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Continued: Editorial: From humble roots, a life lived large

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  • Last update: January 5, 2009 - 11:31 PM

Carl Pohlad's investment approach seems refreshingly sound in this era of illusory business practices. Buy low, strengthen the company and, when the time is right, sell high. Focusing on the fundamentals worked out pretty well for Pohlad, who died Monday at the age of 93.

In September Forbes estimated his net worth at $3.6 billion, placing the Minnesota businessman at No. 102 on the magazine's list of richest Americans. There's no numerical way to estimate the impact Pohlad had on this state and region. He was a powerful and sometimes controversial figure whose legacy remains under construction.

Pohlad built his empire on a foundation of traditional Midwestern values, a solid work ethic and personal relationships. He was born in 1915 near Des Moines, the third of Mary and Mike Pohlad's eight children. Mike was a railroad brakeman; Mary cleaned houses and did laundry to make ends meet. The lessons of the Great Depression and World War II shaped their son. Carl Pohlad was an Army cook who made loans out of the mess tent -- "I wasn't going to volunteer to be a machine-gunner,'' he once told a reporter -- before being wounded and winning a battlefield commission for bravery during the European offensives of 1944-45. Although his sons said their father rarely told war stories, he once reflected on the experience in an interview. "I had a lot of feelings the first 10 years after the war," he said. "It's now faded into distant, unpleasant memories.''

After the war, Pohlad returned to Iowa, married Eloise O'Rourke and went to work for a consumer finance firm. He joined his brother-in-law, Russell Stotesbury, in buying Marquette Bank Minneapolis, and took control after Stotesbury's death in 1955. Pohlad went to work traveling the state and buying up smaller banks, building important relationships with politicians and regulators in the process.

He made a fortune in banking, bottling, real estate and other ventures. He also made enemies in the tightly knit Twin Cities business community, and some of his business dealings played out in bitter courtroom battles. He was known as a uniquely tough negotiator, and he rewarded his closest associates with business opportunities, financial support and unwavering friendship.

Baseball, more than banking and bottling, is what made Pohlad an epic figure in Minnesota. He was a hero when he bought the struggling Twins franchise in 1984, and he basked in the glory of World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. Pointing to mounting operating losses, Pohlad started the campaign for public money for a new stadium in the mid-1990s, and took a hit to his reputation when he used threats of a sale or contraction to try to win state backing.

The stadium fight was long and divisive. In the end, Pohlad and the Twins prevailed, winning almost $400 million in public aid. The amount Pohlad contributed to the stadium deal -- more than $145 million -- was significant, though not enough to impress stadium critics who called the package a billionaire's bailout.

Today, with the stadium under construction in the Warehouse District, Pohlad's tough stand on public financing remains a bitter memory for many Minnesotans. Less voluble supporters credit him for rescuing the Twins in 1984 and establishing a solid future for the team by prevailing in the stadium fight.

Despite quietly giving away millions through the Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation (Eloise died in 2003) and other philanthropic efforts, Pohlad will be remembered more for his ability to accumulate wealth through hard work and shrewd dealmaking. For a son of the Great Depression with modest Midwestern roots, that's a legacy Pohlad might have been pleased to accept.

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