Lynn Garthwaite of Bloomington has long thought it "brag-worthy" that our state has so many big companies based here, 17 as of last count on Fortune's ranking of 500 largest companies.
While she had her own theories, Garthwaite wanted an informed answer on what attracted these companies to our region. She reached out to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting series fueled by inquiring readers. The answer, though, is that nothing attracted them. There's generally not much movement in the Fortune 500, but if they do move, they don't move here.
Instead, our region has more than its fair share of very big companies that got started here with next to nothing — in a northeast Minneapolis garage (Medtronic), a Roseau metalworking shop (Polaris) and a 1,200-square-foot stereo components store on Hamline Avenue in St. Paul (Best Buy).
So, the real question is how our region came to have so many little companies that turned into really big ones.
That question has baffled even experts like Myles Shaver of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. He took a job here in part because of all the big companies, making the Twin Cities a great place for his wife to continue her career. But he hadn't realized just how many there were, and to him, it made no sense. The Twin Cities doesn't have any of the things other big headquarters towns seem to have.
Shaver thought about that question for "10 or 12 years" before deciding that we had more than our share of big companies here because we have more than our share of people who know how to help companies grow.
He is not talking about CEOs, but down in an organization where products and services are developed and marketed, technology upgrades are planned and rolled out, workers are trained and so on. The important thing in his explanation is that within the Twin Cities, the talented people move around.
Someone might start in the finance department at 3M Co. out of business school, learn a lot more at a new job managing a team at U.S. Bancorp and then get recruited to take over a department at UnitedHealth Group. So that's one management career at three thriving companies in three different industries, each stop an opportunity to learn new skills as well as bring some smart practices learned at the previous job. When this happens, hundreds of times, all these companies tend to grow and get stronger.
In researching his 2018 book about the Twin Cities economic phenomenon, "Headquarters Economy: Managers, Mobility, and Migration," Shaver surveyed management employees at 23 big employers, including at what he called hidden headquarters, the big, locally based operations that have a parent company based out of state. Among other things, he was looking for reasons corporate managers chose to stay in the Twin Cities. He found that the quality of life matters a lot.
Shaver gently disputes that luck had much to do with the origins of our headquarters economy, like having a fine waterfall in Minneapolis that could power the once-booming grain milling business.
Golden Valley-based General Mills did come out of the region's celebrated flour-milling past, but it's been 103 years since that industry peaked here. Without a lot of savvy managers since then to reinvent General Mills, it wouldn't still be here.