Most Minnesotans know Glen Taylor, 71, as the wealthy owner of the Timberwolves, the Lynx, and the $1 billion North Mankato-based printing and marketing firm Taylor Corp.

But he started out as a modest and ambitious worker who learned lots along the way. Earlier this month, Taylor shared a few of his life's lessons with 480 entrepreneurs and business leaders at the Midwest Minority Supplier Development Council's annual luncheon. Here are some excerpts from his talk, which is edited for length and clarity.

QDid your upbringing help you become a business leader?

AI was raised on a family farm in western Minnesota. So I didn't have the background to prepare me for this business life.

QYou worked for the tiny Carlson Wedding Service print shop when at college in Mankato. How did you come to buy it 12 years after you started? And what inspired you to own your own business?

A[Printing] was my part-time job to get through college. So I never planned on going into printing. I have degrees in social science, math and physics. Everything but business .... But I am working here at this [printing] company. And I was thinking, 'Why am I here?' My mind came up with ... my purpose. The purpose that God gave me in working with this particular company was to provide opportunity and security for the employees. I graduated when I was just turning 21, so my fellow employees were [also] pretty young and happened to be students. I knew that they wanted to grow financially. So we have always said our company needs to grow to achieve our purposes of providing security and opportunity.

QHow did you decide how to lead a small firm that's grown to $1 billion in sales

AI did go back to school, to Harvard, to get a lot of really good education on business. It was very good for me. Basically [at the start], my workforce was students that I went to school with. When I first started there, the company was making $189,000 a year. So you can get a feeling of where we started and where we have gone.

QHow important was marketing in building your business?

AI was the new guy in the field. I had a printed product and I had to learn how to distinguish it from all the other competitors. And mostly, I did that by talking to the customers, which for us was the brides. The [industry] would give the bride whatever printed the easiest. And how I changed the whole industry is that I went to the bride and asked: 'What is it that you want?' And then my mechanical mind went and took a press apart and I rebuilt the press to print the product that the bride wanted. That was my first home run. I came in as a nothing in an industry and pretty soon dominated the industry.

QOnce established, what was your approach to growth?

AFirst, I decided that we are going to remain a private company. Why? Because we can move faster. Also, if I was going to grow the company, I was going to find the right kind of people .... I had to have people around me who would come in and say, 'Glen, you are wrong on that. That's not the right way to do it. I know about this. You hired me to do this and you have to have confidence in me and let me do that.' I had to learn to do that.

QWhat's your advice to people who want to do what you did?

AFor small businesses trying to figure out how to get big, I would say you are going to have to take some risks. And I think that is what shuts off most people. They are not willing take the risk. I took a bunch of risks. I am a mathematician by education, so my mind sort of works that way. When I see an opportunity, I look at the downside and the upside. If there is a huge upside and the downside is not too big, then I am really excited about that opportunity. But if I see that it's a huge upside, but the downside is also huge, I am scared of that. Because then I am monkeying around with my employees' opportunity and security. Now that doesn't mean that you don't do those other ones. But you don't jump in all the way.

QHow did you handle finances as a growing small business?

AWe are conservative with money. It never occurred to us that we could buy new equipment. We'd buy used equipment. Fix it. And figure out how it might work. We are basically a non-borrowing company. We have borrowed very little money. We are conservative. We purchase companies. But we didn't purchase any companies that were going good, because they wanted too much money. We had to find companies that were having problems. And when I could, I talked the owner into financing it for me.

QWhat are your other money-managing tenets?

AI [make] it very clear when I meet with employees how we spend our money. Our first profits, we reinvest back into the company on marketing. If we are about providing [job] security, then we have to reinvest in the future. And that will mean marketing, new software, new sales tools and that type of stuff.

The second layer has to do with environment, so our employees are working in a facility that has air conditioning and those types of things. Now if we make more money, we will use it for [employee] benefits. We will try and get you better health care and this type of stuff. Then the fourth layer [of profits] is for profit sharing.

QIs there one key factor for the success of your company?

AIt's never been just one thing. Certainly luck is part of it. And timing. But I don't know of any substitute for hard work. I like people with really good brains. And we got a lot of them. But I like them better if they really work hard with those really good brains.

QWhat other management tips do you employ?

AIn every company you have maybe five to 10 things that are really important. But the thing you work on is just the worst thing. That worst thing limits [how well you can do] all the others. Figure out where are you the most vulnerable. Is it your people? Is it your marketing? Is it your finance? Is it your technology? You will always have 'a worst.'

Hopefully you get at the worst and can move it up off the list. Then there will be another worst. It's a very simple idea, but it's been very helpful to me.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725