Billionaire dealmaker Carl Pohlad dies at 93

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2009 - 11:44 PM

The 93-year-old owner of the Minnesota Twins, who died Monday, never retired, even after making a fortune.

Carl Pohlad, a working-poor son of the Great Depression who became one of America's wealthiest dealmakers, died at his Edina home Monday. He was 93.

A financier who came to be best known through his 1984 acquisition of the Minnesota Twins, Pohlad also headed a family-owned network of banking, bottling, real estate and other companies.

Forbes magazine said in its annual ranking in September that Pohlad was worth an estimated $3.6 billion, making him the 102nd-richest person in America.

But Pohlad, who once returned a Rolls-Royce he'd received as a birthday gift because it attracted too much attention, was generally a private man. He fulfilled his prediction of never retiring because business and deals were as critical to him as breathing.

The family, through a spokesperson, said Pohlad died in the presence of his three sons, their wives, many of his grandchildren and caregivers. Services will be held Thursday.

"Carl was the leader of our family as well as the founder and leader of our family businesses," the family's statement said. "We've loved and respected him and are enormously proud of his accomplishments. And we will all miss him deeply."

Learning early about work

Born in 1915, the third of eight children, Pohlad grew up working in the fields around a rail-crossing hamlet near Des Moines.

His mother, Mary, who died in 2000 at age 104, was the driver of the family, extolling the virtues of hard work as she cleaned houses and did laundry for others. Pohlad's father, Mike, who died in the 1960s, was a railroad brakeman.

Carl Pohlad was a serious boy who excelled at sports and reading. As a youth, he organized a group of boys to pick cockleburs out of cornfields for 25 cents an hour, pocketing a nickel from each as commission.

After graduating from high school, he went to California and sold used cars before winning a football scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., in 1937. When not playing ball, he earned money boxing in clubs along the West Coast.

Pohlad left Gonzaga after his second football season and returned to Iowa to work at Federal Discount Corp., a finance company headed by Russell Stotesbury, who had married Helen, one of Pohlad's sisters. Pohlad earned a reputation as an emotionless guy who could efficiently collect loans. His sons said his life was shaped by the hardscrabble lessons of the Great Depression.

"My dad started with nothing, worked very hard and has been tremendously successful,'' Robert Pohlad once said. "I think he truly believes that if he doesn't work hard, he's gonna be back on a food line or a bread line ... looking for his next meal.''

Pohlad had become increasingly frail in recent years, usually using a wheelchair. He only recently stopped showing up for work every day at his office in the RBC Financial Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. He still occasionally attended Minnesota Twins games, but rarely stayed for more than a few innings. In recent weeks, he stopped showing up at the Minneapolis Club, where he often ate a light breakfast.

Pohlad was drafted into the Army in 1942. He became a cook, but also found time to run a small-loan business out of the mess tent as his infantry company marched across Europe in 1944-45. He was wounded in action and decorated for bravery, but his own sons once admitted that their knowledge of their father's Depression and war experiences was "sketchy.''

"Dad was not the kind of guy to sit and ramble on and tell stories about when he was a kid,'' said Bill Pohlad, one of three sons.

After the war, Pohlad met his late wife, Eloise, on a blind date. They married in 1947 in Iowa. She was a homemaker who raised their sons and still ironed Carl's shirts well into the 1990s. She died in 2003, at the age of 86.

A tight business circle

As a businessman, Pohlad kept his counsel to himself, a close ring of associates and family. He surrounded himself with a cadre of well-paid, loyal lieutenants, mostly from the Arthur Andersen accouning firm.

Pohlad and Stotesbury acquired Marquette Bank in Minneapolis in the early 1950s. Pohlad took control after Stotesbury's unexpected death in 1955.

Pohlad was quietly active in politics, becoming one of the first bankers in town to support Hubert Humphrey's rising career in the 1950s.

He supported politicians and top regulators, and they turned to him when banks and other businesses ran into trouble.

In 1960, Gov. Orville Freeman asked Pohlad to form an investment group to bail out Twin City Rapid Transit, a bus company whose officers had just been convicted of fraud. Pohlad's group bought the company and changed its name to Minnesota Enterprises Inc.

By 1969, local politicians were upset, amid a request for an emergency fare increase, to learn that the Pohlad group had borrowed several million dollars from the company at no interest to buy an airline. It was not illegal, but eroded public trust in the operation. Pohlad and associates eventually sold the bus company to what became the Metropolitan Council.

As an investor, Pohlad often invested in distressed businesses that he could liquidate at a profit or fix and sell at a higher price.

"I learned a lot from Carl, there's no question,'' said Irwin Jacobs, the Twin Cities businessman who collaborated on deals with Pohlad in the 1970s and 1980s. "You don't just chase deals; the deal you lose is the one you should lose. Don't involve your ego.''

Former Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank officials often remember bidding for rural and community banks only to find that Pohlad had a personal relationship with an elderly owner.

In 1986, Pohlad sold MEI Inc., a Pepsi-Cola bottling company, for more than $600 million. Building MEI from nothing was one of his greatest accomplishments, his sons said.

Several years later he angered people who invested with him and Jacobs in the successor company, MEI Diversified, when it went into the hair-salon business. It failed and went into bankruptcy, leading to years of litigation, huge shareholder losses and accusations that Pohlad and Jacobs had misled others about the company's prospects.

The two men fought dissident shareholders until there was little left to settle. They maintained that they'd never knowingly misled anybody. Jacobs later expressed regrets. Not Pohlad.

The taciturn Pohlad and often-bombastic Jacobs proved an odd couple during the 1970s and 1980s. Pohlad was a minority investor in their acquisition and liquidation of businesses that included W.T. Grant and Grain Belt Brewing.

Pohlad also invested in Jacobs' celebrated takeover attempts of the 1980s. The Jacobs-Pohlad group often ended up selling at a profit to management-friendly investors in what was dubbed "greenmail."

Jacobs said the cautious Pohlad occasionally would voice concern about deals.

"He was not a nervous investor, but a short-term investor, because he didn't know enough often to get comfortable for the long term,'' Jacobs said years ago. "He was anxious to get out and go on to the next thing.''

In the 1980s, Pohlad talked about building a "Great Plains'' banking business. True to his sometimes-contrarian nature, he shocked subordinates and employees in 1992 when he sold Marquette Bank to First Bank System, now U.S. Bancorp, for $230 million.

As part of the deal, Pohlad got to keep the china from the old Marquette executive dining room. He also was allowed to retain the rights to the Marquette name, and he immediately used it to build another banking entity. In 2001, Pohlad sold Marquette to Wells Fargo for an estimated $1 billion in cash and stock.

Into the sports spotlight

Pohlad avoided the media until he bought the Twins, but came to enjoy the attention when the team won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. Yet his occasional threats to sell or shut down the franchise left him far from beloved.

Pohlad was angry when legislators and stadium critics accused him of trying to hoodwink Minnesotans in 1997, when it was revealed that what he had billed as an $80 million gift toward a new stadium really was a loan that the state would have to repay with interest.

In 2001, he offered to sell the team for a reported $150 million to Major League Baseball as part of a contraction plan by the league. The league and the Twins backed away from that amid a civic outcry and stated interest among prospective local investors.

Pohlad's long push for a stadium finally paid off in 2006, when the Hennepin County Board voted 4-3 for a $500-million-plus downtown ballpark to be financed largely through expansion of the state sales tax within the county. The Pohlad family pledged more than $150 million toward land and construction costs.

The Twins, which Pohlad acquired in 1984 for about $38 million, are worth more than $300 million, according to estimates.

Pohlad lived much of his adult life in elegant Edina homes, including one on the Interlachen Country Club course. The Pohlads refused a driver or bodyguards until they were in their 80s and frail.

"Mom always did the laundry, so that even when they moved to a nicer house she had a clothesline,'' Jim Pohlad said.

"I'm sure that if he saw a golf ball coming into his back yard, he'd go pick it up and take it into his house,'' Jacobs said.

For Pohlad's 75th birthday, Jacobs bought him a Rolls-Royce and had it delivered to the party.

"It was sitting out front with a bow on when he got there," Jacobs said. "He was very moved. He called me a couple months later and said, 'I can't take the car from you. I just want to pay for it.'''

Pohlad sent Jacobs a check for about $85,000.

"So maybe three months went by and I asked, 'How do you like the car?''' Jacobs recalled. "He said, 'I can't drive it, it just doesn't fit me. People look at me. I can't stand that.'" He ended up selling the car back to Jacobs.

The Pohlad family, through its foundation and businesses, donates more than $10 million annually to charities. Pohlad also was a founder of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities. Most of his wealth is believed to be in businesses and family trusts that will pass to his sons.

Staff writer Susan Feyder contributed to this article. Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144

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