Oct 18, 2011 • By

Collaboration is key to the future of Minnesota business

Minnesota has always set the bar high – both in the business community and more broadly as a state.

Minnesota’s economy has transformed in the past 160 years from one based on raw materials to one based on value-added products and services – and that is due to the continuous quest for innovation and dedicated leadership of Minnesota companies.

Those early business leaders chose to invest in people and talent to build a world-class business community – through a commitment to education, hard work, entrepreneurialism, and a “try harder” mentality.

As a result, Minnesota has more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state — 20 are headquartered in the state today.

Ken Powell, chairman and CEO of General Mills, spoke last evening at the annual Minnesota Business Partnership, an organization he currently chairs. The theme of his presentation was collaboration: “It’s our culture of collaboration and engagement — coupled with a tradition of philanthropy — that time and time again brings us together to innovate and lead change in our state … and our country,” said Powell, speaking to an audience of more than 1,000 local business, political, and nonprofit leaders.

We sat down with Ken to discuss what truly makes Minnesota a great place for business.

What draws businesses — and top-rate talent — to Minnesota?

Powell: Minnesota is a national leader in higher education, and we have a top-tier research facility in the University of Minnesota, which has successfully helped spawn entire industries. The state is also home to a highly educated, productive workforce. In fact, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region consistently ranks as one of the best educated and dedicated workforces in the country. Nearly four in 10 adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, placing Minneapolis-Saint Paul as the sixth most educated region in the country, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s work ethic – a product of its hardscrabble, pioneer roots – is legendary and contributes to one of the lowest rates of workplace absenteeism in the country.

And, perhaps most importantly, Minnesota offers an exceptional quality of life. Countless national rankings place the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region at or near the top of “best places to live” lists. With a thriving creative community, abundant career opportunities, an exceptional educational system, vibrant cultural, entertainment and leisure amenities, those who live here can enjoy an extremely high quality of life, without the high cost of living. And that has been a core value of our community from the earliest days of our founders.

How are Minnesota leaders collaborating to spur economic development?

Powell: Leaders know and understand that high expectations lead to high performance. We’ve seen that play out over the past century in Minnesota’s business community as business leaders have consistently stepped up to strengthen our community, our economy and our people. It’s inherent in our culture, and it’s a unique trait to our state.

Today, for example, I am working with other business leaders to spearhead an initiative to help stimulate further economic growth and prosperity in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region through job creation, regional marketing, and business recruitment and retention. Minnesota already has a strong business climate and is a leader in the nation, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re committed to continuous improvement.

We examined what’s working and what’s not in our region to grow jobs. We learned that other regions in the U.S. had leapt past us and had developed coordinated regional economic development efforts that were successful.

We created a new effort, Greater MSP, to allow us to better apply continuous improvement practices. We will market the region, gather insights from potential job creators about what works and what doesn’t, and advocate for changing the things that don’t work. It will be a virtuous cycle of improvement.

How are today’s leaders building off of the work of Minnesota’s early leaders?

Powell: Our company’s business leaders before me had the same commitment to developing the region. John Pillsbury, the first of the Pillsburys to move to Minnesota in the 1850s, served on the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota for many years. When the University of Minnesota closed during the Civil War, John S. Pillsbury literally willed the University back into existence.

The school was established in 1851 as a preparatory school, but was only intermittently open. After managing to be elevated to collegiate status, the school closed soon after. By 1863, the university was insolvent – and shut down.

Newly elected Gov. Henry A. Swift asked Pillsbury to become one of three regents for the defunct University. Pillsbury accepted, which turned out to be a momentous event for the cash-strapped institution. Although the university, without even one faculty member, did not yet qualify for a government land grant to support functioning colleges, Pillsbury reasoned that cash might be raised against the promise of the land that would come to the university when it again became functional. Within four years, Pillsbury retired the university’s more than $100,000 debt.

Although he had no higher education, Pillsbury believed in the idea that he could help make Minnesota a state of well-educated people. And he did. Pillsbury had literally willed the University of Minnesota to life.

Today, he is regarded as “the father of the University of Minnesota.” We’re very proud that he is also part of our company’s history, and that he helped set the stage for entire generations of future business leaders to give back.

How does the strong sense of community in the state impact local businesses?

Powell: I think Joe Nocera said it well in his New York Times article, “The Emerald City of Giving Does Exist.” He wrote, “Ask anybody in the world of corporate philanthropy and they’ll tell you: Minneapolis-St. Paul is like no place else, a bastion of giving in an age when most companies are cutting back.”

It’s true, and it’s part of our history. In my view, this is one of the truly unique aspects of Minnesota.

Virtually every business leader in this community is keenly aware of the value of strong communities and the benefits we reap from involvement. They’ve seen it. They understand it. Many have grown up with it as they have grown in their careers. But at General Mills, we leave nothing to doubt. It is a stated part of how we do business. It is inherent in our mission of “Nourishing Lives.” It is evident in our culture, where 82 percent of our employees and retirees volunteer in our communities. And it is evident in our giving, now at more than $100 million a year. We do this not only because it is core to our culture, but also because we know that our tradition of community engagement helps us recruit.

Today, when we are interviewing young university graduates, the first few questions most often ask relate to our business strategy or how we develop people in their careers. But, very quickly they switch to questions about our values and how we are engaging in our communities.

Editor’s Note: BBC recently traveled to Minnesota from London to interview Minnesota business leaders, including Ken Powell, about what other states could possibly learn from Minnesota’s success. The story aired earlier this month on BBC.