The roots of Dan Witkowski’s MagiCom business are in magic shows he performed in high school and elsewhere 45 years ago.
And there’s still plenty of intrigue behind a global business whose clients include U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, as well as General Mills, Walmart, the Mayo Clinic, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola and Nestlé.
Witkowski, who employs about a dozen people and a slew of contractors, works on projects that range from freshness-monitoring labels on chicken soup and tuna sandwiches to soup-to-nuts product and marketing strategies and, increasingly, the use of humanlike holograms that can direct you to the bar, bathroom or a cancer lab in several languages.
“As a magician, the goal was to create the illusion of something impossible to entertain an audience, defy gravity, create something out of nothing,” recalled Witkowski, 62, whose Golden Valley company works in a refurbished warehouse near longtime client General Mills. “Our approach today in creating solutions is: ‘Nothing is impossible. Think like magicians. We simply need to find a way.’ ”
Witkowski hails from a working-class Northeast family; his late father worked at the Grain Belt Brewery.
MagiCom has evolved from entertainment at annual meetings and corporate outings such as making Caterpillar tractors appear in a flash of light to feats such as vanishing the Rockettes from the stage of Radio City Music Hall in a puff of smoke and staging portions of Super Bowl halftime shows.
In 1992, Stew Widdess, then senior vice president of marketing at the former Dayton-Hudson Corp. and a volunteer with the Downtown Council, was asked to come up with a big downtown attraction to compete with the just-opened Mall of America in Bloomington.
Widdess sent deputies to visit Disney in Florida to determine how much it would cost to develop a parade of a dozen floats. They learned it would be about $300,000. They were elated until they learned Disney meant per float. That was a budget-buster.
Widdess turned to Witkowski, who had done work for Dayton’s and Target. The Holidazzle floats were designed and assembled on golf carts for a total cost of less than $1 million, including related parade costs. They lasted, with routine maintenance and alterations, for the 23 years of the November-December parades on the Nicollet Mall.
Witkowski also came up with the name “Holidazzle.”
Witkowski also is the idea-to-execution guy behind a company of substantial size, profitability and intrigue.
A former CIA director is on MagicCom’s advisory board. Witkowski declined to name him or discuss the specific work he does for national-security agencies. The board also includes executives from technology, medical and other industries.
“For years we worked with corporate America on product introductions … with a little razzle-dazzle to get the sales force hyped up,” Witkowski said. “We look back at the 1980s at what companies were calling innovation. It was often adding lemon scent to furniture polish.
“By the early 1990s, I had decided to hang up the purple-spangled tuxedo and move more into business around real innovation, products, strategy, execution and intellectual property. Most of our revenue and income comes from licensing patents.
For example, MagiCom owns and licenses Brilliant, which is an in-store product development and marketing business that’s working with Walmart.
“We have project managers who pull together the entire package,” Witkowski said. “We deliver a finished product but we’re not a manufacturer. It allows us to be a ‘little-big’ company. We have employees here who work on ideas, technology, strategy and marketing. And a lot of contractors from St. Paul to Sao Paulo.”
Consumer, medical products
MagiCom works with the Mayo Clinic and its partner Destination Medical Center on holographic, humanlike guidance systems for visitors at the expanding complex in Rochester. And Witkowski has hit pay dirt in patented design of consumer and medical products.
“The substantial portion of MagicCom’s income is from new ventures and royalties derived from our IP and patent licensing from corporations worldwide,” Witkowski said. “MagicCom … combines strategy, proprietary technology, solutions and marketing and sales systems.”
Witkowski also still delights in magical moments.
His work on the 2012 Olympics in London got him an invitation to an audience with Queen Elizabeth in her suite. Witkowski was humbled by the queen, who he said exhibits grace and common decency.
“I was amazed,” recalled Witkowski. “I remembered to bow slightly, say ‘your majesty’ and let her do the talking. She’s easygoing.’ ”
MagicCom in recent years has earned up to several million dollars in profits annually from revenue that has ranged from $60 million to $70 million.
Witkowski, divorced and the father of two adult children, says he lives a comfortable, but not ostentatious, life.
“I can only drive one car at a time … and I don’t have a beach house or a diamond wristwatch,” he said. “I enjoy travel. My biggest luxury is a huge library and I collect things. Historic entertainment industry things, like from vaudeville. If I lost everything, I would still be a happy guy.”
Witkowski, a charitable guy, is a leading donor to charities such as Sharing and Caring Hands and Catholic Eldercase in northeast Minneapolis.
“My parents sacrificed to send us to Catholic schools,” said Witkowski, a DeLaSalle High School graduate whose siblings work traditional jobs. “I’m the odd duck.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.