December 21, 2010

Remembering Win Wallin

Medtronic CEO Win Wallin died yesterday. Win was a great leader who restored Medtronic in the 1980s and a superb mentor to me. After retiring from Medtronic, Win made major contributions to education through the U. of Minnesota, Carleton College, and the Wallin Educational Scholars. His death is a great loss to us all. He will be sorely missed by all who loved and knew him.

The Star Tribune remembers Win’s commitment to philanthropy and the community around him.

Winston R. (Win) Wallin, the chief executive who positioned Medtronic Inc. for its spectacular growth of the past two decades and also became a pioneer in the Twin Cities philanthropic community, died Monday after a brief bout with cancer. He was 84.

A Minneapolis native, Wallin rose from a grain buyer’s position at Pillsbury to the food behemoth’s No. 2 position, leaving in 1985 to head Medtronic. He is widely credited with setting a foundation for the Fridley-based company to become what it is today — the world’s largest medical technology firm, with $16 billion in annual sales.

At 6 foot 4 with a gentle, self-deprecating wit, the no-nonsense Wallin defined a generation of Minnesota business leaders who stressed leadership over management, and long-term goals over short-term gains.

But perhaps his most enduring legacy will be his philanthropic work, which involved raising almost $35 million so that thousands of poor students could attend college. He challenged others to do the same.

“The world lost one of its pioneers today,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a statement. “Win Wallin saved lives, created jobs and helped humanity in immeasurable ways. He will be greatly missed.”

A 1943 graduate of Minneapolis South High School, Wallin served two years in the U.S. Navy Air Corps and enrolled in the University of Minnesota to major in business administration when he returned. It was the start of a lifelong relationship that later involved raising millions on the university’s behalf and donating countless hours to U-related causes.

Still donning his Air Corps togs, it was also where he caught the eye of the former Maxine Jessup Houghton, who would become his wife for more than 60 years.

“I noticed him one day in the library because he didn’t seem to be studying much,” Maxine Wallin said, with a laugh. “We went out for coffee and talked, and I would go to all his classes, just to make sure he’d show up.”

After college, Wallin worked at Pillsbury for 37 years, eventually becoming president and chief operating officer responsible for the company’s agribusiness operations, restaurant businesses including Burger King and Steak and Ale restaurants, the grocery store packaged food operations and international businesses.

George Pillsbury, a former Pillsbury executive who was Wallin’s boss in the 1960s, said Wallin always had “a good business mind and an ability to recognize the important issues. Quickly. And he had a wonderful attitude and way toward people.”

Many colleagues were aghast when Wallin was passed over as successor to Pillsbury CEO William Spoor in 1984. Wallin soon left the company to take the top job at troubled Medtronic in 1985.

“He said, ‘George, don’t feel badly that I left Pillsbury. There just was this good opportunity,’” Pillsbury recalled. “He got into Medtronic and he did a wonderful job. He got Dr. Glen Nelson to come in and take over research and he hired Bill George eventually to succeed him [as CEO]. He had a classic, wonderful trio running things. Win had a great business life, a wonderful family and he has been very philanthropic.”

George, who ran Medtronic for a meteoric decade before retiring in 2001, said in a recent Star Tribune commentary about Wallin, “The Pillsbury board made a grievous error in not choosing him to succeed Bill Spoor as CEO, one for which the corporation paid dearly … Pillsbury’s loss was Medtronic’s gain.”

Yet others were equally surprised when Wallin was named chairman and CEO of Medtronic — even though he had little experience in the medical device industry other than serving on Medtronic’s board since 1978.

“It was really an advantage,” said Medtronic co-founder and pacemaker inventor Earl Bakken. “We talked a lot. He enjoyed talking with our engineers. He was very open. He was so warm, you wanted to be close to him because he was such a gentleman.”

A forceful leader

At the time, Medtronic was struggling to diversify its product portfolio beyond pacemakers and attempting to gain access to promising heart defibrillator technology. During his tenure, revenue increased $1 billion.

Kris Johnson, a former executive at Medtronic and now a Minneapolis venture capitalist, said Wallin “could be intimidating. It’s not like he didn’t have a tough side to him.” But at the same time, he was “approachable and funny,” and a treasured mentor.

Johnson remembers making the final presentation at the end of a two-day strategy session. “He said, ‘Johnson, put all this crap down and tell me the three most important issues you have and what you’re going to do about them.’ Typical Win — cut through all the clutter and focus on what really matters.”

“It was Win who really saved Medtronic,” Bakken said.

One of Bakken’s enduring memories was of Win and Maxine Wallin’s prowess on the dance floor: “The fox trot, waltz, rumba, they were so impressive.”

Medtronic’s current Chairman and CEO, William Hawkins III, who on Monday announced plans to retire, said in a statement that Wallin will be remembered “for much more than his business record. He was extraordinarily generous and kind, and had a sincerity and dedication to fairness and ethical business practices which we strive to uphold every day at Medtronic.”

After Wallin retired from Medtronic in 1991, he continued to work diligently in Minnesota philanthropic circles.

Champion of education

In 1986, he and Maxine formed the Wallin Foundation, later Wallin Education Partners, which gives financial aid and advice to promising Minnesota public school students from low-income families to attend college. More than 3,000 Wallin scholarships have been awarded.

Wallin was also active in academia. In 1993, he became an adviser to former University of Minnesota President Nils Hasselmo, overseeing the Academic Health Center and helping to raise $35 million in private donations to construct the U’s Masonic Cancer Research Building. He was a director for the U Foundation and chair of the Board of Overseers for the Carlson School.

More recently, he served as chair of the dean’s Board of Visitors, an advisory group to the Medical School. Last June, the U named a building in its Biomedical Discovery District the Winston and Maxine Wallin Medical Biosciences Building.

He was also a longtime chair and trustee of Carleton College’s Board of Trustees, helping to raise close to $158 million for the Northfield college, according to former president Stephen R. Lewis, now chairman of Ameriprise Financial’s mutual fund family.

“He was a unique combination of John Wayne and Bob Hope, the master of one-liners,” Lewis said. “Win was a great coach. Whenever there was any serious difficulty, I wanted to have Win standing right beside me.”

Wallin also served on the boards at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, the Minnesota Zoo, the Minneapolis Foundation and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He served on many corporate boards, including Cargill Inc., First Bank Minneapolis, Bemis Co., Supervalu and the Soo Line Railroad. He was chair of the Caux Round Table, an international group of business leaders promoting “moral capitalism.”

Besides his wife, Maxine, Wallin is survived by four children, Rebecca, Lance, Brooks and Bradford, and 13 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements will be announced later this week.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144