As chief executive of 3M Co., Lewis Lehr left a legacy of global expansion that propelled 3M into Asia, health care products and space research for the first time.
Lehr, who collected jokes from fellow 3Mers in an 8-inch thick file until the day he died, was chief executive of the Maplewood-based conglomerate from 1979 to 1986 and a member of its board of directors from 1974 to 1991.
He died Saturday in Phoenix at age 95, the company said.
The opening of a 3M factory in China made 3M the first wholly owned foreign enterprise in that country, said Inge Thulin, 3M’s current chief executive. “Lew Lehr was a visionary who helped build 3M into the enterprise we are today,” Thulin said.
Thulin added that Lehr’s “commitment to volunteering and giving back to the community also set an example for all 3Mers to follow. On behalf of our entire 3M team, we salute Lew for his leadership and extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
Lehr was born to corn farmers in Elgin, Neb., in 1921. An only child, he lived on the farm until the age of 14, when his father died, forcing him and his mother to move to town. She took a job at the local general store, while Lehr did chores for aunts and uncles in the area after school.
He graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in chemical engineering and married Doris Stauder in 1944. The couple would later settle in Roseville and raise four children.
Lehr served in World War II as an engineer in the U.S. Army, then joined 3M in 1947. He started as a technical service representative and engineer in the company’s tape business and spent the next 39 years rising up the ranks.
After his 12 years in the tape unit in St. Paul, he went on to build 3M’s medical products division, which is now part of 3M’s $5.4 billion health care business.
Lehr’s son Don recalls his father bringing stuff home from work.
“I was about 15. And I just remember he would bring home all these Band-Aids and tape. He would stick it on me and say, ‘Hey, go jump in the lake and see if it falls off,’ ” Don Lehr recalled with a laugh. “He was a gentle, generous and accomplished gentleman and really well-rounded. In one phrase, he could talk about all the world problems and then turn around and tell you a joke.”
From medical products, Lehr went on to lead 3M’s industrial business before being named 3M president of U.S. operations. From that job, he became chief executive and chairman.
Colleagues considered Lehr a true scientist who was a bit introspective but very curious and imaginative about the directions 3M should explore.
One day his friend and fellow 3M engineer, Art Fry, showed Lehr an adhesive Fry had developed that would later be used to make Post-it Notes.
Don Lehr said Fry initially just used the adhesive on paper to mark the pages of his choir music because he didn’t think it was quite what 3M was looking for. “But Dad said, ‘That is a great idea,’ and so [Fry went ahead and] created these little Post-it Notes. Dad decided that he would send them to all his [fellow] CEOs and friends he was on boards with. He said, ‘See what you think of these Post-its guys.’ ”
At the time he led 3M, it had $7.7 billion in revenue and 86,000 employees, including 22,000 in Minnesota. That made 3M Minnesota’s largest corporate employer. Today, 3M has $30.3 billion in revenue and 89,400 employees worldwide, including nearly 17,000 in Minnesota.
Lehr served on the boards of General Mills, Shell Oil and the University of Minnesota Medical School Foundation.
He was preceded in death by Doris, his wife of 60 years. He is survived by his daughter Mary Makin of Camp Verde, Ariz.; sons William (wife Charlotte) of Iola, Ill.; Don (Pamela) of Minnetonka; and John (Cammy) of Roseville; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.