquiring the St. Peter Creamery in 1943, Stan Davis sold butter to the U.S. government during World War II. Eventually, son Mark joined the business, and the Davises expanded into cheesemaking and purchased creameries and cheese plants in Minnesota, South Dakota and Idaho.
The milk and cheese business became known as Davisco Foods International, and grew into one of the largest producers in the country.
Brothers Mitch, 51, and Marty, 50, spent their early years working at the St. Peter Creamery. During summers and on weekends, they drove trucks along Nicollet County’s paved and gravel back roads to pick up milk from dairy farmers.
Now they run the show.
Mitch is a numbers guy with a degree in food sciences and nutrition from the University of Minnesota. He oversees the production of 500,000 pounds of milk a day in a $45 million-a-year dairy business in Nicollet County.
He calls the operation a “circle of sustainability” that employs 135 on a $3 million payroll.
“What we spend turns over eight times locally,” Mitch Davis said, noting that the Davis dairies purchase $20 million of feed a year mostly from neighboring farmers. “They grow it, we buy it.”
Marty is a relationship guy, with front-row seats behind home plate at Target Field and a Rolodex loaded with contacts like former Minnesota Twins player Justin Morneau and supermodel Cheryl Tiegs.
He was a major fundraiser for the $120,000 statue of Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman outside Target Field. And when the Cambria showroom and studio opened in downtown Minneapolis in partnership with the CBS Radio Group, entertainment was provided by hit singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow.
Moving beyond dairy
Marty was the one to push for expansion beyond the dairy business.
Cambria, an estimated $250 million-a-year business, became part of the Davis family portfolio in 2000 when he convinced his dad, Mark, that the quartz tabletop-making process of a failed Iron Range business called Technimar Industries was still viable.
It cost $36 million to get their first countertop production line running in 2001. But quartz was a new product and consumers preferred granite when it came to stone countertops.
“We had no money,” Marty Davis recalled. “We were losing $600,000 to $700,000 a month. We were borrowed to the hilt and we were running out of runway.”
Then, radio commentator Paul Harvey entered the picture. After hearing the old-school radio newsman do a pitch during his daily broadcast for Minnesota-based Select Comfort, Davis went to Harvey and signed a $3 million advertising contract.
“Paul Harvey told me, ‘I’ll get them on the hook. You get them in the net,’ ” Marty Davis recalled.
Celebrity tie-ins would work again and again for Cambria and Marty Davis.
He cemented relationships with the likes of basketball legend Bobby Knight, actress Jessica Capshaw, model Kathy Ireland, country singer Josh Turner and hockey’s Glen Sather to promote Cambria’s products in the company’s glossy magazine.
By 2005 and 2006, the company started to break even. A new production line was added in 2008.
Then, the 2009 housing crash struck. For the first and only time, Marty Davis cut Cambria’s production workforce in Le Sueur from 320 to 260. By 2010, however, home remodeling began to recover and Cambria started hiring again.
During the downturn, Cambria began offering customers home improvement loans. That led to the creation of Cambria Mortgage and Cambria Title by 2012.
Today, the countertop operation has 1,100 employees, including 540 at the Le Sueur plant, which is adding its fourth and fifth production lines. Cambria’s payroll last year was $52 million and is projected to reach $64 million this year.
As the economy improved, another expansion idea got Marty’s attention.
In 2011, again at his urging, the Davises acquired Sun Country Airlines from the bankruptcy estate of convicted businessman Tom Petters.
Negotiations for the airline took several months. Bankruptcy trustee Doug Kelley referred to bargaining talks as “a slog.”
“It was very tedious and very hard,” said Kelley, who found himself in court three years later still battling over details involving the value of the airline’s parts inventory. Davis thought he’d been shortchanged but Kelley prevailed in Hennepin County District Court when the case was dismissed.
“I was afraid they were going to pull out of the deal,” recalled Kelley. “At the time we were dealing with the Arab Spring and jet fuel volatility. But Marty stuck to his word. He told me they were used to dealing with commodities, and prices that go up and down.”
The investment proved solid in 2012 but sputtered last year. Net income at Sun Country dropped 84 percent in 2013, to $2.4 million, in part because of the presence of low-cost Spirit Airlines just a few gates down from Sun Country in Terminal 2 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“Anytime you buy an airline, there are going to be hiccups,” said Robert Fafinski, a business and aviation attorney who sits on the Sun Country board of directors. “But you have to look at this for the long term and the Davis family are long-term investors.”
‘No off switch’
Mitch is the quiet brother while Marty goes full throttle, often tapping a listener on the arm as he tells a story. But as business partners, they are on the same page.
“Those boys are all driven. They’re really competitive,” said Mick Anselmo, market manager for CBS Radio in Minneapolis, where Davis businesses have been advertisers for years. “There is no off switch. It’s always on.”
Compact and trim, Mitch looks game-ready even 30-some years after his days of high school glory. Still a football fan, Mitch has season tickets on the 50-yard line for his alma mater Gophers.
Not surprisingly, the walls of his Belle Plaine office contain paintings of cows done by nationally known dairy artist Bonnie Mohr.
Marty’s Le Sueur office reflects his go-go style with stacks of books on his desk and credenza ranging from “The Reagan Diaries” to biographies of Harry Truman, Johnny Cash and medical device pioneer Earl Bakken.
On the walls next to family photos are pictures of Marty Davis taken with Oprah, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and, perhaps his favorite, the late Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew.
Two years ago, in an estate planning move, ownership of various Davis businesses was divided among the five third-generation siblings.
Marty and Mitch Davis ended up owning Cambria, Sun Country and the dairy operation. Three siblings — Jon, Matt and Julie — became owners of Davisco Foods International, then a $1 billion-a-year cheesemaking business.
In July, Davisco was sold to Agropur, a large Canadian dairy cooperative. The sale ended 70 years of Davis family ownership, although the cheese company still is based in Le Sueur and retained the Davisco name.
“It was unbelievably difficult. Almost on a daily basis, I felt the emotional pain,” said Jon Davis, who remains Davisco’s CEO and is the only family member in the cheese business. “But the food industry is constantly consolidating. We looked at the best way to grow and one was to acquire companies. But at the end of the day we concluded that leveraging Davisco was just too great of a risk.”
Wealth in the family
The Davis family lives well.
Mark has a spacious home overlooking the Minnesota River between St. Peter and Le Sueur; Marty and Mitch both have lakefront property on Lake Minnetonka.
They say it is important to give to the community. Earlier this summer, the brothers dropped $150,000 to sponsor a weeklong summer outing for kids with juvenile arthritis called Camp Cambria and flew in actress Mariel Hemingway to talk to the kids about healthy living. Last month Camp Cambria was honored by the national Arthritis Foundation for “innovative philanthropy.”
The company has partnered with a program called Sobriety High for kids with substance-abuse issues and an inner-city youth mentoring project called Bolder Options. They’ve also supported a number of veterans organizations, including the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund.
“We are big advocates of getting outside of the business and out into the community,” said Marty Davis.
On an international front, Mitch and Marty Davis have worked with the Clinton Foundation on sustainable agriculture projects in Africa and Haiti.
Both Mitch and Marty Davis are hands-on owners. They often greet employees by name, and employees in turn address them by their first names.
In the milking rooms and the livestock barns, Mitch is not afraid to get his boots dirty in the muck that comes with large herds of cattle. At the Cambria plant, Marty races up steps to the multimillion-dollar quartz mixers and darts between rows and rows of gigantic finished quartz slabs.
“I’m in that plant every day,” Marty Davis said. “We know our people. Some were our football teammates. It’s where we’re grounded.”
David Phelps • 612-673-7269