A Minnesota State of Mind

September 1, 2002

3 Min Read
A Minnesota State of Mind

Originally Published MPMN September 2002


A Minnesota State of Mind

nsparrow.jpgWith the business section of the daily newspaper looking more and more like America's Most Wanted, I found it bracing to speak with Dale Olseth recently. I interviewed Olseth, CEO of the surface-treatment firm SurModics and a former CEO of Medtronic, while conducting research for an article on the medical device industry in Minnesota. The feature and accompanying supplier profiles appear in the Regional Focus section. Olseth is a font of knowledge about the area's industrial development. He had an interesting take on why the region has remained a magnet for medical device OEMs. It has to do with niceness.

"We get labeled 'Minnesota nice' sometimes; not too smart, but nice," chuckles Olseth. Fast-buck artists won't find many acolytes in the state, he says, because the hard-work ethic is too engrained. A large number of Minnesotans trace their origins to northern Europe, mainly Scandinavia and Germany, he notes, and those roots have spawned a local culture that mistrusts shortcuts, be they technical or ethical.

"We square the corners," he explains. "We don't go around the room in a circle. There's just a different mentality here." Two Harbors–based 3M, which is celebrating its centennial this year, is emblematic of the Minnesota state of mind.

"The influence of 3M is heavy in this state. It has never been what I would call a sexy company, but it squares the corners; it does things right," says Olseth. "The company has always looked after its people, and [employees] have been loyal to the company in return. Minnesota nice, see? A culture like that doesn't change easily, especially when it's 100 years old," says Olseth. That mentality meshes well with the healthcare industry, he adds.

"In healthcare, you don't want fast-buck artists. You want quality products and organizations that produce good value," notes Olseth. Which brings us to Medtronic.

"I did the financing for Medtronic in the early 1960s, when it had a couple of million dollars in revenue. Back then, people thought the folks at Medtronic were mad scientists from northeast Minneapolis." Olseth knew better. "Yes, they're different, I would tell people, but they're creative." Indeed, Olseth came to consider Medtronic cofounder Earl Bakken a visionary.

"I used to have to balance his checkbook," says Olseth. "He just wasn't able to deal with it. His mind was on bigger things." Under Bakken's direction, the company grew from a medical equipment repair company operating out of a garage to a pioneer in electronic implantables to a $6.5-billion multinational. But as much as anything, Olseth is proud of Medtronic's legacy as a "do-gooder." We wanted to do good, stresses Olseth, and that paid off handsomely in company morale. "It was incredible," he recalls. "People were standing in line to work at Medtronic."

Before I venture too deeply into Norman Rockwell territory, I should acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule. Minnesota nice, you say? Two words: Jesse Ventura. And I am not so naïve as to believe that all the executives in the state are genetically incapable of financial misdeeds. For all I know, the shady accounting practices of a Minneapolis-based healthcare company may be tomorrow's headline.

But I tend to believe that the values of Olseth and Medtronic are the rule, not the exception, certainly in this part of the world. And that's a refreshing point of view. What a concept: successful companies that do good . . . maybe it will catch on?

Norbert Sparrow

Copyright ©2002 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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