Business Person of the Year 2010 – Winner
2011 Business Person of the Year has both a personal faith and a manufacturing business as unusual as his hometown.
Photo: Jeff Silker
Tourists enjoying kitschy oddities often travel to Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County and its 1,200-population county seat, Madison, known as the “Lutefisk Capital of the United States.” The city boasts a 25-foot-long fiberglass- and Dupont acrylics-constructed codfish named Lou T. Fisk, who has held court in J. F. Jacobson Park since 1982. This gaudy gadus morhua on occasion has been mounted onto a flatbed trailer and paraded around the United States to promote Madison. Lou T. Fisk has been featured on the Today Show, and in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Christian Science Monitor.
Our 2011 Business Person of the Year, John Roise, owner of 150-employee, $15 million of North Mankato, was born and raised in Madison. And though not claiming any fondness for the Norwegian fare Garrison Keillor called in a “repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat,” Roise, like his hometown, hasn’t been afraid to differentiate his personal faith and business in unusual ways.
Three examples of dozens: Over the last 21 years, Roise has hired about 350 convicted criminals because he believes his faith teaches giving people second chances; he has his window screens manufactured by people serving extended sentences at St. Peter Regional Treatment Center; and he is one of two Greater Mankato for-profit businesses with a paid company chaplain to help struggling employees.
Also like Lou T. Fisk, 64-year-old Roise has made news. Through his Minnesota Teen Challenge board work, he unknowingly became involved in Tom Petters’ Ponzi scheme; and he was a mover and shaker trying to help charter Bank 182, the ill-timed financial institution that nearly rang registers in Mankato’s Matt J. Graif Building.
Besides a North Mankato headquarters and manufacturing facility, which employs 100, Lindsay Window and Door has manufacturing facilities in Albert Lea, and Union, Missouri. In North Mankato, the company manufactures high-end replacement and new construction vinyl windows. Roise—pictured at right at North Mankato’s Peace Lutheran Church, which has his vinyl windows—took a Goliath-sized step of faith when purchasing Lindsay Sash in 1989, in part because he had to give up a six-figure income as bank president of Wells Fargo in Mankato.
Where were you raised?
In Madison, Minnesota, near South Dakota. I went to a one-room schoolhouse my first six years of school and was second in my class—there were only two in my class and fifteen in the whole school. I didn’t learn good penmanship there, but did learn to get along with people. The older ones took care of the younger and when you were younger, you didn’t cross the older students. I consider those years important to my development.
What was your family like?
I grew up on a small family farm that had all kinds of livestock. I always thought I had to work hard, but not compared to dairy farmers. I was always thankful for fall because it meant the end of the work season and we would have a little money. One time, I told my dad my hands weren’t made to work with a pitchfork. He replied, “Well then, we’re going to train your hands.” He trained them well. (Laughter.) After that, my hands worked well with a pitchfork and through that experience my dad fixed my attitude. He was an honest guy who worked really hard.
You went to college at 18.
No one in my family had ever been to college. My goal was to be a John Deere implement dealer. In fact, I used to skip school for auctions. My dad would even take me sometimes and in doing it I missed a lot of high school. My personal philosophy was not to let school interfere with my education. Madison was a good place to grow up—you just worked and went to school.
What was there about being a John Deere dealer that attracted you?
He was the richest guy in town. (Laughter.) And I thought buying and selling farm implements would be fun. If not that, I would be a farmer. I didn’t know anything else.
Where did you attend college?
The University of Minnesota. When I graduated from high school in 1964, Vietnam was going strong. If not attending college, you would be drafted. I was going to enroll at South Dakota State along with some friends, but wanted a clean break from high school. I had been kicked out of high school for two days for leading a protest of the school dress code. Today you would laugh at what I did. My goal was to get through high school quick as possible. I never took home a book and took tests quick as possible and never checked my answers. School didn’t interest me because I thought I was just going to be an implement dealer or farmer.
Did that attitude follow you into college?
College counted. I turned over a new leaf there and became a good student, majoring in business. I worked 20-30 hours a week all four years. A bigger change came when I was a sophomore. I began dating a woman there who challenged me on whether I was a Christian. I told her I was a pretty good guy, went to church, even read the Bible now and then. She asked, “If you die tonight, do you know if you will go to heaven?” I said I would because I was a good guy. She said that wasn’t what the Bible said.
As a junior, I was living in a one-room basement apartment on Cleveland Ave. I was alone watching a movie called “A Man Called Peter,” the story of Peter Marshall, in a little room with a black and white television. It was there the Holy Spirit came on me—not dramatic, but I realized my need for a savior. I confessed my sins and asked Christ into my life. That was a turning point. That’s when I realized I was in this world for something other than myself.
After graduation, didn’t Vietnam still await?
In 1968, Vietnam was still going. An Air Force recruiter suggested I take a flight physical and so I boarded a plane in the middle of winter for northern Michigan to take it. I had 20/25 vision in one eye, which wasn’t good enough to be a pilot. They said I could be a navigator, but I told them if I couldn’t be a pilot, I didn’t want them. Then I applied to graduate school in Berkeley, California, and made plans to join the Peace Corps in Ecuador. I was accepted. Then that fell through. I looked into joining the Army Reserve, but that fell through.
I ended up being drafted into the Army and signed up for officer’s school. I was able to get a 90-day deferment because of just getting married. In 1968, jobs were everywhere. In that 90-day period, Northwest Bank (later Wells Fargo) hired me and I worked 60 days punching a calculator. Then I went through infantry officer’s school. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever been through. We started with 180 candidates and less than half made it through. It was 24 weeks of pure hell. Every week, there was a bayonet sheet where four people would be dropped. If you were in the lower four, you had a 30-day leave before being sent to Vietnam. You had to perform well or you would be in the bottom four. It was a mental, physical, and emotional test, but a training God would use to benefit me later in business. Philippians 4:13 was my verse then: I can do all those through Christ who strengthens me. When I came back in 1971, there weren’t any jobs, but because of the law Northwest Bank had to take me back. That’s how I got into banking.
So you rejoined them.
They put me in a training program in Northfield for 18 months. I loved the banking business and was with them 18 years. Because they counted military time, I officially had 20 years. My best training ground was that first bank in Northfield. Here is what happened: Because I didn’t drink alcohol, I was always asked to be the designated driver at bank president meetings. I was able to meet all these people—and learn what worked and what didn’t, and who I wanted to be like and not. I was able to learn about businesses that made it, others that failed, and some that should have been better. I saw it all.
Can you give an example of a businessperson from southern Minnesota who impressed you over the years?
Al Sween, for one. Another was Floyd Palmer of Palmer Bus Service, who was honest as the day is long. Another was Ron Kibble of Mankato Implement. The latter two survived especially tough times. Ron was a board member of our bank and Floyd a customer. They had honesty, integrity, stamina, and tenacity—and did not change after having success. They never lost sight of their vision and as a bank we stuck with them. We knew they were smart and would get through. And they did.
What I hear you saying is that bankers then didn’t always weigh just dollars and cents in making lending decisions, but sometimes considered intangibles, such as a customer’s character. Is that element still in banking today?
Banking has changed. Today, in some cases, large banks operate like an insurance company that has local salespeople but the underwriting is done elsewhere. Years ago, we were the underwriters and the salespeople.
In terms of my being president of Wells Fargo in Mankato, the company paid me more than I was worth and gave me more responsibility than I ever deserved. They were a great employer. When I left in 1989, I had zero complaints about the organization. Zero. I have nothing but accolades for how they treated me.
Why leave Wells Fargo?
For one, when my wife and I moved here, it was our thirteenth move in ten years. I also left in part because of being entrepreneurial, in that I had always owned something on the side. In 1971, I took a $5,000 pay cut from the military to start with Norwest Bank earning $7,800. My wife taught a summer class for migrant children in the Fargo area that made us another $1,000. We took that $1,000 and began purchasing run-down rental housing. After selling those, I bought Minneapolis-based Pilot Brand Oyster Shells from my favorite uncle. We shipped oyster shells from Alabama via barge to Minneapolis, where the shells would be distributed throughout the Midwest and Canada for chicken feed. Our biggest customer was Michael Foods in Gaylord.
For the purchase, I used my uncle’s accountant and lawyer and let my uncle draw up all the documents. I worked the business part-time on weekends and nights while working full-time as bank president. God blessed the business, and it did very well. However my uncle was in his 80s and didn’t appreciate the business doing well because I wasn’t working there full-time—as he had. We had an excellent manager who made the growth possible. This was causing family problems within my uncle’s family and I chose to sell it back to him at much less than it was worth. I think God was using this to test if I valued money more than family.
Yet after the sale, you were sitting on that money. What did you do with it?
I had this money, and was making six figures at the bank and loving work. The bank kept asking me to move and offered promotions and I would turn them down. By 1989, I was looking to buy a business in Mankato.
At the time, my church was looking into building an addition. I was pretty adamant that we should trust God to provide the resources and not go into debt. We had a congregational vote. They didn’t know that if they had voted not to borrow, I would have written a check for the entire amount. They voted to borrow.
But God had something else in mind for that money. Dick Johnson, who owned Lindsay Sash, passed away in 1989. As bank president, I had tried to get the account several times, but couldn’t. His son was a junior at Northwestern College and the family plan was for the son to run the business one day. One day at lunch at Junkers, Paul (his son) asked me if I would be interested in buying it.
I asked four couples to help me pray about it. I had the money because I hadn’t given it to the church. I ended up bidding for Lindsay Sash against nine others. They had a 35,000 sq. ft. building and a 25,000 sq. ft. building going up. I had the cash for the down payment and eventually went to the Bank of Commerce where Dick had banked to present my proposal. They approved it within 24 hours.
How large of a company was it then, and now?
At first, we had 12 employees and were doing $1 million. Today, we have plants in Missouri, Albert Lea, and North Mankato. We have 150 employees, including 100 in North Mankato. We also have St. Peter Regional Treatment Center inmates making about 300 screens daily. Our sales are north of $15 million.
When you first started, wasn’t nearly all your sales in wood windows?
It was 95 percent wood, 5 percent vinyl. I’d gone to a trade show before buying the company and realized vinyl would be the future. Many people then laughed at vinyl. We ended up redirecting all our resources from wood to vinyl.
Going in, I didn’t realize Dick Johnson had been such a strong owner and had done almost everything by himself. So when I started, no one knew much of anything. My business plan went into the trashcan, but still was a good company with good people. That first year, I was scared because of owing so much money. Every penny I had was in this business. I didn’t know what was going on and neither did anyone else. Eighty-hour workweeks weren’t uncommon. I worked in the shop in the day and in the office at night and delivered windows and did sales calls. I still have my truck driver’s license.
You were quoted years ago saying you had four goals in business: sharing your faith; helping people needing a second chance; speaking out on social issues; and taking mission trips. First off, this isn’t what most businesspeople have as goals. When you share your vision with people, do they look at you like you’re crazy?
Yeah, they do. Normally people are in business to make a profit—and for us profits are still a by-product. Those four goals are the other reasons why I left the bank. I didn’t care how good the bank was because it could not fulfill those goals—and Wells Fargo is a great bank. Over the years, I’ve been able to accomplish all four. In fact, I am leaving this week for Turkey and Sudan on another mission trip.
The goal of hiring people needing a second chance—most businesspeople would think you were off your rocker hiring felons. Why?
Except for the grace of God, I could be one of them. These are good people who made bad decisions who also happen to need work. Most businesses won’t hire felons. I believe we have an obligation as businesspeople to give people another chance to learn a good work ethic and discipline. That’s what they need. Many of them have never been told they need to be at work every morning.
Do you actually recruit employees from jail?
Not really. Parole officers know us. Blue Earth County and Nicollet County know us. Only a small percentage of these workers work out, but those that do have been outstanding. Several others that worked out well have moved on to other employment. Sometimes, they don’t work out here, but will take what they learned and do well someplace else.
Your business benefited from the Obama stimulus package. Can you describe the benefit and your personal thoughts?
The Obama stimulus package gave up to a $1,500 tax credit for the purchase of energy efficient windows. My personal thought was we didn’t need the credit. People were going to buy the windows anyway. This might have hurried up some sales, but the long-term cost to the taxpayer wasn’t worth it. The stimulus was a short-term fix that just front-loaded business. That said, having more energy efficient windows does save energy and I’m glad the federal government came forward with standards that had some teeth. To put it into easy to understand terms, these standards were at the “B” level, and our windows were already operating at the “A” level.
You describe your windows as top-of-the-line. What makes yours different?
We use the best glass, from Cardinal in Northfield. About 99 percent of the material in our windows is American-made. Quality comes ahead of price. We want long-lasting material because we offer a lifetime warranty.
Has the extension of unemployment benefits affected your company in any way?
It has been a negative. This last summer, we had more employee turnover than at any other time in our business the last five years. We saw a change in the attitude of some of our people. Their incentive for coming to work dropped because they knew they could receive unemployment benefits for a longer period. I’m for a safety net. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not for a hammock. We have made it too easy. I emphasize the three “H’s” with employees: honesty, humility, and hungry. Hungry involves coming to work on time and being willing to work.
What’s it like working with the City of North Mankato?
North Mankato is an exceptional place to do business. Twice they were willing to make variances so we could add on. I can’t say enough good things about the City, from Wendell Sande, the mayors, all the council members on down. They are very pro-business. In other communities in which we have done business often the attitude is how they can make life difficult. North Mankato is just the opposite.
You’re on the board of Minnesota Teen Challenge, a faith-based organization that helps young people recovering from addictions. Not long ago, they and other organizations lost millions in Tom Petter’s Ponzi scheme. It was national news. When you learned about the scandal, what thoughts went through your mind?
I was chairman of the finance committee when the Tom Petters agreement was drawn up several years ago. Petters would donate to our organization and we would invest that money in one of his companies. Teen Challenge is the premier alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in the Midwest with the best recovery rate of any institution. Drugs and alcohol negatively affected one of Mr. Petters’ family members so he wanted to help others with this problem.
So Minnesota Teen Challenge was out $5 million, but only on paper?
We invested no other money in his company but Petters’ own money. We didn’t understand what was going on, but certainly didn’t think it was a crooked deal. We definitely didn’t expect a Ponzi scheme. The interest earned on this investment was used for operations.
Of your four business goals, one is speaking out on social issues. You’ve been a substantial contributor to politicians. Target received a great deal of flak for contributing to a campaign this last election cycle. Do you get flak for it?
I believe in freedom of speech and am thankful for any politician willing to serve—even if I oppose that politician. It’s a tough job. Do I get flak at times? Some. But looking at our website, anyone can see our mission statement. I get more positive than negative comments about our mission statement. I’m sure I lose some business due to it. But this is who we are. It’s what I believe.
What percentage of your business is with new home construction and what with replacement windows?
We’re 85 percent remodel and 15 percent new home construction. Now that new home construction has fallen, the new home people are coming into the remodel market. As for the industry, everyone is trying to get into our niche because it’s the best to be in—the high-end replacement business. Much of our business is sold through home improvement companies.
You wear your faith on your sleeve. I have heard people say—and I guess you’ve heard it through back channels—that you’re a religious nut job.
When you hear of comments like that, how does that affect you?
I don’t consider myself religious. I consider myself a Christ follower because sometimes the name Christian has a bad connotation. We try to walk the talk. I don’t tell new people I meet right away I’m a Christian. Hopefully, they can see it in my actions.
From what I’ve heard, you do things for employees most companies wouldn’t consider. Could you elaborate?
For one, we have a company chaplain come in twice a week, a person any employee can see on any issue—they don’t have to be a Christian. My son and I know absolutely nothing about what goes on between the chaplain and employees. We don’t want to know. Our chaplain doesn’t push his values. He cares for people.
We also take the employees to Valleyfair every year and have a Christmas party. We have health insurance, 401(k), profit sharing—all that. We have a monthly meeting in which we buy employees lunch and the whole company is involved. In it, we note work anniversaries, birthdays, new employees, and discuss how the company is doing. We thank people for serving. Our goal is to make this a great workplace. It’s hard work. We try to offer the best environment possible.
How many people from jails and prisons do you hire annually?
At least 30. Some work here while in jail on a work release program. We started hiring them in 1989.
If you have that many people from prison working here, someone has to train them. It would take a special person.
It’s very difficult. We have a dedicated team that knows this is our cause. It’s much easier to hire someone who doesn’t have a lot of issues. During workdays, we have people going to drug court or rehabilitation. We try to work around it. But we do it because it’s the right thing to do. As citizens and businesspeople, we need to give people another chance, or else they will go back and do it again—and that can affect their families and children.
Do people from MRCI still work here?
The first thing I did when buying the company was ask MRCI to make our barn sash. I’d worked with MRCI at the bank and knew they were great. They actually did a better job than we did making those windows. One time, someone new saw a Lindsay jacket on a person from MRCI, and said, “Does that kind of person work here?” I said, “You bet they do. We’re proud of them and wish they’d all wear our jackets.”
But the barn sash involved a contract with Menards and we decided to sever our relationship with Menards. If I’d put the pencil to it, which I never did, I was probably losing money making the barn sash. At one time, MRCI had up to 15 people here and it was worthwhile just seeing them work. But we ran out of production space and using that space to make barn sashes didn’t make sense anymore.
You’re on the regional board of Fellowship of Christian Athletes?
I’m interested in being on a board if it involves evangelism, discipleship or helping the poor. If it’s a pure-profit business, then I don’t have any interest unless the profit goes to evangelism, discipleship or helping the poor.
You were a major investor in Bank 182, a proposed Mankato bank that failed to receive FDIC approval a few years ago to open. It had space rented in the Graif Building.
The bank name was based on Psalm 18:2: “You are my rock, my fortress, my strength.” Dave Wittenberg and Todd Snell approached me. We saw the need for a customer-oriented bank making local decisions. We had 30 major businesspeople as investors that raised far in excess of $5 million, all of whom would have been potential customers. But after the bank crisis and regulatory approvals, FDIC decided not to allow any new bank to open in Mankato. Our timing was just bad.
What was their fear?
Perhaps they didn’t think Mankato needed another bank—there was the potential for loss. Their job is to protect the public. Though the bank didn’t go, Todd and Dave exhibited the highest integrity with no thought of personal gain. It was unbelievable what they did. They did it with total honesty and integrity. I would go to bat for those guys any day. We had a dream team of people. We had a lease signed for the Graif Building, which United Prairie Bank picked up.
We have great people and one of the best is my son Geoff. He left a great job with Deloitte Consulting to come here. He is the one that arranged our buying of the Missouri plant and is taking over the reins. He is a delight to work with. We very seldom disagree, and if we do, he wins. He has the same mission and outlook
Getting to know you: John Roise
Born: October 30, 1946.
Education: Madison (Minn.) High School ’64; University of Minnesota, business administration, ’68.
Family: Married 42 years to Sue; three sons, Geoff, Nathan, and Jonathan.
Organizational Involvement: Bethel University trustee; Bethel University Foundation board; Fellowship of Christian Athletes regional board; Minnesota Teen Challenge board.