The Carlson School at 90

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Although 2009 is the Carlson School’s official 90th anniversary, the school’s roots stretch back even farther. The idea for a business school was initially proposed in 1870 by the University’s first president, William Watts Folwell, who felt the U needed a “College of Commerce.” The idea was backed by then-University regent John Sargent Pillsbury, who later founded the company that still bears his name and who also served as Minnesota governor from 1876 to 1882.

According to the school’s first Course Bulletin in 1919, the fundamental emphasis would be on using the “scientific method in analyzing business data and trained intelligence in dealing with human relationships.” The bulletin also notes that students would be challenged to “analyze business situations accurately” to create “practical working plans.”

A lot has changed in the last 90 years. As the articles in this section illustrate, the Carlson School has weathered challenges and remained a premier provider of business education. That steadfastness will remain in place. The school is continuing to refine its commitment to quality and its focus on laying a foundation of excellence for tomorrow’s business leaders.

Curtis L. Carlson, 1914-1999

No look back at the Carlson School’s history would be complete without mention of its namesake and perhaps most enthusiastic supporter, Curt Carlson. The son of a south Minneapolis grocer, he parlayed a creative brainstorm into the Carlson Companies (now known as Carlson), a travel, marketing, and hospitality empire that generates close to $40 billion in annual sales and is one of the country’s largest family-held businesses.

Shortly after graduating from the U in 1937, Carlson started the Gold Bond Stamp Co., a business that provided trading stamps to retail outlets looking to encourage customer loyalty. The core idea: Customers would receive stamps for purchases and eventually redeem them for cash and rewards. The concept took off and paved the way for the company’s expansion. In the early 1960s, Carlson purchased a Radisson hotel in downtown Minneapolis, which was the first link in what would become a worldwide chain. Along the way, the company diversified and grew, purchasing and opening travel agency networks, restaurants and hotels, cruise ship lines, and more.

Carlson was also an enthusiastic and generous supporter of the University and its business school. In 1986, he gave $25 million to the U, earmarking $18 million of it for the Carlson School (which was renamed in his honor). In 1993, he donated another $10 million for the construction of a new facility for the school. Upon his death in 1999, he left another $10 million to the University, $8 million of which was used to endow the Carlson School. In total, he and the Carlson Family Foundation provided nearly $50 million in gifts to the U and the Carlson School.

Carlson family members and company employees also have been extraordinarily active as volunteers over the years. Carlson’s daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, is a present member of the Board of Overseers and her husband, Glen, is a past member of the board. Carlson’s other daughter, Barbara Gage, now leads the Carlson Family Foundation and her husband, Skip, is a former chair of the Board of Overseers, of which he had been a long-time member.