Photos by Kris Kathmann
If a draw on his slow-burning Macanudo and a sip of his Beaujolais Nouveau doesn’t get your blood moving, his in-your-face pragmatism towards politics definitely will. Rick McCluhan, 42, born of a full-blooded Sicilian mother and Scotch-Irish father, carries a zest for life, business and politics that few southern Minnesotans can match.
From his Sicilian mother’s genes he seems to have inherited a blunt pragmatism and a fondness for pasta, cigars, and wine. It was the Sicilians’ neighbors, the Romans, after all, who coined the phrase II vino veritas: In wine there is truth.
On his Dad’s side, his heritage extends back to the feisty Protestants of Northern Ireland, who bred such Revolutionary War patriots as Patrick Henry of “Give me Liberty or give me death!” fame. All three U.S. Presidents with a Scotch-Irish past began or greatly inflamed wars: Polk (Mexican), McKinley (Spanish-American), and Johnson (Vietnam).
It’s in his genes. He can’t help it.
Besides owning Express Personnel Services in Mankato and Fairmont, Ergo-Rite, Cafe Camarda and Richard McCluhan & Associates, Rick has been both the Great Hope and persona non-grata of the Republican Party. As a Republican, in 1996, he ran and nearly beat DFL’er Ruth Johnson, and in the same district in 1998 ran with the Reform Party and lost to Republican Julie Storm. Most recently with a little help from his friend, Gov. Jesse Ventura, Rick vaulted into the State Chair position as head of the Reform Party of Minnesota ? and all the while trying to run his four businesses.
Some business owners have been ruined by political involvement, and most simply don’t have time for it. Can Business and Politics mix? Rick McCluhan, and Rep. Bob Gunther of Fairmont (pg. 14), have managed to merge their two time-consuming passions into a workable whole, but it hasn’t been that easy for either of them.
CONNECT: How does an Iowa-born boy end up in Mankato?
McCLUHAN: You want the truth?
McCLUHAN: My parents divorced in 1971 when I was fourteen years-old. I moved to Park Rapids, Minnesota, with my mother. That’s where I spent my high school years. In a 1972 edition of Playboy, MSU was ranked as one of the Top Ten Party Colleges in the nation. That’s what brought me to Mankato. (Laughter.) It’s been home since 1975, and what a great place to call home.
CONNECT: Your father was a judge ? literally. I’ve heard that he had high expectations for you.
McCLUHAN: That’s very, very true. My dad was also an attorney, both prosecuting and defense. While growing up he would question me constantly: Where are you going after dinner? who are you going out with? what time are you going to be home? what are you going to be doing? He had very high expectations. I came from a big family of five sisters, one brother. My dad, especially, really wanted his children to amount to something. Even though he didn’t spend a lot of time at home, I still considered him a really good role model.
CONNECT: Have you measured up to his expectations?
McCLUHAN: I really have. After high school, I was a long-haired, nonconforming teenager. When I left for college I told him that I was going off to do my own thing. Fortunately in the mid-’70s you could still put yourself through college with a couple of part-time jobs. My dad and I didn’t talk for about six years during this period. It wasn’t until the early ’80s when we started redeveloping a relationship, and then he died at 64 in 1987. There were so many things we could have, and should have talked about. But we didn’t. I think he looks down on me today and is proud.
CONNECT: Did he help you start your businesses?
McCLUHAN: He gave me advice. He’d practiced law for 30 years, and made a good sounding board. In ’82, I started an insurance consulting business. My dad had both represented and sued insurance companies. My father’s comment to me was always, ‘You’re not charging enough.’
CONNECT: Weren’t you a bill collector for Sears before that?
McCLUHAN: When I was going to MSU, I worked three years for Sears in the credit and collections department. I had stellar results in bill collecting because I was nice to people. People who don’t have that much money will scrape up their money at payday, look at their stack of ten creditors, and then pay the guy that was nicest to them. You see a different side of people in the collections field.
CONNECT: What businesses do you own now, and what have you owned?
McCLUHAN: In 1979, after graduating from MSU, I worked for a company in Rochester that did specialized placement for people who had been injured on the job, and were subsequently placed in a lesser demanding physical job. I opened up a few new markets for that company in the Upper Midwest. But I got very bored doing the same thing for them.
In 1982, I figured I was still young enough to start a business. With $2,000 and a 1974 Pontiac, I started Richard McCluhan and Associates. At its peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we would have as many as 200 people that we were helping find jobs for at any one time. Through that experience I became somewhat of an expert in finding jobs for people with physical limitations and disabilities. Even now I’m called on to give expert testimony when, for instance, someone has been injured on the job and can’t return to work. I help assess someone’s vocational capabilities.
What I saw in 1986 when I started Express Personnel Services, in Mankato, was that the workers’ compensation business was going to change at some point. Indeed, the labor market has changed drastically. No one could have predicted today’s labor market ten years ago. We aren’t attracting enough people to this region. But it’s not like that in other places. South Carolina and parts of Wisconsin have eight percent unemployment. Kansas has lots of available workers.
With Richard McCluhan & Associates, we had the person and were trying to find them a job. When I started Express Personnel in 1986, we had the job and were trying to find the right person for it. My two businesses were opposites, but still played off the same concepts.
Another business I own, Ergo-Rite, may come to fruition by summer’s end after many years of prototyping, developing, patenting, and probably a few hundred thousand dollars. Ergo-Rite originated from modifications we did for a certain job in which we made it possible for a man with a bad back to move a small photocopy machine four to five times a day. We have it down now to an electric, motor-driven, hydraulic, two-wheel lift cart that will lift approximately 100 pounds from floor to chest height in less than ten seconds. All we have to do now is determine how expensive this will be, and where to take it from here. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I felt invincible, I put a great deal of time and effort into prototypes and patent searches for the product. I quickly found out some of my limitations. A world of difference exists between the service and manufacturing industries. Sales and marketing are totally different, and in manufacturing I had to deal with engineers.
With another business, Mum’s the Word, a local bar, I entered into a partnership. The bar business is very demanding. Partnerships, I have learned, are very different from my sole proprietorships where I’m used to making all the decisions myself. I sold my share of Mum’s the Word in October 1998.
And that brings me to Cafe Camarda, an authentic Italian restaurant in downtown Mankato. I’ve always had a passion for Italian food. This site was available, and had been available, and had been available, and had been available. I didn’t realize why it had always been so available until I moved in. At the time, my brother was between jobs, and I had some money, so I opened it along with him. He would manage and I would own. Life would be good, I thought. I’d have a spot to show up, talk smart, and buy alcohol and food at wholesale cost. Unfortunately, my brother and I parted after eight months, and all of a sudden I had to run the restaurant.
To succeed in the restaurant business, you really need to learn what it takes in terms of hiring, scheduling, food ordering, and dealing with customers. It’s very demanding. My hat is off to people who have been in the business and done well. I’ve operated Cafe Camarda for the last three and a half years, and am in the process of divesting myself of it. It’s not a core part of my business, and it takes away a great deal of time and energy. Owning a restaurant is a personal sacrifice. You have to be on the ball 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
CONNECT: Why be involved in politics?
McCLUHAN: What a great way to have an impact on life. My dad was very active in the Democratic Party in northwest Iowa. He was the 7th District Committee Chair. He was also a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Even though he and George McGovern were bunkmates in the Air Corps, my dad didn’t support him in the 1972 presidential election because he thought McGovern was too liberal.
Government has become such a big part of our lives, and consumes so much of our resources. In my opinion, a business person almost has to be involved in politics. I don’t care who you are, if you’re a businessman or an employee, government is going to touch you from the minute you wake up in the morning to the moment you fall asleep. With my civic involvement, politics has been a natural progression for me. I want to make a difference, and make things better. I have some naivete in that I still believe one person can make a difference.
CONNECT: What’s your role been with the Reform Party? And what is it right now?
McCLUHAN: With the Reform Party I’ve been Chair of the Campaign Support and Operations Committee. I’ve recruited and screened candidates for the whole state. I’ve determined what role the party takes in supporting candidates. At present I’m State Chair of the Reform Party in Minnesota. I had the Governor’s, and the outgoing Chair’s support.
CONNECT: How should government be run?
McCLUHAN: Government needs to be compassionate to the taxpayers, and held accountable. Probably my biggest complaint about government is that there is no accountability. Everybody passes the buck. Everybody is working on that next election cycle. We had a Republican caucus in 1996, when I ran on their ticket, that said they supported a unicameral legislature, term limits, and taking away local government’s obligation to pay state sales tax. But in the most recent session, while in control of the House, they didn’t pay homage to any of those pledges. It seems like they’re simply worried about the next election.
CONNECT: What’s your view on how to run a business?
McCLUHAN: Top management needs to know what’s going on in every aspect of the business. I’m not a micro-manager, but the top people still set the stage for how that company is going to operate. One mistake many owners make is that they lose touch with what’s happening. You have to constantly know what’s going on in the boiler room.
CONNECT: I would imagine you’d take the same beliefs and apply them to government.
McCLUHAN: Exactly. Government doesn’t know how government operates. When Governor Ventura took office, they gave him an encyclopedic set of books printed just for him to clue him in on state government. There is no way Jesse or his staff could totally digest everything in there. It’s incomprehensible for anyone to get their arms around the state government. It’s gotten so big.
CONNECT: One fear that business people have in running for office is that their business will suffer. How did you cross that mental hurdle in order to run?
McCLUHAN: I didn’t cross that hurdle as well as I should have. Being a politician is a full-time job. A person running for office still must maintain a grasp of what’s going on with their business. Family and staff must be totally supportive of where you’re going. If they aren’t, you aren’t going to succeed. Your co-workers in business can make or break you.
CONNECT: What’s your relationship like with Jesse?
McCLUHAN: It’s very laid-back. I don’t hold him in awe. I view him as a “regular” guy out to fight the good fight, and trying to do what’s right. The media doesn’t understand who Jesse Ventura really is. I met Jesse back when he wasn’t a significant player in the race. Early in that election year, I was supporting the Republican, Sen. Roy Terwilliger, for governor. Had Roy been the Republican nominee, I would have continued supporting him over Jesse Ventura.
Then soon after hosting a reception for Norm Coleman, I called Dean Barkley with Jesse’s campaign and said, “I want to look at the other choice.” Within a week I visited with Jesse and his campaign manager, Doug Friedline, who was someone I’d known in the late ’70s at MSU when he worked for my ex-brother-in-law’s small loan business. Jesse walked in with a T-shirt and jeans, and said, “You think I really have a chance?” After twenty minutes talking to him about the issues, I believed he was a person I could support. He spoke from the heart, and it wasn’t sugarcoated. In the business community, people respond to those who are blunt and point-blank.
CONNECT: You are on the Mankato Airport Commission. If you were in charge of what happened at Mankato Airport, what would you do?
McCLUHAN: I’d establish regular air service to Chicago, St. Louis, or Kansas City ? and not Minneapolis. We’re working right now on establishing a link with Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis. Frankly, I feel our proximity to the Minneapolis airport is too close. People aren’t going to get up at 7:00 A.M. for a 10:30 A.M. connection in Minneapolis. We’re only an hour and twenty minutes away from the airport. We can’t establish the frequency of flights to and from Minneapolis to make it worthwhile. But if we had flights going to Chicago Midway, and establish good connections there, people would go for it.
CONNECT: What if you were in charge of Technology Plus?
McCLUHAN: I’d throw it out and start all over.
McCLUHAN: Technology Plus was born out of extra money at the legislature. That’s what brought it here. In essence, the legislators said, Mankato, you haven’t asked for anything from a capital improvement standpoint. What would you like if you could have anything you wanted? And Mankato answered, Oh, how about a technology center? The legislature said, Great, here’s $9 million for a technology center because we’re flush with money and we want to make sure we spend it all on “our” people.
We didn’t have a burning desire for this center. Essentially we’re creating a system that is hopefully going to justify the expenditure. We do not have the supporting infrastructure in southern Minnesota, and Mankato specifically, to support what they hope to accomplish with this center. We’re a manufacturing region, and an agricultural region. We’re not going to become the Silicon Valley of south-central Minnesota.
We have some great technology-based businesses here ? Hickory Tech, Midwest Wireless and certain partnerships are examples. Those are steps in the right direction. But we’ve established those partnerships with existing educational institutions and businesses. Why don’t we cultivate those partnerships further, and if there’s a burning need for a technology center, then let’s look at creating one after creating the need? Right now we don’t have a need. There is nothing that this technology center will do that the private sector, or government sector in our region hasn’t done already.
It’s going to compete with South Central Technical College, private facilities that do computer training, and those who rent office space. We’re taking $9 million of tax money paid by private sector businesses, and using it to hurt them. My vision for Technology Plus is for it to go out to manufacturing and agriculture, and ask them how we can work with them to make them better at what they do.
Some may say it isn’t our money, it’s the State’s money. But I ask, Who makes up the State? In the years from 1990 through 1999, the State of Minnesota increased its spending, on a biannual basis, from $13 billion to $24 billion. We’ve increased state employment from 23,000 employees to 55,000. I’m upset at the uncontrolled, unbridled growth of government.
CONNECT: Why are you so huffed about the downtown mall parking situation?
McCLUHAN: The City put the entire parking system out for bids, and in September of last year I submitted a bid to operate the entire city parking system. I felt the private sector could come in and probably do a better job. I felt the City’s bidding process was flawed. After they took the bids, they had everybody readjust their bid. So my question is: Why did they even put it out for a competitive bidding process to begin with, if they were going to readjust and choose who they wanted anyway?
I was bidding against the Department of Public Safety, the Civic Center, and Minnesota Office Investments, which operates the downtown mall. If I had won the bid, I would have received money from the City to operate the city parking system.
Back then I thought: If the Civic Center wins the bid, then aren’t we further subsidizing the Civic Center? If the Department of Public Safety wins, any cost overruns with their operation of the system would get absorbed into their budget. With Minnesota Office Investments, if they had cost overruns, the costs would get added into their CAM (common area maintenance) agreement with their renters. Who’s going to pay that CAM? Ultimately, the taxpayers, because the downtown mall is heavily occupied by government offices.
Ultimately, the Civic Center won the bid to take care of the Depot Ramp. Minnesota Office Investments won the bid for the lot outside Mankato Place and the Mankato Place ramp. The Department of Public Safety won the bid for enforcement all over the city. Essentially, as a private sector business person, I was competing with three entities that don’t really have to generate a profit.
©1999 Connect Business Magazine