Business leader Curt Carlson, 84, dies of stroke

  • Article by: ANN MERRILL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 1999 - 10:00 PM

Curtis L. Carlson, creator of Gold Bond Stamps and founder of one of the nation's biggest private firms, died Friday at 84.

For decades, he was the driving force at Minnetonka-based Carlson Companies Inc., a $7.8 billion travel, marketing and hospitality empire with 50,000 employees and holdings such as Radisson Hotels and T.G.I. Fridays. He held the title of chairman, but the company has been run for the past year by his daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson.

Carlson, who had predicted in an interview nearly 15 years ago that he would live to age 84, based on his family history, died of complications from a stroke he suffered Feb. 10. After the stroke he was hospitalized at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, where he died around 6:45 p.m.

He grew up in south Minneapolis, the middle child of five born to Charles and Leatha Carlson. He donated $36 million to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Much of it went to the university's management school, which was renamed the Curtis L. Carlson School of Management in 1986.

Ranked by Forbes magazine in 1998 as the richest Minnesotan, with a net worth of $1.7 billion, Carlson over the years was involved in many civic causes, such as lobbying to get the Metrodome built in the 1970s.

But above all else, Curt Carlson was a salesman.

"His antennae were up all the time. He was the ultimate salesman," said Harvey Mackay, chairman and chief executive of Minneapolis-based Mackay Envelope Corp., a longtime friend who considers Carlson a mentor.

Mackay said he'll never forget an incident at a black-tie event honoring Carlson as one of the nation's top achievers.

Small groups were chatting before the event, when Carlson arrived. "Before long, he's pulled paper out of his pocket and told one of the other honorees -- who headed a billion-dollar company and had flown in on his own 747 -- that he's checked on his company's account with Carlson Cos.," Mackay said. "Curt told him that they weren't doing much business together and wanted to know what he could do to remedy that."

Mackay saw the bulldog determination close up in his own business dealings with Carlson Cos. "We have 3,000 accounts, but I'd have to say Carlson is the most demanding," he said. "Without question, that's the culture. My relationship with Curt might have gotten me the business, but if we didn't perform, we'd be out the next day."

Those who knew Carlson credit his success to his work ethic, strong sense of family, ability to focus and adaptability.

A natural entrepreneur

Even when he was very young, Carlson saw himself as a businessman. By high school, he had built a network of paper routes that provided pocket money and eventually would pay his tuition at the University of Minnesota.

Busy with studies and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity activities at the university, Carlson enlisted family members to help deliver the Minneapolis Journal. "I was about 10 at the time," recalled his younger brother, Warren. "He told me he needed somebody to deliver papers. I told him no and scooted off, but he started running after me. I became an employee of his."

After graduating from the university in 1937 with a degree in economics, Carlson went to work at Procter & Gamble. In his 18 months selling soap and Crisco to grocers, he made a name for himself by persuading drugstores to promote and sell more soap. That bent for finding a way to expand was a hallmark of Carlson's career.

He noticed that a local department store gave customers Security Red Stamps, and began to kick around the idea of creating his own stamp business. About to be married to Arleen Martin, whom he had met in a political science class, Carlson stayed at P&G while building his own business on weekends.

He sold his first $14.50 of stamps in March 1938 to Anfin Odland, a grocer on 12th Avenue S. in Minneapolis. The night before the store began offering stamps, Carlson and his wife stood outside the building and shone a flashlight in to see the balloons and banners. "I shivered with excitement" at the possibilities, Carlson wrote later.

"What I wanted most was, plain and simply, to get ahead, to make something of myself -- to be somebody," he wrote in 1994.

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