MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 10, 2008 - Family business succession stories often have painful episodes that end in broken relationships and damaged companies. One of the most dramatic of those sagas has played out at the Minnetonka headquarters of Carlson Companies over the past two decades.
The family began planning for succession years before the death at age 84 of company founder Curt Carlson in 1999. In the late 1980s, son-in-law Edwin (Skip) Gage served as CEO and heir apparent, but he broke from the worldwide travel and hospitality company to start his own business in 1992, frustrated that his father-in-law would not relinquish control.
The most sympathetic figure in the drama was Carlson's daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who had been overshadowed by Gage. Carlson Nelson finally became CEO the year before her father's death, emerging as an important and respected business leader in Minnesota with a long list of industry and civic achievements. She brought professionalism, stability and class to her role, and the company, its employees and the community benefited.
Although Carlson Companies is privately held, Carlson Nelson has been a very public leader whose sometimes fabulous, occasionally troubled life has been an open book. That made it even more difficult to watch her struggles with her son Curtis, the onetime heir apparent who angrily left the company in 2006 after it became clear that performance and character issues would keep him from succeeding his mother. The lawsuit and countersuit that followed his departure revealed how Curtis Nelson had fought alcohol and drug addiction that he said resulted from a liver transplant in 2000.
In the end, Carlson Nelson and her board of directors decided her son should not run a company with worldwide operations and 58,000 employees. "That was an enormously difficult thing to do," business consultant Tom Hubler told the Star Tribune this week. "She had the tenacity to say that was not in the best interest of the company, the family and Curtis."
For the first time in its 70-year history, Carlson Companies now turns to a non-family member, Hubert Joly, to take over as CEO. Joly, a French executive who currently runs the company's Carlson Wagonlit Travel, takes over on March 1. Joly's challenge as the first outsider to run a company so tied to one family is significant. Based on her life story, we're betting Carlson Nelson, who will continue as chairwoman, will provide Jolly and the company with every opportunity to succeed.
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