The mantle of influence at Carlson, the Minnetonka-based travel and hospitality giant, has officially transferred to the founding family's third generation, the company confirmed Monday.

Diana Nelson, the granddaughter of company patriarch Curt Carlson and daughter of Marilyn Carlson Nelson, will assume her mother's role as board chairwoman in March.

Nelson, 50, was elected to the position by Carlson's board of directors earlier this month.

The businesses of the privately held Carlson include the Radisson and Country Inns and Suites hotel chains, TGI Friday's restaurant group and Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

The third generation of Curt Carlson's heirs now will hold four of the six family member seats, including the board chairmanship. Marilyn Carlson Nelson will remain on the 11-member board.

"This is very exciting for me," Diana Nelson said in an interview Monday.

"Is this the passing of the torch? I'd like to think this is a bit more like passing the baton, a relay. We're in a relay and that requires a sense of team," she said.

Nelson lives in San Francisco with her husband, John Atwater, and five children, the oldest of which is 21.

A nine-year member of the Carlson board, Nelson takes the chair position as the company approaches its 75th anniversary next year and continues to recover from the 2008-09 recession.

"We now have momentum in all of our businesses," Nelson said. "The recession was hard but we are fighting to regain lost ground. ... I have a strong sense of what I am entering into although there are surprises in life like earlier this year [when CEO Hubert Joly abruptly resigned to become CEO at Best Buy]."

Joly was replaced by Chief Financial Officer Trudy Rautio, a longtime Carlson executive. "We are very fortunate to have Trudy and a strong team of business leaders," Nelson said of the unanticipated succession.

In a statement, Carlson Nelson called her daughter "exceptionally qualified" to lead the company because of her experience in corporate governance as an overseer of Harvard University and work with other business and nonprofit organizations.

Third generation

"She has the strong support of the independent directors and the entire family," Carlson Nelson said.

That a family-owned company remains in the hands of heirs by the third generation is fairly unusual, said family business consultant Tom Hubler.

"According to statistics, only about 23 percent of family-owned businesses make it to the third generation," Hubler said in an interview. "It's a mark of distinction to reach that level. Clearly the Carlson folks have been doing the right things to lay the groundwork that prepare the kids for stewardship of the company."

Indeed, Nelson said she can recall family Sunday brunches during which the company founder would drill his grade-school-age grandchildren about the do's and don'ts of family businesses.

"It's a great challenge but it's something I feel culturally prepared for," Nelson said.

Hubler said many family-owned companies have lost the bulk of their wealth by the time the third generation takes control. But Carlson remains a multibillion-dollar company with consolidated revenue of $4.5 billion in 2011, the most recent year for which such figures are available.

Unlike several other Carlson heirs, Nelson never worked for the company. After graduating from Harvard with honors in 1984 and earning an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Nelson took advertising and marketing jobs in New York, including stints at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising and American Express, before settling on the West Coast.

"I always felt I wanted to work in a different environment than my family environment," Nelson said. "I bring a marketing background and a sense of corporate governance to the board."

Today, Nelson's time is devoted to various philanthropic issues. She is a trustee for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Day School. She also is chairwoman of the U.S. board of the World Childhood Foundation and is a trustee of the Carlson Family Foundation.

Members of the third Carlson generation sitting on the board with Nelson are sister Wendy Nelson and cousins Scott and Geoffrey Gage. Other family members are Edwin "Skip" Gage and Carlson Nelson. The outside directors are former Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson, former Hanesbrands Inc. Chairman Lee Chaden, Cargill Chairman and CEO Gregory Page, retired Control Data/Ceridian Chairman and CEO Lawrence Perlman and Carlson's CEO Rautio.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269