hen Carlson Cos. chair and CEO Marilyn
Carlson Nelson speaks of the "Carlson family," she usually is
referring to the 198,000 employees who work for her.
And in all likelihood, her warm words about employees are
heartfelt: Carlson Cos. is on both Fortune and Working Mother
magazines' lists detailing the "100 Best Companies to Work
But there's family, and then there's family. Nelson has said
that while some businesses look at development in terms of quarters
or years, hers thinks in generations. And with the promotion of her
son, Curtis Carlson Nelson, to president and chief operating
officer earlier this year, the privately held firm inaugurated its
third stage of family leadership.
Marilyn Nelson's personal style and business priorities differ
somewhat from those of her late father, Curt Carlson, and in her
son one can see yet a third dynamic at play. But she points to one
constant that has helped define the company from one generation to
the next: "At the very core of our being is relationships."
Relationship focus moved from a mission statement to a profit
center when, earlier this month, Carlson acquired Peppers and
Rogers Group, the preeminent customer relationship marketing
company. They're the one that coined the term "one-to-one
But there also are relationships within Carlson of a more
personal kind. During the Carlson Cos.' growth, the blending of
family relationships and corporate politics has from time to time
spilled over onto the pages of business journals and Minnesota
newspapers. But since Marilyn's ascension to CEO, things have, by
and large, been kept all-in-the-family.
Curtis Nelson says family dynamics, particularly between him and
his grandfather, played a crucial role in his deliberations about
whether to get involved with the company.
"I actually anticipated I'd be working outside the family
business," Curtis told me last week. "Growing up, I had long
conversations with my grandfather. I had tremendous respect and
admiration for what he did in building Carlson. But I didn't want
to just join the family company -- I wanted to do what he did, do
it all over again -- build a great company from scratch."
Curtis was drawn to both the restaurant and hospitality
businesses. (His first job was washing dishes at a restaurant
called Country Kitchen.) He went on to graduate from the
hospitality school at Cornell University, working for Marriott
while in school and for Hyatt just after graduation.
His grandfather wanted him in the business, and so the two began
a second round of long conversations. The topic was what Curtis
says is his motivation for being in business: job creation and
philanthropy. "He showed me how growth in those areas is
exponential for large, established companies -- I could do more
working within Carlson than by spending years building a new
company. So I decided to get involved."
From what little exposure I've had seeing Curtis and Marilyn
Nelson together, they treat each other with warmth, professional
courtesy and respect, but one can only imagine the difficulties of
reporting to one's mother. He's careful to always refer to her as
"Marilyn," but whether she's Marilyn or Mom, she wants more than
just her son's love -- she wants 20% compounded earnings growth
annually. Yellow roses may be appreciated on Mother's Day, but
Curtis must be aware of the legacy that Curt Carlson left: It's a
family business, but it's first and foremost a meritocracy.
Family businesses are integral to the industry. Tour operations
are handed down from parent to child, small travel agencies are
referred to as "mom-and-pop." I think that explains why there was
such interest in the sale of Rosenbluth International to Amex --
the industry felt emotionally drawn to the story.
Marilyn Nelson said, "At the very core of our being is
relationships." Her company shows that when professional and family
relationships mesh, the results can be very profitable indeed.