Hotel Online Special Report

Curtis L. Carlson, Founder and Chairman 
of Carlson Companies - an International Leader in Hospitality and Travel Services - Dies at Age 84
The Early Days
MINNEAPOLIS, Feb. 19, 1999 -  Minnesota entrepreneur Curtis L. Carlson, Founder and Chairman of Carlson Companies, died this evening in a Twin Cities area hospital. He was 84.

Mr. Carlson is survived by his wife of 60 years, Arleen; daughter Marilyn Carlson Nelson and husband Dr. Glen Nelson, and daughter Barbara Carlson Gage and husband Edwin "Skip" Gage; grandchildren Diana Nelson and husband Marius Muresanu, Curtis Nelson and wife Margie, Wendy Nelson, Daisy Mitchell, Geoffrey Gage and wife Kelly, Scott Gage and wife Gina, Christine Gage, and Richard Gage and wife Britt; six great-grandchildren; brother Warren and his wife Jane; sisters-in-law Elaine Carlson and Hazel Carlson; and numerous nieces and nephews. Mr. Carlson was preceded in death by brothers Ken and Dean; a sister, Aileen Miller; and granddaughter Juliet Nelson.

Born July 9, 1914, in Minneapolis, Mr. Carlson was recognized for his generosity, integrity, entrepreneurial spirit and family dedication. Known worldwide as the "ultra-entrepreneur," he founded the Gold Bond Stamp Company in 1938 with a $55 loan and a desire to succeed. His "Horatio Alger" qualities were key to the gradual expansion of his business, which has become one of the largest privately held corporations in the world. To reflect its global expansion and diversification, the corporation became Carlson Companies, Inc., in 1973.

"We have truly benefited from Curt's visionary leadership, dedication and driving spirit over the last 60 years," said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who took over as President and Chief Executive Officer in March 1998 when he retired. "We celebrate his wonderful, full life, and we will follow his advice not to do what he did, but to seek what he sought. Curt would like to be remembered not only for the success he achieved in his lifetime, but also for the strong bonds he developed with family members and the integrity he showed in everything he did."

"Dad would have wanted us to continue with our commitment to the community," said daughter Barbara Carlson Gage, President of the Curtis L. Carlson Family Foundation. "He cherished the University of Minnesota and Carlson School of Management, and we will continue to support their efforts to strive for excellence. Curt was a profoundly caring person, and that quality was part of his personal credo. He challenged us to dream and to never, ever give up."

Today, Carlson Companies is an international leader in providing hospitality, travel and marketing services and solutions to corporate clients and consumers. The company operates in more than 140 countries, and its brands employ 160,000 people worldwide and generated more than $22 billion in systemwide revenues in 1998.

Mr. Carlson purchased the Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis in 1962 and turned it into an international brand, which currently includes more than 375 properties. Other well-recognized Carlson Companies brands and services include Regent International Hotels, Country Inns Suites By Carlson, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, T.G.I. Friday's restaurants, Carlson Leisure Group (leisure travel) and Carlson Marketing Group, the largest relationship marketing company in the world.

Mr. Carlson also was instrumental in establishing a global partnership with Accor of Paris, which combined the business travel interests of both companies under the name Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the first truly global company in the industry with international management. In 1998, Carlson Companies announced plans to merge its United Kingdom leisure travel operations with Thomas Cook's leisure travel and financial services business. The partnership will create one of the largest leisure travel companies in the world.

The company's hospitality operating group, Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, added 98 new hotels and 76 new restaurants in 1998. On the heels of its 1998 acquisition of S H Citadel, one of the nation's largest performance improvement firms, Carlson Marketing Group recently was named relationship marketing agency of record for six new national and international accounts. Funeral arrangements for Mr. Carlson are pending.

Curtis L. Carlson
Founder, Chairman of the Board
Carlson Companies, Inc.

Carlson Companies, Inc. Founder and Chairman of the Board Curtis LeRoy Carlson emerged from a humble background as the son of Swedish-American immigrants to build one of the largest privately held companies in the world.

Recognized as a phenomenal salesman, Carlson's rise in the business world started with a simple idea -- his own trading stamp called "Gold Bond." He originally sold the stamps to small grocery stores in the 1930s and 1940s. The consumer-incentive idea rocketed Carlson into national prominence in the grocery business and retail industry in the 1950s and 1960s as "Gold Bond stamps" became household words across North America. Eventually, Gold Bond made its way into Europe and Japan.

Today, Carlson Companies encompasses more than 100 companies with operations in more than 140 countries. The company's brands employ about 160,000 people around the world, and total sales generated by the brands systemwide reached more than $22 billion in 1998.

An international leader in Consumer and Corporate Solutions based in Travel, Hospitality and Marketing Services, Carlson Companies plans to continue its global expansion. In addition to its core businesses, operations include Carlson Real Estate Company, which has a portfolio of five million square feet of shopping center, office building, warehouse and hotel space throughout North America and total assets of $400 million.


Curtis L. Carlson was born July 9, 1914, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Charles and Letha Carlson.  Charles was born in Sweden and immigrated with his parents to Minnesota.  Curt's maternal grandmother was born in Sweden and his grandfather was born in Denmark.  They immigrated to the United States where Letha was born on a farm near Downing, Wisconsin.  Charles was reared on a farm near North Branch, Minnesota, about 30 miles north of Minneapolis. Carlson's parents were married in 1905 in Minneapolis.  In those early days, his father drove a sprinkler truck for the City of Minneapolis.  After his son was born in 1914, Charles Carlson went to work for a wholesale grocery firm. He called on small neighborhood grocery stores and would begin work at 6 a.m. and wouldn't return home until 8:30 p.m.  It was a ritual in the Carlson home that the family did not dine together until Charles came home.

While the 14-plus hour days were long and hard for the elder Carlson, he did manage to keep ample food on the table and support his family. In addition to Curt, the Carlsons had four other children -- three sons and a daughter.

All members of the family went to work as soon as they could and all attended the public schools in Minneapolis. A Methodist family, the Carlsons went to church as a group every Sunday. Carlson still maintains this custom with his own immediate family. After attending church services, the family often gathers for brunch and a lively give-and-take discussion on the minister's sermon of the day.

Carlson's father eventually opened up his own neighborhood grocery store after he left the wholesale food business. As a young boy, Curt earned money after school by working for his father in this store. It was here that he received his first taste of food retailing, which would later have a significant impact on his business life. The Carlson family had a moderate income. The youngsters were taught the value of money early and the principle that if you wanted something badly enough, you would have to work for it.


Carlson grew up in south Minneapolis where he attended elementary and high school.  Ironically, it was in this same south Minneapolis area where he would first begin selling his Gold Bond trading stamps to small grocery stores in the 1930s and 1940s.

When he was nine years old, he took on his first job as a golf caddie at the Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minnesota. He made 50 cents for carrying one golf bag and 75 cents for carrying two. At age 11, he obtained his first newspaper route. During the next few years, he had as many as three newspaper routes at one time -- farming out two of them to his younger brothers for delivery. Carlson realized a small profit from his brothers for these additional two routes. He still supervised the routes during his first year in college.

This business arrangement was one of the first signs that Carlson would develop into an enterprising entrepreneur. He also operated a corner newsstand at a busy south Minneapolis intersection where he sold newspapers. He had his biggest newsstand sale on "Black Tuesday" when banner headlines carried the message that the stock market had crashed, October 29, 1929. It signaled the beginning of the Depression, and Carlson, at age 15, together with Americans everywhere, faced an uncertain future.

Carlson graduated from West High School in south Minneapolis in 1932 before entering the University of Minnesota. To earn money for college, he drove a soda pop truck and sold advertising by placing information on fraternity and sorority bulletin boards.


Following graduation from the University of Minnesota in 1937 where he majored in economics, Carlson went to work for Procter  Gamble as a soap salesman for $110 per month.  During that time he noticed that the Leader retail department store in downtown Minneapolis was giving away red coupons for so many dollars in purchases.  These coupons could be redeemed for cash or merchandise at the department store.  He reasoned that if the coupons stimulated business in department stores with their exclusive lines of merchandise, they would be effective for grocery stores as well.  After all, Carlson figured, grocery stores needed a point of difference since they all sold identical products.

With this thought in mind, Carlson applied for a license to operate a new company -- the Gold Bond Stamp Company in Minneapolis. The Hennepin County Clerk of District Court issued the certificate on June 8, 1938, and the framed license hung in Carlson's office for many years.

Carlson also copyrighted his chosen name for his new trading stamp venture -- "Gold" for its value and "Bond" for its safety. This was, and still is, the objective of the Gold Bond Stamp Company -- that, by saving many of these stamp incentives, consumers could obtain worthwhile and valuable gifts (premiums) as a reward for their loyalty to the merchant who carried these trading stamps. Today's Frequent Flyer, Frequent Guest and Gold Points programs are extensions of the trading stamp concept and objective -- to spur sales and command consumer loyalty.

Carlson continued his regular job with Procter Gamble for 16 months. However, during the evenings and on weekends, he continued to perfect and sell his trading stamp idea to local merchants -- particularly the small "Mom and Pop" food stores in the Minneapolis area.

The entrepreneur worked the neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis, and in the fall of 1938, he quit his job with Procter Gamble to devote his full energies to his new trading stamp idea. The year 1938 marked another important time for Carlson. He married his college sweetheart, Arleen Martin, whom he met in class when they attended the University of Minnesota. They eventually had two daughters, Marilyn and Barbara.

In the late 1930s and very early 1940s, merchants, particularly those who operated small food stores, began giving Gold Bond stamps in ever-increasing numbers throughout the city. Carlson's trading stamp business was beginning to catch on -- first locally, then regionally, nationally and internationally. Carlson did not invent the trading stamp. He perfected it within the retail food business and was the first one to introduce the trading stamp into food stores. The growth of Carlson's struggling young company was virtually paralyzed with the advent of World War II in 1941 and the post-war adjustment period. However, by the end of World War II in 1945 and by the early 1950s, the Gold Bond Stamp Company was operating in 11 Midwestern states and beginning to make an impact on the national scene, particularly in food stores.

A major breakthrough for Carlson's business occurred in 1953 when he sold Gold Bond trading stamps to one of the largest wholesale grocery chains in the nation, Super Valu, which operated hundreds of large supermarkets across the Midwest. Super Valu was the first major supermarket food chain in the nation to use trading stamps. Carlson's successful volume increases for the small food stores had paid off, and now a large supermarket chain operation would use the new incentive program.

Almost overnight, Gold Bond stamps became part of everyday life for Americans. "It was an idea whose time had come!" Carlson would say later. During the 1960s, the trading stamp business had grown to such a phenomenal extent that further growth projections were impossible. Nineteen out of the top 20 food chains were issuing trading stamps, and 50 percent of all gasoline stations were giving stamps on purchases. It was a time to review the present and anticipate the future of trading stamps.


As a result of strategic planning, Carlson began to diversify his capital into other businesses, including real estate in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.  Part of the property would be the future home of his Carlson Companies World Headquarters, which opened in 1989.

Among Carlson's major diversifications was the 1962 purchase of the nationally known Radisson Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. This marked the beginning of the expansion of the Radisson name, first in Minnesota and then throughout the United States and Canada. Later, T.G.I. Friday's restaurants joined the Hospitality Group. This diversification into other businesses, besides trading stamps, prompted his company to change its name from the Gold Bond Stamp Company to Carlson Companies, Inc., in 1973.

Carlson's success story in American business has been the subject of major articles in many top national publications. Time, Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, U.S. News World Report, Newsweek, Town Country, Travel Agent, Travel Weekly, Business Travel News, Leaders, Der Spiegel -- all have devoted stories to the incredible business career of one of America's top entrepreneurs.

A number of major daily newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Charlotte News-Observer, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, as well as the Associated Press and United Press International, have carried one or more major national and international news feature stories on Curt Carlson.


In step with the expansion of his businesses over these past 60 years, Carlson took on leadership responsibilities in civic and community organizations.

Carlson Companies is a pioneer and charter member of the "Five Percent Club" -- now called the Minnesota Keystone Club -- which includes top Minneapolis-St. Paul area corporations that donate five percent of their earnings to non-profit organizations.

This innovative giving program has been duplicated by other U.S. companies. The five-percent concept and Carlson's role in promoting the idea became the subject of a national Associated Press story by Financial Analyst John Cunniff in January 1982.

In 1997, Carlson Companies received the Minnesota Keystone program's first-ever Honored Company Award, recognizing the corporation for its distinguished history of community giving.

In 1980, Carlson gave $1 million to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, to help reorganize its Political Science School into the new Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Carlson chaired the committee that raised $12 million to fund the new school.

One of the functions of this prestigious institute is to bring distinguished and influential world leaders to the campus of the University to address the student body and the general public. Known as the "Carlson Lecture Series," it has brought to the University of Minnesota campus such internationally known figures as former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale; former British Prime Minister James Callaghan; former U.N. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick; Mrs. Jehan Sadat, wife of the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig; former U.S. President George Bush; former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt; former U.S. Congresswoman and Democratic candidate for Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro; former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze; Reverend Jesse Jackson; Nobel Peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Such "Distinguished Carlson Lecturers" come to the University several times each year and speak at the University's Northrop Auditorium. The lectures are free and open to the student body and the public. Carlson made funds available for the program in honor of his alma mater and his longtime friend, the late Hubert H. Humphrey, former Vice President of the United States and U.S. Senator from Minnesota.

In April 1986, Carlson gave a personal gift of $25 million to the University. This was the largest single gift ever given to a public university. At the same time, Carlson agreed to spearhead a three-year drive, which raised $365 million with the specific objective of moving the University of Minnesota's ranking into the top five public universities in America. Called "The Minnesota Campaign," the drive was the largest ever conducted by a public university in the nation during a three-year period.

Carlson's $25 million gift provided the spark for this fund-raising campaign for the University of Minnesota. This was Carlson's way of paying back his obligation to the University for properly preparing him to enter the business world in the late 1930s, a time when America was still in the aftermath of the Depression. He was able to attend the University at a reasonable tuition cost -- an opportunity he would never forget.

To honor Carlson, in October 1986 the University of Minnesota's prestigious School of Management was renamed the "Curtis L. Carlson School of Management." It marks only the second time in its history that the University has named a school after a person. The University's School of Public Affairs had been renamed the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in 1977.

In 1993, Carlson gave still another personal gift of $10 million to the University of Minnesota's School of Management to spark its drive to build a new, free-standing Business School. This latest $10 million contribution raises Carlson's total gift to the University of Minnesota to $35 million. It places him as the nation's third single-largest contributor to a business school.

A shining new facility opened in December 1997 to house the Carlson School of Management, featuring state-of-the-art, tele-teaching rooms, at-desk computer connectivity for students and an extensive corporate learning center. The new building opened for classes in January 1998. Carlson's philanthropic efforts earned him Town Country magazine's prestigious "Generous American Award" for 1987-1988, plus a major story on his philanthropy in the publication's December 1987 issue. Town Country called Carlson "a visionary with a different tactic...the man who has inspired the new philosophy of corporate giving."


1986 -- Carlson was asked by the Swedish government, including H.M. Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, to help coordinate a national celebration commemorating Sweden's colonization of America in 1638.  Called "New Sweden '88," the celebration drew attention to Sweden's successful efforts to colonize America.  The King and Queen visited 13 U.S. cities in
1988 to celebrate this event.

1988 -- While retaining chairmanship of Carlson Companies, Carlson established a new company, Carlson Holdings, Inc., which became the parent of Carlson Companies. Carlson Holdings is also the parent company of two other companies -- Carlson Real Estate and Carlson Investment Group.

1989 -- Carlson Companies moved its world headquarters into a glistening, new 20-story Twin Towers complex in the City of Minnetonka -- just 10 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. The new headquarters building anchors a 310-acre, $650 million development called "Carlson Center." When completed in the next several years, this development will be a virtual "City Within a City." Anticipating his company's growth, Carlson purchased this land in the 1950s and 1960s. It is strategically located at the junction of two of the state's major Interstate highways (I-394 and I-494).

1989 -- Carlson named his oldest daughter, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, to senior vice president of Carlson Holdings, Inc.

1991 -- Carlson named Nelson as Vice Chair of Carlson Holdings and Carlson Companies, Inc.

1995 -- The board of directors, which includes Carlson family members Arleen M. Carlson, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Barbara Carlson Gage, Dr. Glen Nelson, and Edwin C. "Skip" Gage, was expanded to include three new directors from outside the company: Duane R. Kullberg, Retired Chief Executive Officer, Arthur Andersen LLP; Kenneth A. Macke, Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Dayton Hudson and currently General Partner, Macke Partners; and Lawrence Perlman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ceridian Corporation. Carlson serves as Chairman of the Board.

1997 -- Carlson named Marilyn Carlson Nelson Chief Operating Officer, Carlson Companies. She became responsible for day-to-day operations and serves as chair of the company's Executive Committee.

March 23, 1998 -- As part of the company's observance of its 60th anniversary year, Carlson named Marilyn Carlson Nelson President and Chief Executive Officer of Carlson Companies. She also continues to serve as Vice Chair and Chief Operating Officer. Carlson continues to serve as Chairman of the Board.

Douglas Cody 
of Carlson Companies,
Also See: A History of The Radisson Hotel - Downtown Minneapolis / Jan 1998 

To search Hotel Online data base of News and Trends Go to Hotel.Online Search
Back to Hotel.Online Press Releases
Home | Welcome! | Hospitality News | Classifieds | Catalogs & Pricing | Viewpoint Forum | Ideas/Trends
Please contact Hotel.Online with your comments and suggestions.