For someone who believed that much of his life was guided by luck, Daniel Coborn’s birth into a grocery family was perhaps his greatest fortune.
He started early in the business, checking the freshness of eggs, wrapping odorous fish and, at the age of 10, driving a delivery truck for his grandfather’s Sauk Rapids store during the Great Depression. He propped himself on a pillow so he could see out the windshield.
His father told him: “You’re the boss’ son, so you have to do it all.” And he did.
Coborn took the reins of the family business in the 1950s, transforming it from a one-store operation into 54 across the Midwest while presiding as chief executive for 40 years.
Coborn, of Sartell, died March 15 at the age of 86.
“The company was his life,” said Emily Coborn, his granddaughter and a vice president of Coborn’s.
But being a grocery mogul wasn’t always his plan. After studying economics at St. John’s University, Coborn served in the U.S. Army for two years. He was accepted into law school at the University of Minnesota, but luck had other ideas. When he learned that his wife, Mabel, was pregnant, he returned to Sauk Rapids to work in the family business. Then, when his father died unexpectedly in 1959, he took over and began an era of expansion.
“One of the things he would always say is that it’s better to be lucky than smart,” Emily Coborn said. “It was divine intervention that he decided to come back to the company when he did.”
Handsome, with a strong, square jaw that would soften by his huge “halfway laughing” smile, as Emily described it, Coborn won over his business associates and employees with his reputation for fairness and his propensity for witty one-liners. Some of his favorite aphorisms were as motivating as they were endearing: “You can’t sell from an empty shelf.” “Talk is cheap. It still takes money to buy whiskey.”
“Grandpa didn’t say a whole lot, but when he said something, it really mattered,” Emily said.
Coborn was a larger-than-life figure in the grocery business by the mid-1980s, when Greg Kurr started working at the Minnesota dairy company Kemps. One of Kurr’s first responsibilities was to sell product to Coborn’s stores. Occasionally, he would sit in on meetings with Daniel Coborn, who couldn’t get Kurr’s name right.
“For the first two years, he called me Doug,” said Kurr, who is now president and CEO of Kemps.
Kurr had such high esteem for Coborn — and was admittedly a little intimidated by him — that he never corrected him. “I thought about changing my name,” Kurr quipped. “That’s how much I respected the guy.”
Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, described Coborn as a “legend” in the industry for his involvement in the legislative process, representing the interests of the grocery business in the state. Coborn was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame in 2002.
Pfuhl said Coborn demonstrated the important role a grocery store can play in a community as an economic driver, advocate and philanthropist. He was active in the United Way of Central Minnesota and was a founding member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota board.
“It isn’t just about getting food on the plates of our neighbors,” Pfuhl said. “It’s also about how we do what’s right by our communities. That’s who Dan was as a human being.”
Coborn is survived by his wife of 64 years, Mabel; five children, Shelly Coborn, Chris Coborn, Suzy Ellis, Duke Coborn and Tom Coborn; 10 grandchildren; one great-grandchild, and a sister, Nancy Fandel. Services have been held.