George Zirnhelt, president and CEO of market research and consulting firm Power Systems Research, died Feb. 23 from injuries suffered in an accident while paddleboarding in Mexico.
The 69-year-old Zirnhelt and his wife, Susan, spent several months in Mexico over each of the past few years. Zirnhelt’s son Tony, said his dad worked remotely from Mexico but found time daily for stand-up paddleboard sessions. He was out paddleboarding on Feb. 12 when he fell in rough waters and hit his head. He was flown back to Minnesota on Feb. 15 but later died from his injuries.
Zirnhelt, of Lilydale, was a lifelong entrepreneur who got his start as an 8-year-old paperboy for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and as an altar server at the Church of St. Joseph. Those jobs were the seeds for later entrepreneurial successes and a commitment to religious causes.
Zirnhelt was born and raised in Red Wing, Minn., and met his future wife, Susan Nelson, at Red Wing High School. They married in 1968 after Zirnhelt had earned both a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.
Zirnhelt started his career at battery company Gould Inc., where he was awarded a number of patents. He later took a job as a plant manager with Rolite Inc., which manufactured recreational campers in Grantsburg, Wis. He later was majority owner, president and CEO of an original equipment manufacturer of wheel loaders, rough terrain forklifts and auxiliary equipment sold worldwide.
Zirnhelt’s combination of engineering and business experience helped him to recognize opportunities that leveraged both aspects. In 1976, he co-founded Power Systems Research, which is based in St. Paul and provides forecasts, business intelligence and marketing strategies for the global power systems industry.
In 1996, Tammy Sullivan co-founded Plymouth-based Home Care Solutions, a provider of live-in home care for the elderly. Her company was floundering until Zirnhelt responded to her business opportunity advertisement. Zirhelt, whose own parents and in-laws were aging at the time, saw the opportunity to invest in a young company and to learn more about care for the elderly.
Sullivan credits Zirnhelt with helping the company focus on in-home care. Within a year of their partnership, the company was self-sufficient.
“There is no way we would be in existence today without George,” Sullivan said.
Zirnhelt provided financial backing for the company but also gave Sullivan valuable business contacts. “He opened doors for me,” she said. “He was integral in getting us on track where we would be successful and stay successful.”
A devout Catholic, Zirnhelt was as generous to religious causes as he was in sharing his business insights. He was a former lieutenant of the Northern Lieutenancy of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and a member of Legatus, an organization of Catholic business leaders and their spouses. He was a board member of Bethlehem University Foundation and Elizabeth Ann Seton Montessori School and chairman of the Eagan-based Labouré Society, which provides financial and spiritual support for Catholic men and women who want to pursue a religious calling.
“When it relates to the church worldwide, that was his answer — ‘Yes’ — always,” said Cy Laurent, founder and executive director of Labouré. “In regards to Labouré, the number of times he said yes was amazing.”
In 2004 the Catholic Spirit newspaper awarded Zirnhelt its Leading With Faith award given to business leaders who apply their faith and values to their business practices.
Zirnhelt is survived by his wife, Susan; daughter Sarah; sons Tony and Joe; and seven grandchildren. Services have been held.