By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A relaxed Glen Taylor answered questions about his upbringing, his early days at Carlson Craft and how he makes decisions about his multi-billion-dollar company and NBA franchise Tuesday night at a lecture at Minnesota State University.
Taylor was at MSU to give the annual Morgan Thomas Executive Lecture, sponsored by MSU’s College of Business.
But it wasn’t a straight lecture format. Taylor didn’t stand behind a podium and deliver wisdom from on high. Instead he was on stage sitting on one of two comfortable chairs. In the other was College of Business Dean Brenda Flannery.
The two carried on a dialogue that looked more like a conversation between two friends. Flannery, who turned out to be a skilled interviewer, guided Taylor through a range of topics that hit on his upbringing on a farm near Comfrey, his time as a math major at MSU, his first years at the Carlson company and the business acumen that led him to head one of the most successful companies in the nation.
Taylor talked about relationship Bill Carlson, the man who gave him his first great opportunity.
Taylor had majored in math and had planned a career as a math teacher. He’d been working at Carlson Letter Service while going to college, and he and Bill Carlson became close.
“Mr. Carlson asked me if I’d consider staying and helping him build the company,” Taylor said.
“Is that how he put it to you? That he wanted you to help him build something?” Flannery asked.
“Yes, that was clear. We’d had a special relationship. ... He’d said, ‘I don’t want to fire people. That would be your job,’” Taylor said, and the nearly full crowd in MSU’s Ostrander Auditorium laughed along with him. “When he said build it together, I think he meant for me to take on certain responsibilities that he wasn’t interested in.”
After that, he sought advice from his instructors at MSU. They told him to go for it. If it doesn’t work out, they said, he could always fall back to teaching.
Obviously it worked out. Eventually he convinced Bill Carlson to sell his company to him, and he proceeded to built a multi-national empire that started with wedding invitations and expanded to more than 90 companies, all under the Taylor Corp. umbrella.
One of the main themes of his talk — and he said several times he wanted to impress upon people its importance — was the idea of leadership.
The best leaders, he said, are honest with their workers. Especially, he said, when they’re wrong. In fact, he said the easiest way to tell a good leader from a great leader is this: both will be right about 70 percent of the time; great leaders, though, recognize that other 30 percent much quicker than poor leaders.
As for the room full of MSU students listening to him, he had some subtle advice. When asked to compare MSU students who came to work for him 20 or 30 years ago to the ones who come work for him today, Taylor said the best students back then are the same as the best students now. But the worst ...
“The worst students today probably have a feeling that the world owes them something, and I didn’t see that 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “I don’t understand that very well.”
When asked about current business operations, Taylor said it’s a tougher job in some ways than it used to be. It’s difficult to plan, he said, because technology changes so quickly.
“When someone says, ‘Glen, what’s the company going to look like in three years?’ I tell them to go ask my youngest people,” he said.
Flannery asked him to reflect on his political career. He served as a Republican in the state Senate from 1981 to 1990, and says he’d considered running for governor.
Ultimately, he said, he decided he wouldn’t have been the right leader during what was generally a calm time.
“I would have been the right leader if there would have been a crisis,” he said. “I know I can make change.”