Ten years ago, I wrote an article for Twin Cities Business magazine called Turning Points. I asked prominent Twin Cities businesspeople to tell me the behind-the-scenes story of a pivotal moment that led directly to their success. Click here to read excerpts from that story. I was happy to be asked to produce another edition of Turning Points for the May 2011 issue. I hope you enjoy the stories!
At any moment, life can uproot and redirect us. A chance conversation, a pivotal meeting or an unexpected hardship can rearrange priorities, divert careers and lead to uncommon accomplishments.
The dozen business and political leaders profiled here share the personal, and often poignant, turning points in their own lives. R. T. Rybak transmuted the fear and anxiety of unemployment into a long-dreamed-of political career. Don Helgeson established Gold’n Plump Poultry by sticking his own neck on the chopping block. Manny Villafana climbed out of a swimming pool and into an idea for a multibillion-dollar company. Expecting a life of farm labor, Margaret Anderson Kelliher ended up representing the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.
Here are their stories.
CEO of Plymouth-based Clearfield, Inc., a provider of the tools that telephone and cable TV companies need to deliver fiber connectivity. Beranek is one of four women who cracked the top 100 highest-paid executives of public Minnesota companies, according to a list compiled by the Star Tribune in 2009.
I was working in the marketing department of a $50 million tech firm in the late ’80s. After my boss left to lead a division in another city, I was the most senior member of the marketing staff. I was essentially running the operation without the title. Soon after, I was walking down the hall past the president’s office and heard him say to the COO, “A woman will never run marketing in my company.” I was shocked. I knew he was talking about me. I took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that that kind of world still existed. I had never come across a situation where it made any difference if I was male or female. Three weeks later there was a man running marketing and I didn’t have a job anymore.
I considered pursuing legal action but decided it was more important to prove myself in performance rather than in a courtroom. I took that comment as a personal challenge to prove myself and to make sure that their decision was going to be their loss. Within a month I had a better position, where I helped grow the revenues from $8 million to $80 million over four years. That experience gave me the opportunity to serve in a broader role in the next company I joined, gaining valuable management experience. As a result, I had the credentials and background to serve as a division president and now the CEO of a publicly traded firm on the NASDAQ stock exchange.
Looking back, overhearing that comment was among my most painful professional experiences. While I can wish that it would have never happened, it did prompt me to later realize that people can do anything they want to me. I can’t control that. Whether it’s discrimination or something else, everybody comes up against obstacles. Whether it’s a kick in the pants or a gentle nudge, it’s how you respond and overcome those obstacles that’s going to make the difference.
Mayor of St. Paul
In 1980, I was in the process of finishing my freshman year at the University of Minnesota. I had been slated to spend the summer working at Glacier National Park. Two weeks before I was scheduled to leave, my father was diagnosed with leukemia and told he had six months to live. Right after he gave us the news, he looked at me and said, “And you’re still going to Glacier.” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “Yes, you are. You need to go. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.” It was that moment, the fact that he not only allowed me to go but insisted on it, that put me on a life-altering course.
First of all, I had never been away from home. Going out to Glacier was my opportunity to be on my own and be an actual adult. By going there, I developed a lifelong passion for the wilderness and made some of the most important friends I’ve ever had in my life. I spent three summers at Glacier and Grand Teton National Park, and those experiences shaped who I was as a person and ultimately as a civic leader.
After that first summer at Glacier, I was certainly more mature and had a broader perspective on life. It’s one of the reasons why I promote kids taking a gap year where they get out of their normal routine. My daughter, who just graduated from high school, is spending a gap year working at a school in Harlem for City Year. I suspect that at least part of her sense of adventure came from somewhere in my experience.
Just a year ago or so, I developed a program that’s sending inner-city kids to Glacier National Park. Ken Burns’ series on the National Parks is very much a part of the psyche of who we are as Americans, but for that moment when my dad looked at me and said, “You’re going to Glacier,” I don’t know that I would understand that as profoundly as I do.
Chairman and CEO, LFE Capital
Twelve years ago, I was a senior executive at General Mills. I had been promoted into that role five years earlier with some fanfare because I was the youngest senior vice president at the time as well as the first female senior vice president. So that was exciting. However, as the years went by in that position, I lost my sense of purpose in the role and felt a bit isolated and ineffective. I remember that at every retirement party I attended, I found myself wishing it were my own. I was a little young to be thinking along those lines! I had a wonderful 17 years at the company, but I finally realized, it’s time to go. I didn’t go with a plan, I just left.
When my husband saw his normally focused and driven executive wife struggling, he found me a referral to a firm called CEO Perspectives. I started working with Dick Clarke, a retired public-company CEO who coached executives. Over the next year, Dick helped me rebuild my confidence and put together a new life plan. He made me focus on what really mattered to me and what I needed in order to feel fulfilled, both personally and professionally. We developed a detailed plan that ultimately resulted in me founding LFE Capital, the private equity investment management firm I currently lead. We’ve been in business now for over a decade and are raising our third fund. A couple of months ago, I was going through a file drawer and came across that original plan. It was moving for me to re-read it and remember that time in my life. Even though my work is far from finished, I realized that I had accomplished most of that plan, and even more. That was a great feeling.
I can’t imagine retiring now. I love what I’m doing. The beauty of what I do is that my ability to contribute benefits from age and experience, so I hope to be able to work in my field a long time. It is energizing to help businesses grow, create jobs and ultimately generate financial rewards for all of the people involved.
Chairman of the Board, Gold’n Plump Poultry
When I came out of college, my father wanted to liquidate his hatchery. I said, “No, I want to see what I can do with it.” We were a seasonal hatchery, hatching chicks and selling them to farmers to produce eggs. I saw an opportunity to get into the broiler business because there were no significant broiler operations north of the Mason-Dixon Line at the time. (When you go to the grocery store and pick up a package of chicken, that’s what we in the industry call broilers.) Then, instead of just hatching chicks in the spring, we’d be hatching chicks all year round, which would be much more efficient and profitable.
At first, we tried to sell our chicks to independent growers but unexpected cancellations of chick orders were devastating to our finances. We were really boxed in because we didn’t have the volume to stay in business, and we couldn’t get the volume because bankers wouldn’t finance the farmers to put up buildings for growing broilers without a secure market. So I did the only thing I could think of. I stuck my neck out on the chopping block by offering farmers a 10-to-12-year contract to grow chickens on a lease-type basis where we guaranteed a fixed-rate monthly payment based on square footage. The grower had to provide the building, the labor and the maintenance but we assumed all of the risk for market conditions, feed costs and disastrous circumstances.
The contract was unique in the industry at that time—and still is nearly 50 years later—because all other contracts in the industry were short term. Offering that guarantee was a statement of our integrity and our intention to treat the farmers as partners. And with a long-term contract, the bankers were more congenial to financing broiler buildings and operations. We’re still using the same contract today and we have a waiting list of eager growers wanting to do business with us. Without question, it was the advent of that contract that enabled us to launch the broiler business in central Minnesota.
Founder of Not Me! LLC, which offers mixed-gender self-defense training; and co-chairman of Minneapolis-based Aaron Carlson, a $15 million architectural woodworking company.
It was an ordinary doctor’s appointment on an ordinary Wednesday—until a routine medical procedure turned up an aortic aneurism. My doc told me, “Your ascending aorta is twice as big as it should be. When they get any bigger, we lose about half the patients.” Three days later, I was in the hospital for open-heart surgery to replace my aortic valve and ascending aorta. I was told the surgeon would open my chest, stop my heart, cut big pieces out, put new pieces in, then re-start my heart.
As I was being rolled into pre-op, the magnitude of what was happening finally dawned on me. If my heart didn’t reboot, this was my curtain call. I’m a former Navy SEAL who played with guns and explosives, had parachutes fail to open, climbed the highest mountain in Europe during a blizzard, been stuck in a crevice on Mt. McKinley, ridden motorcycles too fast and participated in other endeavors that should have scared me senseless. But for some reason they didn’t. Now, lying on that gurney, I was terrified and blubbering like a baby. The nurse, who knew my history, gently pointed out that I was overcome with fear because, unlike my previous exploits, I would have no control over the outcome. She was right. I had never felt so helpless in my life.
Here’s the moment that changed my life: I said to whoever/whatever it is that we pray to, “Just let me wake up and see my wife. You can have everything else because nothing else matters. Just let me wake up and see Diane. I’ll take it from there.” At that moment I gained absolute clarity about my priorities. I saw that giving my time and attention to people and things that are not important sucks the intellectual and emotional energy out of me, which diminishes my ability to be fully present and engaged with my loved ones, which is priority number one. From a business standpoint, becoming much more active with women’s personal safety by growing Not Me! was consistent with my new perspective because I know that we’re literally saving lives and preventing pain. It’s been four years since the surgery and I’ve retained that clarity ever since.
MARGARET ANDERSON KELLIHER
President and CEO, Minnesota High Tech Association
One night, my dad and I were carrying bales of hay over to the cattle on our farm near Mankato. I was eleven or twelve and had started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I had thought of becoming a large-animal veterinarian, but I also really liked farming and thought maybe that’s what I was supposed to do. My dad and I were talking and I remember exactly where we were in the farmyard when I asked him, “Am I going to get to farm?” He shot me a look and said, “You’re going to go to college is what you’re doing to do. And you’re not going to be part of the farm.” In that moment I realized that I wasn’t going to live on that farm the rest of my life.
I did go on to college, a whole ten miles up the road to Gustavus in St. Peter. After I graduated, I was still holding on to the dream of being a veterinarian. I had dipped my toe in public service and had liked it, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what it could lead to. So I called my family’s veterinarians from Nicollet and asked to go on a ride-along with them. After spending a morning with the two of them riding around and visiting several farms, we went to a café in Nicollet for lunch. After talking to them about what a veterinarian’s life looked like, one of them looked at me and said, “We’ve been talking about this. We love that you want to be a veterinarian, but we actually think you’re good at politics. And even though we don’t agree with you, we think you should go do politics.” It was a stop-in-your-tracks moment that made me think about what I was good at doing. These people had known me as long as my family had known me. They had seen the abilities I had exhibited in 4-H and in school and they thought that bringing people together was something I should be doing. That conversation gave me closure on being a large-animal veterinarian. Although I will tell you that, as Speaker of the House, I spoke to the American Veterinary Medical Association every year, and they encouraged me that there was still time for me to go back to school and become a veterinarian.
Founder of PocketYourDollars.com, a site dedicated to helping families save money
I had spent seven years at a Minneapolis-based nonprofit as COO. After serving as Interim President for five months while my boss was on sabbatical, she decided not to come back, so I stayed in that position an additional five months. I applied to be the company’s new president, knowing that the organization could no longer afford both a COO and President. I found out on a Friday in February 2009 that the board had opted for an outsider. With a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat, I had to walk into the office on Monday and tell the staff that I had been passed over. They all knew it meant I’d be laid off, although I stayed on for another ten months to help with the transition.
My job situation was especially stressful because a few weeks earlier, my husband had quit his job and became a stay-at-home dad with our brand-new second child. To help me process the tremendous disappointment and fear I was going through, I decided to turn my focus outward. I started a blog to share the money-saving tips my husband and I had learned over the last few years while climbing out of $50,000 worth of debt. Much to my surprise, ten days after launching my blog, FOX 9 did a story on it. That kicked off a media frenzy, resulting in over a hundred media appearances over the next eight months that grew my blog exponentially. Who would have thought that 10 months after starting it, my blog would be supporting my family through advertising and affiliate marketing income? It’s crazy. By the time I was actually laid off in January 2010, I was making more money blogging than I ever had at the nonprofit.
What started as a tremendous blow to my ego, an unsettling time for my family and the largest professional disappointment I had ever experienced, became the fork in the road that ultimately launched me into a new, much more fulfilling career.
R. T. RYBAK
Mayor of Minneapolis
In 1998, I was vice president of Internet Broadcasting Systems. Like most Internet startups, one day we were set to get a huge amount of funding and the next day we weren’t sure where the money was going to come from. At one particular low point they had to axe somebody in a management position and that was me. The moment I was told that I’d lost my job and was unemployed I was really crushed, but I was scared enough that I took every bit of energy, every bit of anxiety I had, and focused it on getting work. The next morning, I sat down at the dining room table, made a list of everybody I knew and began to map out who I should start calling. Over the next few weeks, I realized that my hands-on experience in the emerging field of the Internet would allow me to build a really good consulting business. Before long, with clients like Minnesota Public Radio, Target and Edina Realty, I had built a practice that was more lucrative and more interesting than anything I’d ever done.
Had I not lost my job at that Internet startup, I might still be working there today because I never could have run for mayor having a full-time job. Having a consulting business allowed me to take on a lot of work to stockpile some money, which allowed me to spend more time campaigning over the year I ran. So ultimately, losing my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And it’s why I’ve got the job I have now.
I can honestly say that I fully understand why people get anxious when they lose a job. Personally, I was terrified about how I would pay the mortgage and support my family. Every time I felt scared, I had to find some way to use that energy to motivate me to make the next call, make the next contact, do the next uncomfortable thing that helped me get the work. I’m not saying it’s magic and I’m not saying it’s easy, but you can’t let the anxiety eat you up. I look at it this way: If you’re out in a sailboat, the wind can either tip you over or move you forward. Sometimes that means you have to tack back and forth. I learned that you have to figure out a way to capture the wind that’s in your face and turn it into a wind at your back.
Well-known entrepreneur and founder of CPI Guidant, St. Jude Medical and ATS Medical
It was 1971. I had just returned from South America where I had spent two years setting up Medtronic’s Latin America facilities. They brought me back to Minneapolis to see if there was another suitable position for me in the company. There wasn’t, so I was let go. That very evening, I went to the Marriott Hotel on 494 to go swimming with some friends. Since I had just returned to the Twin Cities, I didn’t have a swimsuit. There was a vending machine at the hotel, so I put in a quarter and got a paper bathing suit. After a swim, I climbed out of the pool, and right there in front of me was the guy who had invented the first implantable pacemaker, Bill Greatbatch. Every Medtronic pacemaker had his name on it—the Chardack Greatbatch pacemaker. I said, “Bill, what’s up?” He said, “I’m developing a new power source for pacemakers.” Standing there dripping wet in a paper bathing suit, I said, “Bill, you’ve got to let me get out of this thing. I’ll see you in your room in a few minutes.” When I got to Bill’s room, he filled me in on his work with lithium power sources and we agreed to look into working together. I said, “Bill, you make the power source and I’ll make the pacemakers.” We shook hands, and a few months later, we started CPI, which became CPI Guidant, which was later sold to Boston Scientific for $27 billion. We changed the way all pacemakers in the world are made today, and it was all because of a chance meeting while I was standing poolside in a wet paper bathing suit.
Entrepreneur and founder of Guidance Interactive Healthcare, which was acquired in 2008
My son, Luke, was diagnosed with diabetes at age three in 1998. He passive aggressively resisted his multiple daily finger pokes by intentionally hiding his blood glucose meter. My Aha! moment came when Luke made me stop the car as we were pulling out to go on vacation because he had forgotten to bring his Game Boy. I unlocked the house and followed him in. He ran over to the sofa, lifted up a cushion and grabbed his Game Boy. I thought, “Huh. He’s ‘losing’ his blood glucose meter all the time. What if I could marry the two types of media together—a medical testing device and a gaming system—to make testing his blood sugar levels fun?” I started tinkering with the idea but couldn’t give it much attention because my job at an engineering firm required me to travel worldwide at least three weeks every month. Later that year, my marriage ended and I lost everything in the divorce settlement.
I had married Shelley, my long-lost high school sweetheart, in 2000. She brought four boys into the family, which already included my four kids. Six months after promising her dad I’d take care of her, I quit my job. My idea had kept eating at me and so, with Shelley’s unwavering support and the knowledge that product life cycles of handheld electronics are very short, I devoted myself to my GlucoBoy product full time.
Over the next six years, I made more than 100 investor presentations, but even though we had won a Tekne award for Innovation of the Year, I didn’t receive a penny of funding. I did part-time consulting and other odd jobs but times were tough. I drove home one night after picking up my quadriplegic son, Alex, at his mother’s. The utility company had shut off our power so I couldn’t use the blender to grind up Alex’s food. I had to cook his meal on an outdoor grill and cut it up with my filet knife. That was the low point.
I finally received $1.5 million from an Australian company in mid-2006, which allowed us to launch a limited commercialization of the product in Australia. More than a year later, the director of business development for Bayer, a German company, called to say they were interested in my company. After eight months of due diligence, I sold it to Bayer for tens of millions of dollars.
This had been a mission of the heart, to help my son. I had gone into it with blinders on and made every mistake in the book, but it was an awesome learning experience. Best of all, there are now tens of thousands of these devices all over the world helping kids manage their diabetes.
ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
If you feel more stressed than blessed . . . if you have more confusion than clarity about how to live your beliefs . . . if you long to live a richer, happier, more meaningful life . . . you will find a wealth of insight and guidance in Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World.
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Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to be.
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SEE EVERY MOMENT AS A GIFT
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Phil’s eBook, The Logic of Living a Spiritual Life: Supporting a Life of Faith Through Logic and Reason, is now available for 99 cents.
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In this eBook, you’ll find answers to questions like:
• What is the cornerstone of a spiritual life, and why?
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